This Week Has Been a Nightmare for New Jersey Transit Users

(Bloomberg) -- While New Jersey Transit blamed crew shortages and a rail-safety project for a nightmare commuting week, a union warned that passengers on some cars are at risk of falling through open rear doors at high speed.

The nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad canceled at least two dozen trains this morning, forcing mostly New York City-bound riders to stand or take later service, and at least 1,500 seats will be cut during tonight’s evening rush hour, according to data obtained by Bloomberg.

Despite a pledged turnaround by the agency, which had the most accidents and safety fines among its peers after eight years of budget cuts by former Governor Chris Christie, it’s unlikely that riders will see relief before the end of the year. The railroad is about 50 engineers short of what it needs and is just halfway through an emergency-braking project with a Dec. 31 deadline set by Congress.

This Week Has Been a Nightmare for New Jersey Transit Users

All week, social media users vented about standing in aisles and delays, with some demanding refunds for monthly passes that cost as much as $480.

Over four hours on Thursday, outbound trains from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan had 20 fewer cars than usual, eliminating as many as 2,600 seats, according to data obtained by Bloomberg. Train 3947, scheduled at the start of the evening rush hour on the Northeast Corridor, the railroad’s busiest line, was short four cars, or roughly 500 seats. During the same four hours today, the trains are short 13 cars, including five cabs, the data show.

On Thursday, eight trains were without cab cars, which have emergency exits and can seat as many as 127 riders each. In a cab’s absence, the last car’s rear door must be left open, even as some trains travel 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour or more, according to Stephen Burkert, general chairman of SMART Transportation Division Local 60, which represents 1,200 conductors and other staff.

“The doors on the interior of the coach body and the exterior doors are considered emergency egress,” Burkert said in a text message. “They cannot be locked unless they are mechanically deficient or if ordered by an NJ Transit manager for safety reasons.”

In an Aug. 1 post to the union’s website, Burkert told members that he took up the issue with the railroad.

“I DO NOT believe this method is safe for the train crews or the passengers,” Burkert wrote on the union’s website.

New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder didn’t respond to questions about the practice.

In an emailed statement, Snyder said technology installations have caused delays. The troubles on Thursday were exacerbated by contracted service to a Jay-Z and Beyonce concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Some shifts ended at 3:30 a.m. and crews didn’t have enough federally mandated rest for duty this morning, she said. The pair are performing again tonight.

“NJ Transit has taken steps to address these issues by recruiting and training additional locomotive engineers,” Snyder said in an email. “We anticipate a class graduating within the next week that will add nine engineers to the roster.”

The railroad is about 50 engineers short of the 383 it needs, she said.

NJ Transit rail provides about 308,000 weekday rides. Once a national model, its service eroded and crowding increased amid Christie’s budget cuts. Democrat Phil Murphy, who replaced the Republican Christie in January, has increased funding and told riders that restoring service is a priority. But he warned that NJ Transit’s troubles will take years to resolve.

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