New Jersey Transit’s push to equip trains with the latest federally mandated safety technology is causing a new round of headaches and service changes this summer, once again testing the patience of the beleaguered agency’s daily commuters.
The latest NJ Transit service changes will include a planned halting of direct, single-seat trips into Manhattan on the popular Raritan Valley line, and the outright suspension of all service on the Atlantic City line, which is the only rail service that currently operates in that part of South Jersey.
The two changes, first announced by NJ Transit officials in a news release issued last week, are scheduled to begin next month and last at least through the end of the year. They follow other schedule adjustments that began in June that are impacting the Northeast Corridor, Morris & Essex, North Jersey Coast, and Pascack Valley lines. The same general explanation has been provided for all of the suspensions and adjustments: NJ Transit is installing federally mandated Positive Train Control equipment on its entire fleet and other infrastructure, which affects the agency’s available equipment and manpower.
“As we push to complete PTC installation, I ask for customers’ patience during this process as the end result is a safer railroad for everyone,” NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett said in a statement released yesterday.
Still, some lawmakers have faulted NJ Transit for not providing riders with more detailed information and explanations and they are calling for new hearings to scrutinize the agency’s latest issues. Also drawing some criticism is Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat, as he has made improving NJ Transit, the nation’s largest statewide public-transportation system, a top priority.
Positive Train Control, or PTC, is a GPS-based system of sensors installed along a stretch of track. The sensors collect and send information via radio signal to an operating station about train speed, areas sectioned off for construction, and other data.
If a train is moving too quickly or having trouble braking, onboard equipment in the locomotive is designed to slow or stop the train. The system uses highly technical equipment, including fiber-optic cables, and also requires specific training for engineers. Like other rail agencies, NJ Transit is working to meet an end-of-the-year deadline set by the federal government to either install the PTC equipment or meet the requirements necessary to get an extension.
“This is a critical mission we have before us,” NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said yesterday. “We are ramping up our PTC installation to meet some critical, federally mandated milestones.”
According to more detailed information released yesterday, NJ Transit is planning to suspend its off-peak direct service into Manhattan on the Raritan Valley line starting on September 10.
Raritan Valley line
Most trains on that line take commuters between Newark Penn Station and High Bridge in Hunterdon County — cutting across suburbs in Somerset and Union counties. But eastbound riders seeking to get into Manhattan must change in Newark to another NJ Transit train or use the Port Authority’s PATH service. Local officials fought hard in recent years to establish at least some off-peak single-seat service into Penn Station in New York, as the Raritan Valley line is one of NJ Transit’s busiest. Those direct trains currently operate during midday hours, as well as after 8 p.m., but only on weekdays. The agency’s direct trains are scheduled to resume in “early 2019,” and midday and evening passengers will continue to have access to Manhattan via Newark Penn Station, according to NJ Transit’s news release.
South Jersey, hard hit
In South Jersey, the suspension of the Atlantic City line will begin on September 5, and will affect the entire schedule of trains running between the seaside resort and Philadelphia. The line — which also provides a link to the Delaware River Port Authority’s PATCO service — is the only rail service that operates in the state’s southernmost counties, where household incomes are generally lower compared to the parts of the state with more direct links to New York City.
The latest NJ Transit ridership figures show the Atlantic City line is the state’s least-used rail service, with an estimated 2,150 weekday passenger trips. By comparison, the Raritan Valley line sees over 20,000 weekday passenger trips, and the agency’s most popular service, the Northeast Corridor, has more than 120,000.
Atlantic City line
Full service on the Atlantic City line is scheduled to resume in “early 2019.” In the meantime, displaced riders should be able to use NJ Transit buses to get to their usual destinations, NJ Transit officials said. But those trips are expected to take longer, and many South Jersey residents are already attempting to mobilize on social media in an effort to lobby for at least some service to be retained as the region still tries to recover from the decline of the casino industry.
Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are calling for new public hearings to get more information out of NJ Transit, including an explanation for why these specific service changes are being made and what other options the agency reviewed before settling on them.
“How do they decide these things? They haven’t really answered that question,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, a Republican whose district is bisected by the Raritan Valley line.
Other unexplained cancellations, delays
For his part, Murphy held a series of public events with NJ Transit officials earlier this year as he sought to generate support for his proposal to increase state funding for the agency’s operating budget, which lawmakers eventually approved. But there have been no such events to go over this latest spate of service changes and other problems in recent weeks; the governor has reportedly been vacationing in Italy since late July.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature held hearings last year after a series of “Summer of Hell” service changes were announced by the administration of then-Gov. Chris Christie. Those changes were made to accommodate Amtrak’s ongoing repair work inside Penn Station in New York and included a temporary suspension of direct service into New York for Morris & Essex line riders, who were instead diverted to Hoboken. The hearings followed other efforts by lawmakers to increase oversight of the transit agency in the wake of a fatal rail accident at Hoboken Terminal in 2016, when Christie, a Republican, was still in office.
Munoz said that she and other Republican lawmakers who participated in the Democratic-led hearings took them seriously. It was unclear yesterday if any are being scheduled as the current legislative agenda includes no activity at all in the month of August.
In addition to the service changes brought on by the federal government’s PTC deadlines, Munoz said lawmakers need to get some explanation for the more recent train cancellations and delays that are apparently being caused by staff shortages and equipment problems at NJ Transit. Often announced with little to no notice, they are leaving passengers stuck in New York or left without a connection option to their home stations.
“This is definitely a bipartisan issue,” she said.