NJ Transit's Engines Parked as Train-Control Software Won't Work

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit’s race to fulfill a federal mandate for emergency train-braking has left it short of equipment, causing weeks of service cuts and crowding that are likely to worsen as the December deadline nears.

About 8 percent of engines and other power equipment on the nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad have been outfitted since late last year with so-called positive train control. They were expected to return to service after about a week of software tests, but none have. Instead, technicians have been struggling to make the new electronics work with old systems, according to two people who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss operations.

Though outgoing Executive Director Steve Santoro told lawmakers this month that locomotives and cab cars have been sidelined, he didn’t disclose wider effects on service. In recent weeks, while the agency has deployed older spare equipment, social-media sites are rife with passenger videos of broken toilets and doors ajar or abruptly opening while trains are moving.

Standing-Room Only

In some cases NJ Transit is canceling trains or running fewer cars -- this at an agency already beset by slipping service, staffing shortages and declining government funding while passenger fares rose 36 percent over eight years.

“You don’t have enough cars to run a railroad,” said Senator Bob Gordon, a Democrat from Fair Lawn who is co-leading a legislative inquiry into NJ Transit’s finances and operations after its first fatal train wreck in two decades.

Positive train control is designed to brake a train automatically before a collision or high-speed derailment. Similar systems are used widely in Europe and Japan. Congress mandated it in 2008, with an initial 2015 deadline extended three years.

The technology could have prevented the deaths of eight passengers when Amtrak Train 188 derailed in Philadelphia in May 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded. Federal investigators are examining whether the system, installed but not activated on a track stretch in Washington state, could have slowed Amtrak Train 501, traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone before it derailed on Dec. 18, killing three people.

NJ Transit’s latest estimated project cost is at least $320 million, a 28 percent increase over the October 2016 figure. In the U.S., the railroad ranks third from bottom on project progress among 41 passenger and freight lines, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. The other New York City-area operators -- the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North -- are more than half finished, while Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, is 96 percent complete.

By year-end, NJ Transit must outfit all 440 of its locomotives and cab cars, which can control a train from either end. That requires NJ Transit to design and install a system for each of many models in its fleet, then test and certify them.

Even one of the early workarounds is causing headaches. NJ Transit is so short of cab cars -- which seat as many as 127 passengers -- that it’s outfitting some trains with engines at front and rear. Though that set-up enables a train to reverse readily, it compounds the locomotive shortage, the people said.

“There have been on-board equipment reliability issues for those vehicles already retrofitted,” Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokeswoman, said in an email. “The equipment remains out of revenue service until full performance acceptance testing can be completed.”

Blown Schedule

Snyder didn’t respond to a question about whether the agency is continuing to pull engines and cab cars from service to install and test software. She declined to specify how many trains are running with two engines.

“The number varies from day to day,” Snyder said. “We make adjustments to equipment daily to accommodate inspections and routine maintenance, and we utilize all of our available rail equipment to operate safe and consistent service for our customers.”

NJ Transit’s software trials were expected to take about five days per vehicle, one of the people said. Instead, the exercises have dragged since late last year, leaving 40 cab cars and five engines sidelined. What’s left in service, they say, is the bare minimum to maintain safe travel. For missing its own 2016 project milestones, the railroad is facing a $12,000 fine by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Once a national model, NJ Transit has the most rail accidents and safety fines among its peers amid eight years of budget cuts by Chris Christie, the two-term Republican governor who left office Jan. 16. A key link to New York City jobs, NJ Transit is “a national disgrace,” Christie’s successor, Democrat Phil Murphy, said last month.

Murphy on Monday ordered an independent audit of NJ Transit’s finances and operations, some details of which have been withheld from the legislature’s investigative committee even after subpoenas were issued. Among the areas studied will be positive train control and a hiring system that allowed “landing spots” for those with connections to Christie, he said.

“We cannot continue with a system that has been so starved by Trenton that it has been forced to raid long-term capital funds to pay for day-to-day expenses, delaying much-needed upgrades, including those for passenger safety,” Murphy said.

At a legislative hearing in Trenton on Jan. 9, Bob Lavell, the agency’s vice president and rail-operations general manager, declined to say whether the braking system will be in place in December. “NJ Transit is making every effort humanly possible,” Lavell said.

Gordon, the state senator, said it’s an unrealistic goal, given that more than 200 passenger cars are awaiting maintenance in NJ Transit yards, and parts and workers are scarce.

“What we’re seeing is the long-term effect of cuts in state subsidies, which in turn had an adverse effect on staffing levels,” Gordon said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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