New Jersey Transit Locomotives Idle as Mandated Project Takes Toll

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit pulled off the seemingly impossible by making a Dec. 31 deadline to install emergency-braking software ordered by Congress. But the race to finish peeled off staff from routine duties, delaying promised service improvements after months of commuter agony.

“A number of vehicles” are sidelined as a result of NJ Transit’s need to finish a multi-year project known as positive train control in less than 10 months, according to Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the nation’s largest statewide mass-transportation provider.

The effort “required the use of NJ Transit maintenance staff to supplement contractor forces, creating this backlog in routine repairs, as well as federally required short- and long-term inspections and other work,” Snyder wrote in an email. “NJT employees are working overtime to reduce the backlog as quickly as possible.”

The federal government shutdown has had no impact on NJ Transit’s project, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. Federal Railroad Administration inspectors, including those overseeing the PTC project, are considered essential employees and are on the job.

The locomotive inspections are required by federal regulations but are conducted by NJ Transit employees, according to the DOT.

Fare Discounts

NJ Transit discounted fares 10 percent for three months starting in November to compensate riders for canceled trains, delays and crowding while locomotives were pulled for software installations. When the railroad met its Dec. 31 deadline after years of little progress, the agency said customers’ frustrations would ease.

The agency also promised the re-opening of the Atlantic City line, with service to Philadelphia and about 2,000 daily riders. Those trains were stopped temporarily to make equipment available elsewhere in the system, and NJT Transit said the timing is still under consideration.

“These factors include equipment availability, continuing engineer staffing challenges and the potential effect of the continuing federal government shutdown,” Snyder said.

Governor Phil Murphy, at a news conference in Jersey City, said the Federal Railroad Administration will have the last word.

“The FRA has to approve that re-initiation, so we are awaiting that,” Murphy said.

Trains Canceled

NJ Transit canceled two trains Tuesday and another Wednesday as a result of equipment shortages, Snyder said.

“NJ Transit must operate PTC-equipped locomotives or cab-control cars on the front and rear of all trains,” Snyder said. “This has had an impact on our flexibility to substitute equipment when an unplanned mechanical issue occurs.”

Murphy, in his State of the State speech on Tuesday, said a priority this year will be restoring NJ Transit to a high level of service. Budget-starved for eight years under Republican Governor Chris Christie, the railroad saw safety and reliability slip and rider dissatisfaction grow. Murphy’s administration has revamped procurement, stepped up engineer classes and advertised open positions. He cautioned reporters in Jersey City, though, that it will take years to overcome the neglect.

“We’re not building Rome in a day,” he said. “This is going to be one foot in front of the other.”

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