Lawmakers hold hearing on Penn Station track repairs

Transit officials delivered promising reports a week and a half into Amtrak’s repairs.

By Andrew Schmertz

In a summer of delays, derailments and dire predictions the word from Trenton was, well, so far not so bad.

“For New Jersey rail commuters the summer from hell has not been quite as hot as expected, although we have over seven weeks to go,” said Legislative Oversight Committee Sen. Bob Gordon.

One and a half weeks after sweeping work began at New York’s Penn Station by Amtrak, lawmakers from the Senate and the Assembly heard from those in charge of getting the tracks fixed. On the hot seat, Amtrak’s head of east coast operations, Michael Decalitido. He said the eight week emergency work is not only on schedule, but may be finished early.

“We are now two weeks into the infrastructure renewal program at Penn Station. We have had a promising start without significant service issues or disruptions and we’re looking forward to making significant progress on addressing some of the astounding issues,” Decalitido said.

NJ Tansit is redirecting some trains away from Penn Station, encouraging passengers to take the PATH, extra buses and additional ferries, which they say is working.

“At one and half weeks into Amtrak’s extensive emergency repair work at Penn Station New York, NJ Transit’s summer schedule is working,” NJ Transit Executive Director Stephen Santoro said.

Lawmakers say they are learning key lessons about New Jersey’s commuting habits. So far, PATH trains have been able to handle more passengers than originally thought and that increased ferry service on the Hudson River has been a hit with passengers.

But not all’s well on the rails. While NJ Transit praised most employees, Santoro threw the train’s union under the bus. Management says since the emergency work began, 59 trains have been cancelled because engineers either called out sick or took unscheduled vacation days. On one day alone, Santoro said, 26 trains had to be cancelled. That had lawmakers calling for the railroad to take swift action.

“We’re talking about people not showing up to work and screwing the passengers of NJ Transit in the process. Is that what we’re talking about director? … And you can’t fire them, right?” asked Sen. Joe Kryillos.

“They go through a disciplinary process if they have an unexcused absence,” Santoro said.

In a statement, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said, “management has portrayed its locomotive engineers in a negative light by blaming them for recent manpower shortages … Since track work began … many engineers have worked on their scheduled days off and have come to work early and stayed late in order to do their part.” Further, the union says the railroad needs to hire more engineers.

While lawmakers appear generally pleased with how the summer repair work was going, they were not pleased with some of the answers that NJ Transit was not providing.  Specifically, the Assembly Judiciary Committee intends to subpoena NJ Transit for documents relating the summer plans, fares and possible patronage. So this may continue to be a long, hot summer for NJ Transit.

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