Gov. Phil Murphy and top state transportation officials are promising to make next year a better one for New Jersey Transit customers after struggling through a difficult first year running one of the nation’s largest mass-transit agencies.
“Much of 2018 has been spent reversing years of negligence to simply get us back to par,” the first-term Democrat said during a news conference at the Trenton train station yesterday. “We are looking to 2019 as a year where we can move NJ Transit significantly forward.”
Murphy announced that NJ Transit is launching a new “customer experience” unit geared solely to improving interactions with riders during all parts of their trip. The agency will also use the NJ Transit smartphone app to immediately send out updates about delays or last-minute service changes, he said.
“We are doing everything possible to have real and tangible positive impacts on the lives of commuters who rely on NJ Transit’s services every day,” Murphy said.
New railcars and buses are also being purchased by NJ Transit, in part to ease the overcrowded conditions that are a frequent complaint of customers.
On track to meet major safety deadline
The agency, he said, is also going to meet an end-of-year deadline to install Positive Train Control, or PTC safety equipment. The effort to comply with that federally mandated requirement has led to some of the staffing and equipment issues that have strained the service for much of the year, but the governor said the work is now 95 percent complete.
Once known as one of the nation’s top transportation agencies, NJ Transit has struggled in recent years as state funding has not kept pace with increased ridership. The agency has also faced an increasingly upset customer base, because of its declining reliability and a series of fare hikes that were implemented during the tenure of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie which have made the faltering service more expensive to use.
Murphy campaigned last year on a promise to fix NJ Transit, but it’s been an area of continuing struggle throughout his first year in office as the agency has dealt with last-minute cancellations and overcrowding, problems that were also a hallmark of Christie’s tenure. Murphy conceded during the summer that his administration underestimated the scope of the challenges inherited from the Christie administration, which had completed only 12 percent of PTC installation. He promised to do better.
PTC installation was 95 percent complete as of the end of last month, but to achieve that NJ Transit has had to make several service changes since the effort requires taking some equipment and staff offline. Those changes have included suspending all rail service on the Atlantic City Line and halting off-peak direct service into Manhattan on the Raritan Valley Line. Because of the disruptions, the agency has been offering all its rail customers a temporary fare discount.
Trying to improve… everything
Murphy and other transportation officials, including NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett, said yesterday that the dedicated “customer service” unit is part of a new initiative called “Engage, Inform, Improve.” Its aim will be to upgrade each element of the customer experience from the time someone walks into a station to when they reach their destination. The unit will focus on improving public announcements and all the conditions that customers see on trains and in the stations.
“This unit’s sole focus will be the customer experience — to promptly identify deficiencies at every point during a typical trip,” Corbett said. “The unit will direct that corrective action is taken, whether it be the need for enhanced station signage or improving station and platform public-address announcements.”
Interactive touch-screen kiosks are being installed as part of a pilot program at Newark Penn Station and Hoboken Terminal, as well at the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail’s Harborside and Pavonia stations. And NJ Transit has also updated its mobile app to provide “push notifications” to customers to give them the latest information about the service they use on a regular basis, Corbett said.
“This will be a feature that many customers have requested,” he said.
NJ Transit is also in the process of acquiring 113 multilevel rail cars that, once delivered, would help to address the overcrowding and other conditions that customers frequently complain about. The agency is also getting 182 new buses as part of the ongoing equipment upgrade. These are being paid for through a combination of federal dollars and revenue from the state Transportation Trust Fund, Corbett said.
Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘maybe’?
When asked if NJ Transit unequivocally would meet the Federal Railroad Administration’s PTC installation deadline at the end of the year, Murphy immediately told reporters “yes.”
Corbett, however, said, “We’re not spiking the football yet. There’s a lot of things we have to work through with the FRA over the coming weeks.” He said, “We are fully expecting to make the deadline so then we have to be looking at when we reopen the various services (and) restoring full service in a timely manner.” But Corbett said it was too early to discuss when some of the service changes would be reversed, once that goal is accomplished.
The governor also promised that despite some concerns that have been raised in South Jersey, the Atlantic City Line would be put back into service next year. “It will be reopened. We don’t have a date yet, but we’ll get you that as soon as we get it,” Murphy said.
Speaking more generally about NJ Transit’s challenges, he said, “We will get there.”