NJ Transit trying to recruit more engineers to get trains on time
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration Thursday revealed plans for addressing a shortage of NJ Transit engineers that has contributed to a wave of canceled train trips this summer.
They’re adding more training classes, looking to ease residency rules and developing a new educational program aimed at getting high-school and college students interested to consider careers with the agency. They’re also offering incentives to conductors to become engineers, despite a not-as-bad shortfall of conductors.
NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett said the agency is down by 57 locomotive engineers since 2011. Nine will be added Friday after finishing 20 months’ training. But 10 to 20 more leave each year.
He said the agency plans to begin starting four engineer classes a year, rather than one or two, to try to get ahead of attrition.
“Wages aside, if we had had four training, like we’re now doing, four training classes a year for engineers — we started that two years ago, three years ago — we would not be here today,” Corbett said at a joint legislative hearing into NJ Transit’s troubles.
Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, said legislative leaders told him a bill changing the New Jersey residency requirement will be passed next month.
“And in the interim, I would just say start the outreach now. Let’s admit it, you’re down 30, 40 people. The number one thing we have to do is fill those vacancies,” Diegnan said.
In all, NJ Transit has more than 500 vacant jobs. The Murphy administration on Tuesday asked a state panel that enforces the residency rule to grant a waiver for NJ Transit.
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said it will still take months to get people on board – though much less time than training them all from scratch.
“It will be shorter than 20 months, but please understand that there is also a nationwide shortage of engineers. So this is not a panacea. It’s just a tool to help us where we can,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
NJ Transit has around 330 engineers but in a perfect world would have around 400, said Gutierrez-Scaccetti. She said 291 are needed to run the system, so the current numbers allow little flexibility for needed time off or if workers call out.
Assemblyman Tom Giblin, D-Essex, said the agency has to be more aggressive about recruiting for jobs with salaries that start around $70,000 a year and can eventually reach $100,000, including overtime.
“It just seems almost unconscionable with the type of salaries you’re talking about that we’re here bemoaning the fact that we can get help. I mean, it’s beyond scandalous,” Giblin said.
On Tuesday, Gutierrez-Scaccetti met with the heads of the state’s education, higher education and labor departments to begin planning a training program at vo-tech schools and community colleges. The goal is a consistent pool of train operators, mechanics and electricians.
“The need for these skills is no different from the need for licensed practical nurses, firefighters or medical technicians,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
The program would allow students to get academic and simulated training completed while in school, which would reduce the amount of time they’d need on-the-job training. The Murphy administration hopes to bring the idea to community colleges and vo-techs next week.
The joint Senate and Assembly committee hearing lasted nearly four hours.
South Jersey trains
Another major area of concern was NJ Transit’s decision to suspend all service on the Atlantic City Rail Line starting the day after Labor Day, Sept. 4, until early next year. Direct rides into New York on the Raritan Valley Line, without switching in Newark, are also being suspended.
Corbett said NJ Transit and its outside contractor helping install the positive train control safety system looked for ways to keep the Atlantic City Rail Line operating but that temporarily shifting all its riders to buses is needed to head off bigger problems come January.
“It’s not just Atlantic City Line being shut down. If we are not compliant and everything is not done by Dec. 31, FRA will not certify us at all. So it’s not a – It’s a brick wall that is not moving,” Corbett said.
NJ Transit officials aren’t committing to a specific return date for the Atlantic City Rail Line, which will be temporarily closed the day after Labor Day. But they insist it will return as soon as possible.
“We are investing significant money to do so. You wouldn’t be investing, from a business proposition, wouldn’t be putting millions into something that you weren’t,” Corbett said.
“If we didn’t shut down the Atlantic City Line, it would have shutdown itself on Dec. 31,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
But South Jersey officials remain concerned, including Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick, who is also finance director at Meet AC, the marketing agency for the Atlantic City Convention Center.
“We advertise it,” Fitzpatrick said. “We entice people to bring their conventions and meetings to our city by offering rail service and promising them they can get from the Philadelphia airport to Atlantic City this way because we’re also dealing with struggling air service in our own area.”
Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden, said it’s unfortunate the rail line is being shut as new casinos are opening.
“Timing is everything. Isn’t it, though?” Egan Jones said. “As Atlantic City is breathing new life into itself and our casinos are doing better and employee numbers are growing as we all hoped they would, it just sends a terrible message.”
Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, said 80 events are planned in Atlantic City during the anticipated four-month shutdown. He said close to 8,000 people took trains into the city for last year’s New Jersey Education Association teachers’ convention in early November.
“Once again as Atlantic City starts to move up, we always seem to get to this one point and then something’s going to knock us back down again,” Armato said.
Corbett said that, to date, no positive train control work has been done on the Atlantic City Rail Line, leaving the agency no option but to suspend service.
Statewide, more than 58 percent of the system has been installed, he said.