NJ Transit resumes full rail schedule, riders want mask enforcement

NJ Transit rolled back to full service this week offering a complete roster of rush hour trains. It’s the main ride for many commuters in Plainfield — a town that’s 30% blue collar. But some felt uneasy about people not masking up.

“I mean, at first you were nervous because of everything that’s going on,” said rider David Serrano. “What I seen on the train, I think most of them they wear the mask.”

“I’d say 25% of the people [don’t wear a mask on the train],” said Javier Portillo, a passenger in Plainfield. “Sometimes they wear the mask on the neck.”

In suburban Westfield, an almost-empty parking lot and just a few rail riders greeted the morning rush. In the affluent town many can afford to work from home. Commuters who did climb aboard, like law student Esteban Flores, said they didn’t have much choice.

“I mean, I feel as comfortable as I can knowing there’s a worldwide pandemic. But I feel comfortable knowing everyone is being responsible and that the people working the trains are doing the best they can,” Flores said.

NJ Transit’s plastered stations with red signs listing the safety rules. A few people on Twitter complained about noncompliance.

NJ Transit Director of Media Relations James Smith explained.

“If you’re not willing to abide by the requirements and wear the face coverings while on board, then you have to leave that vehicle,” said Smith.

Jerome Johnson heads the conductor’s union.

“We can’t enforce that. That’s not our job,” he said. “Assaults are going up because we’re trying to enforce people to follow the executive order by the governor. But it’s not our job to police that, but we have to protect ourselves and the passengers. So what do we do? We’re in a conundrum.”

Agency spokesmen say conductors can call transit police, if necessary. But passengers can only text NJ Transit if they see riders or conductors without masks. Johnson acknowledged some conductors defy the order requiring masks on board.

“The executive order goes for us too, and we have to adhere to it. And I’m imploring to all our members to adhere to it; wear your mask inside and out,” Johnson said.

With ridership off 90% since the lockdown, NJ Transit’s closely watching commuters’ slow-motion return to work, ready to tweak.

“What will the new normal look like? We’ll be monitoring that in terms of what does that traditional peak hour, rush hour look like when we’re back to full ridership. Has that shifted? Are more people working from home?” asked Smith.

“I think we can do it safely. Realizing that more trains are going to have to run and we may have to increase our travel time. We may have to board earlier in order to get to work on time,” said Dr. Judith Lightfoot, chief of infectious disease at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Advocates don’t expect to see many NJ Transit riders return to mass transit for perhaps weeks as offices may not be set up for social distancing.

“But there’s also other factors: camps, child care, school, providing people with the ability to actually physically return to the office, if in fact it is a viable option,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Director of New Jersey Policy Janna Chernetz.

For now, NJ Transit’s relying on federal grants to replace lost revenues from scarce ridership, but a budget reckoning is at the end of the line.