Sweeney: NJ Transit and engineers should resolve labor dispute

While NJ Transit rail riders have endured a frustrating summer of scaled back service, Amtrak workers at New York Penn Station have labored on a complex track junction called JO Interlocking. They’re replacing all the switches that bridge tracks 14, 15 and 16. Spokesperson Jason Abrams said Wednesday that the $30 million project remains on schedule to finish Sept. 2.

“Specifically we have removed and upgraded various parts of the infrastructure — rail, ties, switches, panels, ballast, which is the rocks underneath the track — and are making necessary adjustments,” said Abrams.

With tracks barricaded for work all summer, Metro North, the LIRR and NJ Transit have had to adjust schedules. But NJ Transit’s been canceling 100 trains a week, twice the rate of its sister railroads, according to an NJ.com survey.

It’s the third year Amtrak shut down tracks to perform summer maintenance, and it probably won’t be the last. It’s also not the primary reason that NJ Transit trains are getting canceled.

NJ Transit often blames cancellations on engineer availability. It’s true the agency’s desperately understaffed with five new engineer classes in progress. But sources say the cancellation of trains is more due to NJ Transit’s violation of the collective bargaining agreement and unhappy engineers not working their relief days. Senate President Steve Sweeney Wednesday urged them to talk.

“I think both sides really have to come together and resolve this, because Brenda this is not fair to the commuter that’s expecting to get to work day in and day out. And they’re paying their fair share and everything else. We’ve increased funding to NJ Transit this year to make sure that there’s more engineers and operators to try and take care of this. But this can’t continue to go on like this because at the end of the day the commuter is your client, your customer, and you’re not treating your customers well when you say, ‘Hell with it. I’m just going to take off anyway,'” Sweeney said.

NJ Transit responded that it “… adheres to its collective bargaining agreement with the Unions that represent our locomotive engineers. If the unions have an issue, there is a formal process to resolve disputes. We know our engineers continue to take pride in the service they provide to the public, while we diligently address the current engineer shortage that resulted from almost a decade of underfunding by the prior administration.”

NJ Transit’s service will improve somewhat when Amtrak finishes summer repairs and the agency returns to regular schedules Sept. 6. But it won’t be until the end of the year that enough new engineers graduate to bring staff levels up to what’s required for reliable service.