NJ Transit: Limited weekend service suspensions possible in 2019
NJ Transit’s leader says he can’t yet commit to a schedule for restoring train service suspended since June while required safety equipment was being installed, despite confidence enough progress on that work will be made by the end of the year to satisfy federal regulators.
Executive director Kevin Corbett told the Senate Transportation Committee Monday that service will be restored to the Atlantic City Line, the Princeton dinky and weekends on the Gladstone line as soon as possible after equipment milestones are reached.
It requires sign-off from the Federal Railroad Administration, which should come in less than the 45 days that would be allowed by law after the state submits its paperwork, and then work with the railroad’s unions, Corbett said.
Pressed a bit by Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, Corbett indicated the service should be running within 90 days, which would be before the end of March.
“We also must ensure that the service we restore is reliable so our customers have predictability. We don’t want to bring service back and then have it become unreliable and have to change it,” Corbett said.
Corbett says even after positive train control equipment is installed, testing will have to be done. That could require more limited suspensions of service next year.
“Depending on how that testing, we may ad hoc have to do select weekends or something like that,” Corbett said.
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said there are about 158 train cars that will still need positive train control equipment installed on them in 2018 but that she’s confident the FRA will accept the work that’s done and allow train service to continue in January.
“There wasn’t a soul that was betting that New Jersey Transit would make it,” she said. “Kevin and I are feeling pretty good about our odds right now.”
Two months after a major audit of New Jersey Transit was released, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said its recommendations are being put in place – even if commuters think they aren’t seeing much action, as she hears often.
“There’s a tremendous amount of foundational work that has to be done inside Transit that is never really going to be something that the public sees,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
She said fixes to NJT’s procurement department – “one of the biggest travesties of Transit,” she called it – are underway and will help manage operating costs. A new chief financial officer is centralizing NJT’s finances for the first time.
“So that progress, I want the committee to understand, is being made. And you won’t necessarily see it. But you eventually hopefully our customers will feel it in the fact that it is a better running agency,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Corbett said the agency’s new app is being rolled out and has been downloaded by roughly 100,000 users already. He said several thousand have subscribed to the new push alerts that a commuter can customize by line, station or specific train.
And Corbett said the agency’s personnel department is now grappling with a unique challenge: Sorting through an avalanche of people interesting in becoming engineers.
“We did a major push on that. We now have – we’re sort of overwhelmed. Everyone was saying how difficult it would be to get interested people. We have over 5,000 applicants,” Corbett said. We’re filtering through – we’re really swamped applicants.”
It still takes 12 to 18 months to train an engineer, depending on whether a person has prior experience as a conductor. By next October, NJT will have trained enough engineers that its shortage won’t be as critical, though the agency says it won’t be fully staffed until early 2020.
Corbett said the agency has hired over 300 new bus drivers.