A new audit of NJ Transit’s rail operations echoes previous dim assessments of the state’s chief mass transit system, showing it to be behind schedule and over budget on an important safety initiative and beset by delayed and canceled trains, many of them due to preventable causes.
The study, conducted by State Auditor Stephen M. Eells, under the Office of Legislative Services, examined the period from July of 2016 through October of last year. It was sent last week to Gov. Phil Murphy, as well as his fellow Democrats Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).
NJ Transit is facing a federal deadline for the end of this year to get Positive Train Control up and operating — a satellite-monitored safety braking system that is already well behind its original schedule. But the audit notes contractor software issues have delayed field tests with ticketed passengers by several months and questions whether the agency’s PTC work will be done by deadline.
“Despite a number of deadline extensions for implementation and contract change orders, at this time it is debatable whether NJT will meet the PTC full implementation deadline of December 31, 2020,” according to the audit.
The audit also showed project costs have jumped to $500 million — more than double the original budget. Auditors urged NJ Transit to “hold its consultants and contractor accountable for the failure to meet agreed upon project milestones” — and collect from contractors more than $9 million in outstanding penalties for delays.
Mass transit criticism
“NJT needs to do a better job of managing the contractors they bring in, and secondarily they need to have contracts that allow them to go after them with stiff penalties when they do fail to meet the deadlines,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “And the third thing here, NJ Transit should have the ability to do a lot of this work in-house.”
NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett says the agency is currently conducting tests on the PTC system and will beat the clock.
“We are holding the vendors’ feet to the fire. It’s a software issue, we’ve made a lot of progress on that,” he said. “We’re out testing. We’ve expanded our testing to the Gladstone line. We’re going to get to the Raritan Valley Line. We’re meeting the schedule, and we’re looking to actually accelerate it, but we fully expect to meet the deadline.”
Eells’ team also found that, over the 29 months from 2017 through May of last year, the on-time mark for NJ Transit trains ran at 91% overall, and 87% during prime commuting times. Of the more than 47,000 trains that were more than six minutes late, 38% “were due to circumstances that may have been preventable,” including one in five that were delayed or canceled because of manpower shortages.
Passengers were not surprised by the finding, which has been a frequent refrain of riders and lawmakers critical of the agency.
“They, like, cancel trains every time,” said Urooj Qamar of Iselin.
Goals for on-time trains
Corbett said NJ Transit is working to meet its on-time performance goal of 94.7% for all trains. It has hired 169 engineer trainees since 2018, and is purchasing new locomotives and rail cars to replace aging equipment, much of it more than 40 years old.
In a response to the audit that’s included with the report, Corbett said NJ Transit’s current administration was not primarily to blame for the manpower shortages and other delays deemed preventable.
“Each of these factors was aggravated over the past two years by a lack of strategic planning and underfunding by prior NJ Transit management,” he wrote. “The current management has taken steps to remedy the previous administration’s actions by placing an emphasis on hiring and training more engineers and conductors to alleviate the labor force shortage and investing in modernizing the rail fleet.”
Still, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a member of a select committee impaneled by Sweeney that’s investigating NJ Transit, criticized what she sees as an alarming lack of progress.
“The audit brings in questions about safety, about use of resources, about quality of life,” the Bergen County Democrat said.
Weinberg says NJ Transit bosses — including Corbett, appointed by Murphy in early 2018 — must be held to account by the agency’s newly bolstered board of directors. Four new members were confirmed this month, and two more are pending confirmation next month.
Weinberg said the board should “impress upon them that, ‘Here are the resources, you better get this problem solved.’ Or maybe it’s time for the governor to start looking at new senior management there.”
Weinberg says the select committee is examining several options to provide NJ Transit with a dedicated funding source, including raising New Jersey’s sales tax back up from 6.625% to 7%, a move that could generate an estimated half a billion dollars. Weinberg said she supported that proposal.
NJ Transit says it’ll have enough new engineers on board to ease the train cancellation problem by this summer, even as it pushes to meet that PTC deadline.