As the quality of NJ Transit has gone down, the frustration of riders has gone up – and with it, alarm among train conductors about assaults of workers by angry commuters.

In addition to a law ending a residency requirement for NJ Transit workers, the union for its train conductors is pushing legislators to make prison terms mandatory in instances where uniformed crew members are assaulted. There is a specific law against assaulting train conductors and bus drivers, but it doesn’t make a prison term automatic.

“I’ve had two female conductors physically thrown off trains by angry commuters. I’ve had other people in the past year who have been so brutally beaten they can no longer return to work,” said Steve Burkert, general chairman for SMART Local 60.

“I have people now that say they just don’t want to work here anymore. It’s not worth their family to lose an eye, to lose a jaw,” he said.

Records show there were 30 assaults of NJ Transit workers last year. Burkert, at a legislative hearing last week, said it’s now running one or two a week.

“When you annul one, two, three trains in a row, and that next train pulls is, as soon as the door opens they’re being verbally assaulted,” he said. “And we’re going, ‘Wait, we’re here to pick you up. We’re here to work with you.”

Other incidents have involved spitting and thrown coffee – and even thrown punches.

“The one kid was standing there, never even spoke to this person. He just coldcocked him.  Busted his eye socket, knocked him out unconscious on the floor. For no reason whatsoever, only that he could,” Burkert said.

Lawmakers said they were disturbed to learn about the assaults though didn’t commit specifically to the idea of mandating prison sentences, which isn’t applied to assaults of other uniformed personnel such as police officers.

“Your members, to be assaulted, is absolutely unacceptable,” said state Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. “We just have to make this right.”

Burkert said NJ Transit management is aware of the safety issue and focused on it.

He met last week with the NJ Transit Police Department about communications issues. He said police rarely ride the rails because they’re short-staffed and suggested as many as 250 to 300 additional officers should be hired. That would more than double the size of the department, which is currently around 235 officers, according to the annual state Uniform Crime Report.

“They can only react when we call. There’s nobody there to just walk up-and-down when trains are annulled,” Burkert said in an interview. “That’s what I’m looking for. You annul two or three trains in a row? Please be on the platform so when that fourth trains pulls in and the crew opens the door, we don’t get sucker punched.”

Burkert said the passenger crews that commuters see on board aren’t causing the last-minute annulments – they’re standing right there, after all.

“And the proof is the pudding because the passengers are the ones putting us in hospitals over their anger over the lack of service,” he said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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