NJ Transit faces angry commuters at monthly board meeting

Angry rail riders and advocates packed a monthly NJ Transit board meeting and vented about the “epidemic” of canceled trains, partly caused by locomotives taken out of service to install the positive train control safety system. But the agency also blamed some engineers for unexcused absences.

“They wake up and it’s a beautiful day and they say, ‘Yeah. I’m going to go to the beach today and not show up and run the train like I was supposed to,'” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

Corbett — who was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy with the expressed mission of reforming an agency Murphy called a “disgrace” — explained NJ Transit lost almost 50 engineers during the Christie administration through failure to recruit and train new staff. He said most engineers are great employees, but blamed what he called an irresponsible element for most unplanned train cancellations.

“We have collective bargaining agreements. We expect to live by the agreements. Why people don’t show up and play hooky, realizing the impact they’re having on people by doing that? Unexcused absence to me is totally unacceptable in my personal life,” Corbett said.

The engineers union did not respond to a request for comment. Corbett said nine new engineers are in the pipeline and extra classes will begin training soon. NJ Transit also said it’s more than halfway toward its goal to install PTC gear and train staff. But riders tired of getting stranded and they want more information.

“When you reduce the amount of mobility that you dole out to us who depend on your transit as if we were welfare recipients whose benefits you could reduce at will, you interfere with our lives and that is absolutely unacceptable,” said David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition.

Mary Migacz complained her train from Rahway has been canceled six times over the past three weeks, forcing her to wait almost two and a half hours total.

“In that amount of time, I could have flown to Florida,” she said. “In addition, we get no notifications regarding cancellations. The transit emails I used to get have been gone. I’m getting nothing anymore.”

“Let me assure you that I have felt your pain. Over the last week or so we have not been able to offer the level of service that we had planned for during our PTC installation,” Corbett said.

NJ Transit’s not planning any fare refunds. Meanwhile, the board unanimously approved a $2.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2019 — a modest $98 million increase. There’s no fare hike, but it depends on moving $511 million from NJ Transit’s capital budget to fund operations — a practice Murphy had wanted to reverse.

“If that shift had not occurred, the budget would be a paltry 2 percent increase. This is the same stuff the last administration did. It needs to change,” said former planning director for the Long Island Rail Road, Joseph Clift.

“We actually did get the money we intended. We just had to move things around a little differently to get to the same place. So Gov. Murphy is doing the best he can to deliver on his promises,” said Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez Scaccetti.

For now, NJ Transit’s focused on getting PTC installed by the Dec. 31 deadline. It will look at possible contingencies to improve service this fall.

“You’ll start seeing summer vacation come over, more engineers, but there’s no magic wand to get us through December,” Corbett said.

NJ Transit’s asking riders for patience, saying everyone will get a safer railroad at the end of the line. But apparently getting there is going to be a very unpredictable ride.