LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Joint Committee Meets About NJ Transit Safety

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

After a commuter train crashed in the Hoboken station in late September, killing one and injuring 100, a joint Senate-Assembly committee formed to find out why New Jersey Transit‘s safety record was eroding.

Just this past Sunday a train again went off the rail at Hoboken station — this time without injury.

Yesterday it was announced that passengers in an August bus accident in downtown Newark would share a $115 million settlement.

Also yesterday, a New Jersey Transit bus was caught on cell phone video going the wrong way on an exit ramp.

“New Jersey Transit, which was once an award-winning agency, now has the worst safety record and more breakdowns than any other major transit system in the country,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.

This was the third hearing the joint committee on New Jersey Transit’s performance. Much of today was focused on the new technology called positive train control.

After the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia a year and a half ago, officials explained that PTC would have automatically slowed that train down if it had been equipped. An Amtrak expert explained the technology.

“Amtrak has spent a little over $100 million to date on PTC. There’s three aspects of it — there’s a carbon part that goes on the locomotives, there’s a part that is on the wayside along the tracks that is interconnected with the signal system on the railroad and then there’s a back-office piece,” said Amtrak Senior Manager of Positive Train Control George Hartman.

An assemblyman who is a physicist asked why it’s taking so long.

“You describe some of the difficulties, but in the end technically it doesn’t sound particularly difficult. Google has a self-driving car,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker.

The expert blamed complicated federal rules.

“We were designing it, we were testing it and we were implementing it at the same time. Anybody who’s ever built anything knows that’s the worst thing you can do. You never do your R&D after you’ve done your installation,” Hartman said.

Amtrak is now virtually all converted to positive train control. New Jersey Transit says it will get there by December 2018, two years from now.

Congress mandated PTC back in 2008. An original 2015 deadline has been extended.

Advocates pleaded today for more dedicated funding for mass transit in New Jersey. Committee co-chair John McKeon agreed.

“New Jersey Transit has been sorely underfunded. Decisions were made to raise operating costs to historic levels, to take funds that normally went to capital and shift them to operating. It was a budget game and we’re now paying the price,” McKeon said.

The committee plans two more hearings, the next one in Bergen County to hear from commuters.