Lack of Engineers, Summer Schedule Create NJ Transit Frustration

Transportation advocates say focus should be put back on riders, who have already endured two summers of challenges

The 218 train from Montclair that usually runs straight to New York Penn Station pulled into Hoboken. It’s one of 10 peak-hour trains redirected by NJ Transit’s summer schedule. Commuters scrambled for connections.

“There’s not enough trains. We’re waiting a long time, and a lot of times we’re running to catch one. You have to time it just right from the PATH to this train,” said Montclair commuter Catherine Connolly.

Aggravation grows when riders rushing to connect with PATH trains in Hoboken discover that it’s standing-room-only on some of them.

“It’s been terrible, at least for the PATH trains. They were really crowded and always have some problem, especially when it rains,” said Jersey City commuter Xim Ping. “Like every day, you don’t know whether you can pick up your kids, you can go to school, you can go to work on time. It’s really not good for the riders.”

Transportation advocates say riders have already endured two so-called Summers of Hell to accommodate Amtrak track repairs at New York Penn Station on top of NJ Transit’s systemwide service disruption last year to enable installation of the Positive Train Control, or PTC, safety system.

“They’re coming off the heels of the PTC deadline, which customers were asked to just hold on and this was going to make it better for them. I really think there needs to be a return to the focus on the customer,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“I think they could’ve squeezed down the Northeast Corridor and the [North Jersey] Coast Line and kept the Montclair trains going into New York. I think they did the easy out, which is to move people to Hoboken and the folks then have to take PATH in. They lose 20, 30 minutes on each end of their trip,” said Joseph Clift, former director of planning for the Long Island Rail Road.

New engineers, but not enough

NJ Transit officials insist they’ve tried to keep riders informed ahead of the unexpected curves. They’ve added yellow-vested ambassadors to guide folks through the maze of connections. At a news conference Thursday, they touted 47 percent fewer canceled trains in the first quarter of this year compared to 2018. They’ve recruited 150 new engineers, but only a handful have graduated so far. This summer, engineers are calling out, again. Most are refusing to work their scheduled days off due to a contract dispute.

“I know a lot of them personally and they’re great people, but there are a few who, if they decide it’s a nice day, [decide] not to show up. That’s a problem,” NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett said.

Cancellations have spiked. A $50-million budget boost will help fund union contracts, fix broken doors, seats, bathrooms and air conditioners, and replace an often-unintelligible public address system.

“It’s very frustrating, so it’s going to be important for us to make that a priority so people can clearly understand the message. And that’s half of our problem, maybe more than that. If people understand what we’re telling them, and we’re giving them good info, humans make great decisions,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

Transit officials say real relief won’t come until more engineering classes graduate and come on board. That won’t be until next year at the earliest.