New Jersey Lawmakers Press for Fixes to Commuter-Rail Fiasco

(Bloomberg) -- State lawmakers told New Jersey Transit leaders to stop saying it will take years to turn around the nation’s second-biggest commuter-rail operator and immediately enact solutions to poor service.

Eight months after Phil Murphy, the then-incoming Democratic governor, called the agency “a national disgrace,” service has continued to erode. Riders in recent weeks have endured faulty air conditioning during a heat wave, trains canceled with little or no notice, skipped stops and crowding. On Thursday, the agency said three rush-hour trains from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan were canceled on the Northeast Corridor, the railroad’s busiest line.

“Are we going to have more buses and ferries?" asked Assemblyman John McKeon of West Orange. "What’s the plan?"

Transit officials didn’t respond to that question. Asked whether the agency could offer discounts for service cuts, as it did last year during eight weeks of interruptions at Penn Station, officials said the matter hadn’t been discussed by the board of directors.

Both Murphy and Kevin Corbett, the agency’s executive director, have said they underestimated NJ Transit’s troubles. During a hearing in Trenton, lawmakers said the administration should have come to office in January with a plan drawn up in response to almost two years of damning public testimony in the wake of a fatal wreck in Hoboken in September 2016.

Corbett said nine engineers are graduating from training this week, which will help close the gap on the 50 the agency needs if they are hired. But those trainees aren’t compelled to take jobs with NJ Transit, according to agency spokeswoman Nancy Snyder. Ten rail cars, borrowed from Maryland’s commuter rail system and put into service in May to help ease crowding, are also no longer available, Corbett said.

Corbett and Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the state transportation commissioner, stuck to talking points they’ve made at NJ Transit public meetings: the agency suffered from eight years of budget cuts under former Republican Governor Chris Christie; it’s short engineers; and installations of emergency-braking software are making fewer engines available. Corbett said leaders were discussing how to communicate more with riders “for several months.”

"Nothing seems to have changed,” said Senator Tom Kean Jr., the Republican minority leader.

Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, a Republican from Summit, said conductors aren’t collecting all tickets on packed trains, causing the agency to lose money. Corbett said the agency is “testing technology” to make the process faster.

Munoz also asked that the agency consider speeding up engineer-training, because its 20-month program is twice as long as some other railroads’.

“That’s something we have to look at,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, said the agency told lawmakers months ago that the engineer ranks were thinning due to retirements, migrations to higher-paying railroads and canceled classes for potential new hires. During the hearing, Murphy’s office released a statement urging lawmakers to send him legislation to lift engineers’ in-state residency requirement.

“Why are you asking for waivers now?” said Weinberg, a member of the committee that reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents highlighting the agency’s systemic problems during almost two years of earlier testimony. In February, the panel issued a 30-page report urging immediate and long-term reforms.

Weinberg faulted Corbett for shutting down Atlantic City service to Philadelphia to help meet the safety-project deadline, and then announcing that the agency will meet next week with affected passengers.

“Now you’re going out to meet with Atlantic City commuters?" Weinberg said. “You need to get ahead of the communications, not react to it. Everybody knew what existed here the day our new administration took over.”

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