Another rough summer likely for NJ Transit commuters

Sharon Florent vividly remembers last year’s NJ Transit “Summer of Hell” with its hundreds of late, crowded, and canceled trains and buses. Like many commuters she’s dreading this June, July and August.

“If there’s going to be another ‘Summer of Hell’ then I will avoid the train,” she said.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad,” lamented commuter James Graham, “So what are they trying to do? They trying to fix it up a little bit? Are they going to cut the prices?”

Expect another challenging summer aboard NJ Transit for many of the same reasons last year went south. Summer is when crazy-busy Penn Station — with its 1,200 trains a day from NJ Transit, Amtrak and the LIRR — gets track maintenance done and lines go out of service for repairs. Last year, Amtrak focused on a maze of intertwined tracks called A Interlocking. This summer, sources say, Amtrak will target C Interlocking on the station’s east side, which predominantly serves the LIRR.

“It’s more on the Long Island Rail Road side. But it’s still, because of the crunch, they’re going to be coming down to our territory with Amtrak. So we’re working very closely with them and should have fairly soon definitive restrictions on what they’re going to have there and the impacts. We’re working out schedules, all three of us,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

C Interlocking is also a conduit for 100 or more NJ Transit trains that use a Queens railroad junction to access Penn Station.

“What we don’t know about is, trains that come in and out of Sunnyside Yards, which is in Queens, they have to go through C Interlocking. And that could cause problems with the logistics in just getting trains set around and out to New Jersey where we need them,” said David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Commuter Coalition.

Meanwhile, NJ Transit’s still working on the positive train control safety breaking system, and it’s still short enough engineers to reliably drive the trains. It’s got six classes training more, but most of the new engineers won’t graduate until the fall. Last summer, NJ Transit blamed engineers for calling out on short notice creating cancellations. This summer, union boss Jim Brown foresees the same problems.

“I don’t know 100%, but I foresee delays and cancellations. Hopefully I’m wrong, but that’s what I see,” said Brown, who chairs the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Brown said federal safety rules prohibit engineers from working more than 12 hours without a break. That causes cancellations, too. But he asked NJ Transit not to blame the engineers.

“They were taking off their scheduled time, a lot of them, and a lot of them were working so much that they were taking off even more,” Brown said. “The riding public was getting very angry and some conductors and engineers were attacked verbally, and some physically.”

Riders are angry. NJ Transit’s twitter feed is replete with furious messages.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg routinely scans them and warned the agency that its much-hyped social media “war room” must keep commuters up to speed this summer. How?

“Planning more than five minutes ahead. And making sure the public you are supposed to be serving knows the upside and the downside of any given day and what their alternatives should be,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg sent NJ Transit a letter this week demanding to know if it had sufficient funds to operate efficiently and challenging new board nominees who will serve as advocates for the commuting public.

“I plan to be dealing with the Governor’s office and my own leadership on that issue so that we have more commuters, more regular commuters, on the board who actually know what’s going on,” she said.

Amtrak and NJ Transit say they’re still working out schedules. They’ll announce service changes within the next few weeks.