Staffing problems are just the latest headache for NJ Transit riders and executives, who hope to resolve a lack of train engineers later this week in what’s being called the “Summer of Hell.” Officials have worked to reroute rail and bus lines so that Amtrak can make major track repairs on routes into New York’s Penn Station with as little disruption as possible, but they now face absenteeism that has forced the cancellation of an estimated 64 trains this month — and 40 over the course of just two days earlier this week.
NJ Transit’s leaders said they are planning to meet with members of the engineers union later this week; executive director Steve Santoro said during a legislative hearing in Trenton yesterday that some may face disciplinary action as a result of the train cancellations.
“We are doing everything within our control to maximize the number of employees filling shifts and to deliver the service we have scheduled,” he said.
Santoro said the problems stem from some engineers taking their normal summer vacations, but also others deciding to use “sick days, optional days off, or taking unexcused absences.” Seniority and a 48-hour window for the engineers to assume their latest summer assignments — all allowed under the union’s current contract — have also contributed to the problem, he said.
The train cancellations have emerged as just the latest problem for NJ Transit’s riders, who this year have already had to deal with a number of derailments and are now struggling through a prolonged period of service changes and disruptions brought on by the ongoing repair effort at Penn Station. That effort is being led by Amtrak, which owns and operates the busy station. Dubbed the “Summer of Hell,” the Amtrak work is forcing most Morris and Essex trains to be diverted to Hoboken instead of Penn Station this summer, while also causing other periodic delays and crowded conditions on other lines.
Lawmakers demanded a hearing yesterday in order to get an update as the repair effort is now more than a week old, and they heard some good news from officials. A top Amtrak executive said the station work is progressing on schedule, and officials from the Port Authority’s PATH rail system and privately-run NY Waterway ferries also outlined service changes they’ve adopted to help pick up the slack. Other than the staffing issues with the train engineers, Santoro reported that his agency’s contingency plan is also “working,” with customers moving “safely and reliably” despite the ongoing track repairs.
“I’m very proud of our NJ Transit employees, and I’m also very proud and grateful to our customers,” he said.
NJ Transit’s plan to deal with the Amtrak repair work was first announced by Gov. Chris Christie in May. To help cushion the blow for Morris and Essex line commuters, a roughly 50 percent fare discount is being offered as long as the diversion to Hoboken remains in place. The agency has also set up cross-honoring arrangements with the Port Authority and the ferry operators.
The contingency plan went into effect a little over a week ago, and it is expected to remain in place until the beginning of September. Initial reviews were largely positive, but the recent train cancellations brought on by the staffing problems have angered commuters, especially on Sunday and Monday of this week, when there were a combined 40 train “annulments.”
Taking NJT engineers to task
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) adopted a strong tone while talking about the recent cancellations, which affected the North Jersey Coast Line, a line that goes through the area Kyrillos represents in the Legislature.
“We’re really talking about people not showing up to work and screwing the passengers of NJ Transit in the process,” Kyrillos said.
“With all the stresses and all the problems with the system for all the reasons that we know about, we shouldn’t have that,” Kyrillos went on to say.
Some of the other lawmakers sitting on the joint Assembly and Senate committee questioned whether the problem was also rooted in the agency’s financial circumstances. The latest state budget signed into law by Christie earlier this month included only flat funding for NJ Transit operations even as the agency has had to deal with increased employee costs and added expenses linked to the contingency plan. But Santoro pushed back against that concern yesterday, saying the issue was not at all tied to funding.
Afterward, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) said it was also not fair to only point fingers at the employees, who seem to be working under the rules of their existing contract.
“Let’s not go blaming the unions for what’s going on here,” McKeon said. “The contract is the contract.”
Subpoenas for NJ Transit
McKeon, who led yesterday’s hearing along with Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), also said he was going to deliver subpoenas to NJ Transit on Friday after a previous request for materials from the agency did not produce anything germane to the request. McKeon has asked for more information related to the decision to choose a contingency plan that primarily disrupted the Morris and Essex lines.
The lawmakers, however, were not as tough on Michael DeCataldo, Amtrak’s vice president of operations for the east region, as he testified at the start of the hearing. DeCataldo said his agency so far is on schedule and even possibly slightly ahead.
“The progress we have made is better than we anticipated,” DeCataldo said.
A better PATH
Meanwhile, the PATH system has been adding extra uptown trains to its line running between Hoboken and 33rd Street in Manhattan during peak periods, said Michael Marino, director of the PATH system. Trains are also now arriving every five minutes instead of every seven minutes as well, he said.
“We will continue to work with our partner agencies to ensure a potential ‘Summer of Hell’ becomes more a ‘Summer of Inconvenience’ and that our customers benefit from as smooth a transportation experience as possible,” Marino said.
The NY Waterway ferry service is also working to pick up extra commuters this summer on a new route between Hoboken and West 39th Street in Manhattan, said Armand Pohan, the ferry company’s chairman. Crosstown company bus routes have also been beefed up during the morning and evening rush hours, he said.
“Thanks to excellent and constant communication with NJ Transit and PATH personnel, the ferry operations to and from Hoboken have gone very smoothly, with almost no customer complaints,” Pohan said.