By Brenda Flanagan
“NJ Transit is at a critical juncture and we have issues to address,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro.
NJ Transit’s brand new boss described an agency that’s under-funded and understaffed — plagued by breakdowns and accidents. In testimony before a joint legislative committee investigating NJ Transit in the wake of the deadly Hoboken train crash, Santoro listed multiple safety violations identified by a federal inspection of NJ Transit this spring. They include unauthorized use of personal cell phones while on duty, lack of proper emergency tools on trains, improper testing of train brakes and failure to blow the horn at railroad crossings.
“These findings are unacceptable,” Santoro said. “We now know that our customers — you and our customers — are rightly focused on safety.”
Santoro said NJ Transit’s working to address the deficiencies. His promotion to executive director came just two weeks after the Hoboken accident and he angered the joint committee by not bothering to show up for its first meeting. Santoro chose to meet with Federal Railroad Administration officials instead.
“I will take responsibility for not contacting you earlier. I apologize for that as well,” Santoro said.
He went on to explain cash-strapped NJ Transit’s been spending capital improvement money just to pay its bills and the agency needs to fill 245 vacancies — many of them critical to safety. Assemblyman John McKeon grilled Santoro over what he called 10 highly paid patronage positions, like the $147,000 job created for former Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who had no transportation experience.
“You know what? The whistleblowers are out there. They work for NJ Transit and they’re dispirited by the many new titles and unqualified hires. This committee needs to know what tools you need to have, so that this governor or any other future governor doesn’t politically interfere by placing top management with individuals frankly who don’t have resumes that bespeak the honor of that fine transit agency that you now head,” McKeon said.
Sen. Bob Gordon questioned NJ Transit’s accident rate — 157 incidents over the past five years, three times as many as the Long Island Rail Road. He asked about inadequate maintenance and staff shortages.
“The impression one gets from the outside is that this is an organization filled with good people, but has been starved for resources, and they’re unable to run the railroad the way they would like to,” Gordon said.
Santoro said staff shortages have hurt NJ Transit across the entire operation. Old trains need to be replaced or overhauled. He explained the agency recently found problems with rail yard tracks, switches and human error. While it’s deployed new technology to help conductors and engine control switches.
“What we need to do more is hire more rail managers,” Santoro said. “As we see retirees leaving the railroad, we need to replace them, and we haven’t been replacing them quickly enough.”
NJ Transit today called Drewniak “a long-time public servant with statewide experience who has managed complex issues and is a good communicator.” McKeon meanwhile promised to subpoena information about patronage hires.