More engineers coming for NJ Transit, but will it be enough?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

The governor himself offered cheers and congrats for 12 budding NJ Transit locomotive engineers who just passed their classroom studies, but still need weeks of final training on their railroad lines. To celebrate pre-graduates underscores how crucial the dozen students are for an agency so painfully understaffed it regularly cancels trains for lack of engineers much to the riding public’s deep frustration. It’s a hot spotlight.

“It’s exciting, I can definitely say that. I’ve never had a job where it was so public and so out there, but in a sense it does give me even more pride to say I’m proud to be a NJ Transit engineer,” said Chris Jefferson.

Jefferson left a career in banking to enroll in the railroad’s 17-month training program. He’s part of the first of four current engineer classes due to graduate this year. NJ Transit now fields just 330 active engineers after years of starvation budgets and stalled hiring. It needs well over 400 for the railroad to run without interruptions from staffing shortages. Phil Yucis jumped at the chance to drive a train instead of a concrete truck.

“It’s good job security, obviously, they need us right now. So I did the change, and it’s well worth it,” said Yucis.

“I think every transit organization does go through those ups and downs, and I think we’re on an upswing right now, actually,” said engineer trainee Amanda Regan.

“Once these folks fully graduate, we need them out serving commuters and customers. We cannot risk having them offline for one more day,” said Gov. Phil Murphy. “Properly-staffed rail means fewer unscheduled cancellations. It means giving our commuters faith that their trains will come when we say they will. And that they will be able to get to work, or school, and home again, when they need to.”

The 12 will graduate for real after Memorial Day but won’t make much of a dent in the staffing deficit. Meanwhile, the governor’s proposed budget contains only $25 million in new spending for NJ Transit. Critics like Sen. Loretta Weinberg say the agency’s new labor contracts alone total $35 million, putting it $10 million in the hole.

“It’s already a $10 million shortfall,” said Weinberg. “I would hope that the heads of NJ Transit and DOT become advocates.”

“We certainly will manage whatever resources we get. Obviously there’s not a single head of a transit agency in the country who wouldn’t like to have more money than less. But I think the governor, I certainly trust his judgment in getting us through the budget process,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

The governor said he would “absolutely” budget more money for NJ Transit, if required. Advocacy group New Jersey Working Families promised to be out on train platforms later this week to promote a controversial tax increase to solve the funding dilemma.

“What we need is more revenue. We need to actually give NJ Transit the money it needs. And because of limitations within the NJ budget, we desperately need a millionaire’s tax,” said New Jersey Working Families Communications Director Robert Duffey.

NJ Transit officials say don’t expect any real relief until the end of the year. That’s when the agency will have added more than 100 new engineers.