NJ Transit canceled 10 trains Monday morning — to commuters’ ongoing aggravation. But, Gov. Phil Murphy found something real to celebrate as the agency works to meet federal deadlines for installing the positive train control safety system.
“I am proud to announce that installation of positive train control in the required 282 locomotives and cab cars, and wayside installations along 326 miles of track is now done,” Murphy said, as a crowd applauded at an event hosted at the NJ Transit Maintenance Complex in Kearny.
An astonishing graphic showed how the agency went from 12 percent to 100 percent of its goals in the first year of the Murphy administration. They met the 2018 deadline with only days to spare — a minor miracle managed only by taking multiple trains out of service, including the entire Atlantic City line. It was that, or else, said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.
“What many of our customers may not know, in addition to facing significant daily fines for failing to meet our year-end requirements and damage to our reputation, there was a real possibility that we would not have been able to operate service on Jan. 1,” Corbett said.
Murphy again blamed the prior Christie administration that, he said, “dragged” the process “interminably.”
“I think ‘dragged’ may be too charitable a verb. Commuter safety took a back seat to cronyism. Service and reliability were sacrificed for, frankly, no good reason,” Murphy said.
So what now? NJ Transit’s got two more years to finish installing PTC on another 150 railcars and then test the system. There’s no telling when service on the Atlantic City line will resume. For now, riders will notice only incremental progress.
“It’s not a magic moment. There isn’t, tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock are you going to have a dramatic difference,” Murphy said.
Meanwhile, four locomotive engineer classes will graduate next year and hopefully ease cancellations due to staff shortages. But, there’s no guarantee those new engineers will work for NJ Transit — which pays less than other commuter railroads in the region.
“What we’re doing is working to improve the graduation rate of those classes, certainly giving them the encouragement to work for NJ Transit. I don’t necessarily think they’d come for the training we’re offering if they didn’t intend to work for us, so I’m very hopeful,” said New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
The agency’s looking to hire former Long Island Rail Road chief Ray Kenny as its rail operations vice president. Funding remains a problem that Murphy needs to solve.
“There’s got to be a way that operating expenses are paid for — and not out of the capital moneys of NJ Transit — and that there’s enough capital money available to do the things that NJ Transit needs,” said founding director of the Alan Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, Martin Robins.
“On funding, I think Diane and I are having a broad transportation funding sit down this afternoon and we’re in early stages on our budget, so it’s too early to tell, but we didn’t come this far to now walk away,” Murphy said.
So NJ Transit gets two extra years to finish installing and testing positive train control. Its biggest challenge will be winning back the confidence of its customers.