Joint hearing on transit plans offers no relief for rail commuters this summer

By Briana Vannozzi

Let’s start with the bad news. Despite efforts to minimize disruptions, commuters on nearly every NJ Transit rail line should anticipate delays this summer. How much and how long will depend on where you’re traveling. The head of the rail agency defended plans to reroute trains during New York Penn track repairs to a group of lawmakers this morning with the Morris & Essex line bearing the brunt of the pain, diverting customers on midtown direct lines to Hoboken where they’ll pick up ferries or the PATH. Today we learned that will add another 30 to 45 minutes to their commute.

“I want to understand the process and the communication as to the decision to just select the Morris & Essex line. Let me start with this: was that 100 percent NJ Transit’s doing?” asked Assemblyman John McKeon.

“The answer is yes,” NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoto said. “We looked at an option where every single midtown direct would be cancelled.”

To soften the blow, customers on that rail line will get a 50 to 63 percent fare reduction with cross-honoring of tickets. Santoro says that idea was a collaboration with the governor’s office. The summer repairs will close three of the station’s 21 tracks for eight weeks from July 10 to Sept. 1.

“If there’s a derailment at Penn Station similar to what we had before, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there’s going to be issues,” said Santoro.

During the peak morning rush, 7,400 Morris & Essex riders will be diverted to Hoboken. To accommodate, extra bus service will run from South Orange and the PATH plans to add lines for the increased riders. For their part, NJ Transit contends they’re doing the best with a situation that was out of their hands.

“So it wasn’t until all of these mishaps of the last couple of months of derailments that you became aware of what was really going on there?” asked Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

“That’s correct,” Santoro said.

Both the Christie administration and NJ Transit have found a foil in Amtrak, pointing fingers at their lack of communication over the degradation of tracks.

McKeon asked, “Is there information that you withhold from them?”

“No. In terms of condition of the railroad, we’re absolutely willing to share information regarding its current state. NJT understand our work program, which is the work we intend to do,” Amtrak COO Scot Naparstek said.

“Critical problems have arisen here and no one came forth to raise a red flag to anything about what was happening to this infrastructure,” Weinberg said.

It’s estimated the fare reductions and cross-honoring will cost roughly $15 million. NJ Transit says it plans to get the money from Amtrak. Amtrak says that’s not in their budget. And if you were hoping for good news at the end of this report, there isn’t any. Amtrak also announced repair plans on the LIRR slated for early 2018 are they’re expected to cause major rush hour disruptions.