New Jersey Transit has decided to give its rail customers a temporary break on fares as the agency prepares to enact new service changes that will impact some of its most popular lines.
The 10-percent price reduction on all system rail tickets and passes will begin in November and is scheduled to last through the end of the January, agency officials said in a recent announcement.
The move comes as NJ Transit is preparing to temporarily discontinue 18 trains across several lines to ensure crews can continue making progress on the installation of Positive Train Control, or PTC, safety equipment. Included in this new round of service changes, which will begin in mid-October, is a full suspension for the next several months of the Dinky trains that link Princeton with NJ Transit’s Princeton Junction station.
While commuters may be happy to see a discount in exchange for tolerating a raft of service disruptions, it’s unclear how NJ Transit’s tight operating budget will absorb the loss of revenue which does not appear to have been accounted for in the annual spending plan the agency’s board adopted this summer.
Positive Train Control 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 is designed to slow or stop it, providing enhanced safety features that can prevent a crash.
PTC: 70 percent complete
While installation of the PTC languished during the eight-year tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie, it has become a top priority for Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office earlier this year. NJ Transit has until the end of 2018 to either install the PTC equipment or meet requirements necessary to get an extension from federal regulators. The latest figures from NJ Transit indicate that nearly 70 percent of the installation work is now complete.
To help free up more staff and equipment to complete fitting of the PTC, NJ Transit earlier this month suspended off-peak direct service into Manhattan on its popular Raritan Valley Line. That service change is expected to last at least through the end of the year. The agency has also suspended all service on the Atlantic City Line into early 2019, with buses being used to help pick up the slack.
NJ Transit’s latest service changes will take effect on October 14 and are scheduled to last through mid-January. They will impact trains running on the Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Main and Bergen County lines. NJ Transit is urging customers to check the latest information posted on the agency’s website to figure out alternative transit options. The agency said it is also planning to use buses to shuttle passengers between Princeton and Princeton Junction on weekdays and weekends.
Executive director Kevin Corbett suggested the price reduction will help cushion the blow for commuters as NJ Transit continues to figure out ways to accommodate the PTC work.
Another problem: not enough engineers
“As a daily rail commuter myself, I fully understand the impact this has on people’s lives,’’ Corbett said. “That’s why I thought it was so important to offer the 10 percent discount to our loyal rail customers.”
Not helping the cause in recent months has been a shortage of train engineers, another problem inherited from the Christie administration. Lawmakers are planning to enact legislation this fall that will permanently waive a state residency requirement for engineers and other key employees.
“Our customers will always be our first priority, and their experience must be safe and consistent,” Corbett said. “We thoughtfully reviewed all trains that are part of this adjustment and found the most reasonable alternatives.”
Left unaddressed is what will happen to the NJ Transit operating budget after the three months of discounted rail fares comes to an end. Rail and bus fares account for nearly $1 billion of the agency’s $2.3 billion in annual revenue, and a projected loss of revenue from the discounted fares has not been made public.
NJ Transit did increase its fiscal-year budget by roughly $100 million in August after funding for agency operations was boosted in the state spending plan that Murphy signed into law in July. However, budget documents show much of the increase is covering costs related to the agency’s employees, including their benefits.
The budget documents also indicate NJ Transit already reduced the forecast for revenue from rail and bus passengers in its latest budget by nearly $30 million. The reduction is offsetting a “structural passenger revenue shortfall caused by the previously unrealistic annual passenger revenue assumptions” inherited from the Christie administration, the documents said.