New Jersey Transit has been blaming a summer surge in train cancellations in part on a shortage of available engineers, and now momentum is building in Trenton to address that problem by relaxing a law that requires workers to live in New Jersey.
Getting rid of the residency requirement through legislation was one of the top issues discussed yesterday during a lengthy hearing in the State House; lawmakers convened the hearing in response to the significant pressure they’ve been getting from constituents who are upset with NJ Transit’s deteriorating level of service.
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy said in a news release that was issued while the hearing was still unfolding that he’s onboard with lifting the residency requirement, which is in place for most state workers, including those employed by NJ Transit, unless they can get an individual waiver.
“NJ Transit must be given the ability to hire mission essential employees who live in neighboring states so they can be put to work turning around our system,” Murphy said.
But also contributing to this summer’s commuting headaches has been the agency’s last-ditch effort to meet a federal deadline for the installation of positive-train control, or PTC, safety equipment. Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s executive director, said during the hearing yesterday that the task — which must be wrapped up by the end of the year — is now 58 percent completed.
To finish the job, NJ Transit has announced it will be suspending for several months some service on the Raritan Valley Line, and all service on the Atlantic City Line. Lawmakers raised several concerns about those changes yesterday, but Corbett reassured them that the disruptions would only be temporary.
Underestimated the scope of problems
Once known as one of the nation’s top rail agencies, NJ Transit has struggled in recent years with a number of issues, including declining reliability and lax communication with its customers. Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has called for a revival of the mass-transit agency and he boosted funding for its operations in the state budget enacted earlier this summer. But he’s also conceded that his administration underestimated the scope of the problems that developed during former Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms in office and has promised to do better.
Corbett told lawmakers yesterday that less than a dozen training classes for engineers were held between 2010 and 2017, and that NJ Transit experienced a net loss of 57 engineers in that time. The agency needs 291 engineers for it to operate; currently it has only a few dozen more than the bare minimum. (It generally takes over a year to train and incorporate a new engineer into the staff.)
“Now we have to make up for an eight-year period where we lost significantly more than we hired,” Corbett told the lawmakers.
A bill that would enact a number of NJ Transit reforms — including a waiver of the residency requirement for engineers — has already been approved by the Senate and is awaiting final passage in the Assembly. But final adoption of that bill, which would also overhaul the makeup of the agency’s board among other changes, is apparently being held back as the Murphy administration awaits the results of a comprehensive audit that it ordered earlier this year. The governor urged lawmakers yesterday to send him a stand-alone bill to make the residency change more quickly.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) has been among those calling for NJ Transit to be given an exemption from the existing law, which generally allows for case-by-case waivers.
“This is a crisis,” Kean said. “Commuters need us to use every tool at our disposal to solve it.”
New recruitment efforts, training
In addition to seeking an exemption from the residency requirement, the Murphy administration also announced yesterday that it is launching a new training initiative involving the departments of Education and Labor in a bid to generate a bigger pool of workers for NJ Transit. The effort will involve both recruitment and skills development, officials said.
“NJ Transit needs a consistent and sustainable pipeline of skilled labor to provide the excellent service our commuters deserve,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation and chair of the NJ Transit board.
But even if the agency had a full slate of engineers, it would still be facing issues this year related to the behind-schedule push to meet the federal deadline for the installation of the PTC safety equipment.
PTC is a GPS-based system of sensors installed along a stretch of track, with the sensors collecting and sending information via radio signal to an operating station about train speed, areas sectioned off for construction, and other data.
Upset about the lack of information
To install and test PTC, NJ Transit must bring some of its equipment and staff out of service on a regular basis, which reduces the availability of trains, conductors and engineers. To help address that crunch, the agency will be suspending direct, single-seat trips into Manhattan on the popular Raritan Valley Line, a change that will force riders heading into New York to make a transfer in Newark. The agency is also temporarily halting all service on the Atlantic City Line, with both changes scheduled to begin in September and last through the end of the year.
Some lawmakers were upset that NJ Transit didn’t provide more information when it announced those actions in a news release several weeks ago. While agency officials said they are now planning to go to South Jersey to meet with affected customers, some representatives from the region posed sharp questions yesterday about whether the economic recovery of Atlantic City was taken into consideration when the decision was made to suspend all service.
The Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey has estimated that roughly 1,000 casino workers live near stops on the Atlantic City Line.
“It just sends a terrible message,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden).
In response, Corbett explained that part of the challenge NJ Transit is facing is that only 12 percent of the PTC safety equipment had been installed across the agency when Murphy took over for Christie.
“We’ve accomplished more in the last six months than was done in the previous six years,” he said. “While we’re pleased with our progress, there is much, much more to do.”