Congratulations to NJ Transit for meeting an important end-of-year deadline that should get the agency back on track may be premature. Although the installation of new safety equipment, called Positive Train Control, was done on time, New Jersey Transit has decided to maintain service changes that were made to accommodate work on the major safety initiative.
The decision against restoring full service — at least for now — means all trains running on the Atlantic City Line remain temporarily suspended, forcing residents throughout South Jersey to continue using buses to get to and from their destinations.
Likewise, a hold that was put in place on the Raritan Valley Line’s off-peak direct service to Manhattan also remains in effect, meaning commuters must always change trains at Newark Penn Station, lengthening the ride and running the risk of missed connections.
The prolonged delay in service restoration is a growing concern for public officials whose communities are served by the trains. They view the rail connections as essential elements of their regional economies, and they’re now pressing NJ Transit to provide answers.
Meanwhile, the ongoing shutdown of the federal government could end up playing a role in keeping the services on hold as oversight of the PTC work involves the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency that is currently being impacted by the gridlock in Washington, D.C.
Weren’t the changes supposed to be temporary?
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 in the locomotive is designed to slow or stop the train.
The PTC system uses highly technical equipment, including fiber-optic cables, and requires specific training for engineers. Rail agencies across the country, including NJ Transit, had until the end of 2018 to either fully install PTC equipment or complete enough of the required work to qualify for an extension from the FRA allowing for another two years to get there.
In New Jersey, the PTC installation got off to a slow start during the tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie. But Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office a year ago, made it a top priority, and the first-term Democrat announced late last month that NJ Transit would successfully qualify for the extension that would allow for the work to continue for another two years.
Initial announcements from NJ Transit for the full suspension of the Atlantic City Line and the sidelining of the Raritan Valley Line off-peak direct trains indicated both of those changes would only be temporary, with things going back to normal after the new year.
But when asked last week if there was any new information about the end of the service changes, NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said the agency’s planners are “evaluating the schedule for restoring regular service to the Atlantic City Rail Line and other lines as soon as possible.”
Local officials not happy
NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett was asked about the suspended services during a late December news conference when it was becoming clear the state would be able to meet the 2018 deadline. He suggested at the time that it wouldn’t be as simple as just putting the trains back on the tracks.
“We have to work with labor, assign crews and make sure that when we ramp up, that’s something that is sustainable as well,” Corbett said.
Still, not having even a firm date for when full rail service could be resumed is not making public officials happy in the Atlantic City area or in the dozens of communities that are served by the Raritan Valley Line.
In fact, officials from the Raritan Valley Line Mayors Alliance, a group that for years has been pushing for full-time direct service into New York on that line, sent a letter to Corbett on January 2 to press their case for service to be resumed and even expanded in the future.
“As representatives of more than 23,000 daily commuters on the RVL, we are anxious to confirm the date when the off-peak morning and evening direct trains into NY will be back on the schedule,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, NJ Transit also received a letter from state Assemblymen John Armato and Vince Mazzeo, both (D-Atlantic) that called on agency officials to hold a public meeting in the region as soon as possible to update residents.
“We call on NJ Transit to not only announce a formal reopening date, but hold a true public information meeting in Atlantic County to make sure (a) new operating schedule is properly distributed to riders,” Armato said. “Our commuters deserve nothing less than to be informed and assured when their daily lives will return to normal.”