Vincent Gordon may not look much like a cavalryman. But there he was in Kearny, one of a small group of men riding to the rescue of beleaguered NJ Transit rail passengers.
Gordon and his six colleagues graduated Wednesday from the transit agency’s training program for engineers, just days after it had to cancel a dozen trains because members of the existing and depleted ranks of train operators took off on Columbus Day, per their union contract.
On hand for the ceremony, and underscoring the importance of the milestone, was Gov. Phil Murphy, who has come under sharp criticism over the pace of progress in what has been billed as the rebuilding of the Garden State’s mass transit system.
“Getting you out of this building, past your final check ride and into a train cab will mean fewer unscheduled cancellations,” the first-term Democrat said. “It will mean getting people where they need to be when they need to be there.”
The graduates completed 20 months of training with dozens of tests, a rigorous process that whittled their ranks significantly. It’s the second class of engineers joining NJ Transit this year, bringing the total number of new operators to 19. The trainees need to complete a few more weeks of fieldwork before they can get to work.
NJ Transit officials say they need a staff of 400 qualified engineers to avoid service interruptions. The current complement is 343. The shortfall was tied to retirements and NJ Transit engineers leaving for more competitive pay elsewhere.
“The last administration, among other sins committed in and around NJ Transit, allowed that pool of engineers to dwindle to the point where there was almost no degree of freedom as we came into office,” Murphy said.
Gordon said he applied multiple times before getting accepted to the program.
“I’ve had family that’s worked out here for a very long time,” he said. “There’s been the better years, there’s been the bad years, there’s been the better years, that happens with any company.”
Building the bench takes time, officials say. Gordon’s class started with 20 aspiring train operators.
“Some people find it very tough, it’s like becoming an airline pilot,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s president and CEO. “So if we get seven to 10 in a class graduating, we’re doing alright.”
The graduates seemed to understand the critical nature of the place they were taking with a troubled agency.
“It’s exciting to be part of this solution here,” said trainee Robert Braun Jr. “Obviously, tt’s a known fact that we’re short on engineers and have been for a few years now.”
Gordon echoed the sentiment.
“It starts with some of us,” he said. “But it also starts with other classes, conductors. It starts with the trainers, it starts with the programs. Everything is falling into place and getting a lot better.”
By early 2020 the agency says it will have roughly 100 new engineers, with eight training classes running back to back.