NJ Transit again under fire in wake of rush hour snafu at Penn Station

NJ Transit administrators once again came under fire at a public meeting Friday — the day after yet another night of massive delays for commuters, this one coming when one of its trains ran a red light under Penn Station.

A spokesman for the beleaguered mass transit agency said an investigation was being conducted to determine why the train, with passengers aboard, ran through the signal, setting off a five-hour disruption in service, the latest in a series of delays at the busy terminal in midtown Manhattan.

“Last night we had an operating rules violation in the terminal, right at the height of the rush hour,” said Ray Kenny, senior vice president and head of rail operations, at Friday’s meeting of the NJ Transit board’s Operations and Customer Service Committee. “We had to stop the train in place, to be sure everything could be moved safely. There were customers on the train. The train was partially platformed. The customers were removed from the train. And then we were able to get the train into the station.”

In its Twitter feed the night before, the agency had said the delays were the result of a “signal issue.”

Among those on hand for Friday morning was commuter Norm Sutaria, whose demand for answers about the delays at Penn Thursday evening prompted Kenny’s report.

“My spouse was deeply affected by that,” he said. “There’s an economic and human impact for when these events occur.”

The meeting had been prescheduled, and topping the agenda was a report by Stewart Mader, NJ Transit’s chief customer experience officer and customer advocate, who’s been targeted recently by critics who say he represents the agency more than its riders.

Mader did not address the snafu at New York Penn the night before, instead forging ahead with his presentation, which touted improved performance statistics for January, and featured compliments the agency had received from riders.

“The crew is amazing. Everyone is so positive. Announcements are not only helpful, but fun!” one read.

Among the trustees present for the meeting was the newly confirmed Cedrick Fulton, one of a contingent of new blood on the board that’s been given the mission of holding the agency accountable for its promises to boost on-time rates and institute other improvements.

“This is good, but I need a way to talk about last night. How do we do that?” he said.

He and others hit hard on the theme of improving the agency’s communication with riders, especially during service disruptions.

“I like the trends here, but I really would like to see us come up with a way to focus on those big outages,” Fulton said. “At least you can then begin to think about how to communicate to people what’s going on. And that’s what people want most. They want some level of confidence and assurance that the folks that run these organizations have a plan.”

Former state legislator Bob Gordon is another newly-confirmed board member.He challenged the implication of Mader’s on-time reports, saying that averages don’t accurately convey poor peak-hour performance at Penn Station.

“One late train every other day,” he said. “This is why people are pissed off.”

Gordon said he wants more in-depth data, and also for the agency to talk frankly to riders.

“Sometimes, you just have to walk into the hornet’s nest, and make yourself available to people and hear them out, and explain what you’re doing, and at least convey the idea that we know we have to fix this,” he said.

One transit advocate suggested that counting commuters instead of individual trains could dramatically change performance numbers.

“If you have 1,300 people on a peak hour-train, and 100 people on an off-peak train, that train gets counted the same way,” said Joe Clift, a former planning director for the Long Island Rail Road. “So you’re under-counting the number of people that are delayed tremendously.”

Sutaria also hit the communication theme, perhaps channeling the frustrations of legions of fellow NJ customers.

“What’s NJ Transit’s game plan? Do they communicate that game plan to riders ahead of time?” he said, adding: “We just need clarity as customers, as riders, as users who rely on your transit system.”