NJ Transit Says It's Examining Fixes for Awful Train Commute

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit, which is coping with canceled trains, jam-packed commutes and faulty air conditioning amid a heat wave, is examining how to improve service, said state transportation chief Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

She and NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett didn’t say when or how the country’s second-busiest commuter rail system will provide relief to about 150,000 daily riders, most of whom work in New York City. The agency, she said, is considering whether to deploy more buses and Hudson River ferries to supplement service, as it did a year ago during eight weeks of stepped-up maintenance that closed tracks at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan by Amtrak, which shares its station with other railroads.

“We have not at a board level had a conversation about doing any type of refunds or discounts,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti told reporters after an NJ Transit board meeting in Newark.

The state Assembly and Senate transportation committees scheduled an Aug. 16 hearing in Trenton on the latest troubles. In recent days at least four Republican lawmakers, all in office while fellow Republican Governor Chris Christie cut NJ Transit’s budget over eight years, had called for hearings or criticized how Christie’s successor, Democrat Phil Murphy, has handled the agency’s shortcomings.

Once a national envy, NJ Transit’s railroad now leads peers for accidents and federal safety fines. While commuters for years have complained about crowding and slipping reliability, trips since late July have been particularly brutal. NJ Transit has blamed higher-than-typical crew shortages, equipment breakdowns and fewer rail cars available as stock is outfitted with emergency braking software ordered by Congress.

In the past week, riders have complained about NJ Transit’s recent practice of leaving some rail cars’ rear doors open as emergency exits, even while trains reach 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour or more. The conductors’ union has said it’s a workaround for a shortage of cab cars, which are rear-most vehicles equipped with doors for fast escape. While fewer trains are operating, commuters accustomed to standing in aisles have said on social media that some runs are so packed that engineers are skipping scheduled stops.

At the Secaucus station, where thousands transfer to and from Manhattan trains, riders say air conditioning has been faulty for at least two weeks while outdoor temperatures have hit 85 degrees or higher. Two of 28 compressors are down, according to NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, and the agency needs custom parts and a crane for the repairs. Vendors, she said in an email, are “trying to fix the problem as soon as possible.”

Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she and Corbett walked into a “firestorm” of system-wide issues when they were appointed by Murphy, who took office in January. Murphy has pledged to turn around the agency, but has warned that improvements won’t happen overnight.

“There’s stuff coming from multiple directions and we’re doing the best we can to address all of it,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “I work 24 hours a day on a multitude of issues.”

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