Legislators hear testimony on positive train control, Gateway Tunnel in joint session

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Almost one year after the fatal NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken, lawmakers observed a moment of silence. But NJ Transit’s Executive Director Steve Santoro told the Senate Legislative Oversight and Assembly Judiciary Joint Committee there’s still no definitive answer on what caused the morning commuter train to slam into the station, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.

“The investigation continues, and under NTSB rules, NJ Transit is strictly prohibited from commenting on any aspect of the investigation, including the cause, or potential cause, of the accident,” said Santoro.

Santoro said the National Transportation Safety Board will release a report in February 2018. The engineer in the crash has been diagnosed as suffering from sleep apnea. He further noted that NJ Transit’s tested 350 of its 370 engineers for the disorder, which can make operators drowsy. NJ Transit staff also said it will meet the federal deadline to implement positive train control, a safety feature to automatically slow speeding trains despite initial problems with its contractor, Parsons.

“We’ve had the funding and we’ve had the staff to deliver it from our standpoint,” said Eric Daleo, assistant executive director for NJ Transit.

Santoro also offered to provide numbers showing how many engineers have left or retired to address concerns of staff shortages. Meanwhile, lawmakers asked experts about the Gateway train tunnel project under the Hudson, worried about what could happen if even one of the two existing tunnels damaged by Sandy flooding failed before a new tunnel is built.

“We could lose 75 percent of our trans-Hudson rail capacity. Instead of 24 NJ Transit and Amtrak trains during rush hour, we would be down to six. We would be facing commuter Armageddon,” said Sen. Bob Gordon, the chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee.

Advocates pointed to the unusually active and destructive hurricane season and said the current tunnels represent a single point of potential failure that could have a catastrophic impact.

“You have a very unpredictable player in here, and that is Mother Nature,” according to Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “It’s really only a matter of time until we are affected by that.”

“No engineer can say with certainty when the tunnel may become so unreliable that it cannot sustain the level of service we enjoy today. We are literally in a race against time,” said John Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corporation.

“Every single year that we delay building Gateway adds roughly $1 billion to the cost of the project. Every month we delay adds $100 million to the cost of the project,” said Regional Plan Association President Tom Wright.

Lawmakers also wanted more details about plans to replace or repair the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The Port Authority is expected to unveil a plan Thursday.