Legislators take transportation officials to task over NJ Transit performance

Lawmakers took a step toward easing hiring requirements for new engineers but today chastised transportation officials for moving too slowly to fix looming crises like critical staff shortages and for failing to properly alert commuters about cancellations and interrupted service on NJ Transit trains.

“You need to get ahead of the communications, not react to it,” Sen. Loretta Weinberg admonished, “and if you’re going to cancel something, it’d be good to talk to people before you do it. Not meet with them, when they’re already angry.”

“I feel a lot more like a firefighter than I do like a commissioner of transportation. We have one fire after another. And we keep trying to get them all under control,” said DOT commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

Transit officials gave the same answers. It needs to take trains out of service to install the Positive Train Control safety braking system, and that it’s revised schedules and pushed contractors to make the December 31st federal deadline. And agency officials again told the joint Transportation Committee the critical shortage of engineers remains the primary cause of unexpected cancellations. Republicans, who said little while the Christie administration starved the agency, complained.

“It seems as if engineers, for whatever reason, call in and cancel and that seems to contribute to cancellations of trains, despite this good working relationships,” said Republican leader, Asm. Jon Bramnick. “And I now understand that is an issue transit is going to look at.”

“I don’t feel it’s a job action or that kind of thing. I think it’s a habit where before they were able to get away with that … when there was always a bench. This summer we went below critical mass,” responded NJ Transit’s executive director Kevin Corbett.

NJ Transit officials again explained, it’s suffering a net loss of 48 engineers since last year. It takes 291 engineers to staff the trains daily and NJ Transit has 334 on board, and more will be retiring. Four new classes are training now but engineers require 20 months of education.

“You have to be a lot more proactive. It seems almost unconscionable with the type of salaries we’re talking about, we’re here bemoaning the fact we can’t get help. It’s beyond scandalous,” said Asm. Thomas Giblin.

A residency requirement restricts NJ Transit’s ability to hire from outside the state. The agency has asked for a waiver and the governor today urged “… Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin to swiftly send me stand-alone legislation permanently lifting residency requirements for mission essential NJ Transit employees …” Coughlin said in a statement, “We are committed to doing everything we can to help New Jersey commuters, including passing legislation to address the understaffing of NJ Transit.”

However, Senate President Sweeney said the Employee Residency Review Committee has the authorities to waive residency requirements, and he urged the committee to exercise that authority immediately.

Republican Sen. Tom Kean has sponsored a stand-alone bill.

“If we had a broader pool of engineers who were already trained we could actually meet the demands that commuters need,” explained Sen. Kean.

Meanwhile, the conductors union told lawmakers they are also critically understaffed, by some 250 people, and that their members are getting attacked by angry riders who blame them for bad service.

“The passengers are the ones putting us in hospitals over their anger over the lack of service,” said Stephen Burkert, the general chairman of the conductors union. “I’ve had two female conductors physically thrown off trains by angry commuters.”

“There’s one conclusion we reached today: we have to hire more workers. We have to get more engineers, we have get more conductors,” said the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Patrick Diegnan.

Everybody agrees NJ Transit needs more engineers and fast. Getting them will apparently require more political negotiations.