Why does NJ Transit keep having one screw-up after another?
This week’s derailment of a New Jersey Transit train is but the latest in series of problems the agency has had for the past several years.
The incident, Monday night at Penn Station in New York, caused a ripple effect of delays for New Jersey commuters Tuesday, and more delays are expected Wednesday.
Unfortunately for passengers, difficulties for the nation’s third-busiest commuter railroad are hardly a new or surprising development.
Virtually every month, there are multiple reports of slowdowns and delays on NJ Transit trains for a variety of reasons, including problems with overhead wires or switches, mechanical failures and crashes.
In fact, a report by the New York Times last October found in the first nine months of 2016 there were 125 major NJ Transit train delays, which is almost one delay taking place every 2 days.
The review also found on-time arrival rates had declined in recent years and NJ Transit trains are breaking down more frequently now than they used to.
In 2013 a mechanical breakdown took place every 125,000 miles, but today, on average, an NJ Transit train has a significant mechanical problem every 85,000 miles.
In addition, the report found, NJ Transit has paid almost half a million dollars in fines to the Federal Railroad Administration for 76 major safety violations since 2010.
Crashes are another concern.
A major crash last September at the Hoboken terminal resulted in one woman being killed and more than 100 commuters being injured. That collision, with a station wall, remains under investigation by federal authorities.
Rail experts say it could have been prevented with an automatic braking technology called Positive Train Control, which will be required by the end of next year. So far New Jersey Transit has not implemented PTC on any of its rail lines.
Why is this happening?
According to John Wisniewski, chairman of the Assembly transportation committee, NJ Transit is being shortchanged financially by the state of New Jersey.
The result of this neglect is “we see an unending series of embarrassing problems that are not the fault of the people who work there, so much as the fault of the State of New Jersey for not giving them the tools to be able to do a good job,” he said.
“It is a question of having the right amount of money and having the right kind of leadership," he said.
Wisniewski stressed if top officials do not value the mission of public transportation then the organization will suffer.
“You can’t repair trains, you can’t keep them in good operating condition if you don’t have the financial resources to buy the parts, to hire the people, to do the inspections,” he said.
He added when you have one problem after another with mass transit “one of the unfortunate consequences is people begin to consider their transportation alternatives, and once those customers start driving to work instead of taking mass transit, it may be difficult to get them back.”
When asked about the issue of NJ Transit safety he said, “Your focus can be on safety, but if you have the wrong kind of eyeglasses, you’re not going to see much.”
Wisniewski added it’s fine to talk about safety being a top priority, but without ample funding it rings hollow.
“They can’t fight the good fight in keeping ahead of the curve so to speak with regard to maintenance issues. NJ Transit increasingly is giving commuters reason to question whether they’ll get to work on time or safely, that’s got to change," Wisniewski said.
Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign agrees the agency needs more money to be able to do its job properly.
She said one major problem at NJ Transit is “money that would pay for infrastructure, the actual hard equipment, rail work — that money is being shifted to cover day to day transit operating needs.’
The resulting decline of NJ Transit’s reliability, said Vanterpool, is a cause for concern.
“We’re seeing an increase in incidences and that certainly is raising eyebrows in New Jersey and of course for federal agencies like the FTA,” she said. “It’s an unsustainable situation and it’s got to stop, New Jersey Transit needs a more robust dedicated source of funding.”
She said one option to help the agency might be to engage the business community as a supporter of mass transit.
“In New York, the business community pays several fees and taxes to help support transit because it’s so integral to the economy and the workforce in attracting good talent,” she said.
NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder declined to address issues regarding funding, but she did say ““we understand our customers frustrations.
"We are frustrated as well whenever our customers experience any type burden to their travels, whether it’s around the two derailments at Penn Station, New York in just one week, or if it’s another incident," she said. “That’s why we’re committed to giving them every alternative travel option to get their destinations as quickly and safely as we can.”
She added “safety is our top priority and we will not run service unless it’s safe service, and sometimes if that leads to a disruption, we want a safe operation, so we’ll put together alternative travel options for our customers.”
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