Murphy addresses NJ Transit issues on first day back from vacation

He’s deeply sympathetic, but Gov. Phil Murphy admitted Thursday he can’t immediately cure NJ Transit’s recent plague of delayed and canceled trains. He explained the agency’s struggling with such an extreme shortage of engineers that it can barely staff operations, and that many of the cancellations come from unscheduled absences when engineers call out.

“Like everything else, there’s a small population who are spoiling it for the broader population,” Murphy said. “As to these instances, our administration is making it known that we need and expect everyone to report to their jobs as scheduled.”

“The great majority of engineers are responsible. They’ve been working, a lot of them doing voluntary overtime they don’t necessarily need,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett. “The union leadership has sent notice out to the rank and file they really need them to step up, and I would suspect the improved results that we’ve seen is in large part due to that effort.”

NJ Transit claims the number of call outs and cancellations is trending down from double to single digits.

NJ Transit Engineer Union General Chairman James Brown said in a statement, “Do some abuse the system? Absolutely. But it’s not all bad apples. Some are tired, or they’ve used up their sick days. We’re trying to get everyone to chip in extra — work their days off, which a lot of them are doing. But we are short engineers. It’s a hard problem to fix.”

Regardless, some train cancellations will continue to occur throughout the fall as the railroad rushes to install positive train control safety braking gear by a federally-mandated Dec. 31 deadline. Murphy promised NJ Transit will start posting those schedule changes on every platform.

“I think consumers appreciate the importance of PTC to ensuring their safety. They get that. I firmly believe if we’re simply up front with them about what service interruptions due to PTC implementation are, they’ll be understanding. But we’ve not done our side of the bargain. We have to make that effort,” Murphy said.

NJ Transit’s giving plenty of warning to riders on the Atlantic City rail line, which will be entirely suspended for PTC work starting in September. But rail riders on all lines have demanded better communication.

“That would be great if he could do that. At least it would help me to plan better. I could get up a little bit earlier,” said NJ Transit customer, Danielle.

“I’m going to give him a chance to see if it’s going to get resolved. Under the previous administration, it was worse,” said Carla Johnkeith, another NJ Transit customer.

It’s that previous, Christie administration, that Murphy blames for the current crisis, saying Christie starved NJ Transit, did little to install PTC, and stopped hiring and training new engineers. He clapped back at recent criticism over canceled trains by Republican lawmakers.

“We’re hearing it from our constituents. They’re angry at us. They’re angry at you. They’re angry because they can’t get to work,” Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz said Wednesday.

“We are climbing out of a deep hole after eight years of failure, in particular as it relates to NJ Transit, by the Christie administration. And I will just tell you, the hypocrisy of our friends on the other side of the aisle who have now chosen this moment in time to speak up is jaw-dropping after […] they sat on their hands for eight years and saw this organization ravaged,” Murphy said.

To which Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick replied, “The commuters are really mad. There’s insufficient information. … Don’t blame Republicans. You’re in charge.”

A legislative hearing to investigate the train cancellations has been scheduled for next week by Democrats.

Murphy said communication is key and he’s hoping NJ Transit can deliver information about canceled trains before passengers find themselves stranded on the platform.