TRANSPORTATION

Slate of cancellations causing a hellish summer for some NJ Transit riders

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Ticked off NJ Transit riders tell stories of ghost trains. Seven disappeared Tuesday morning and 20 didn’t show up Monday. NJ Transit calls these dozens of cancellations over the past couple weeks “annulled” trains. The agency blames an engineer shortage, mechanical breakdowns and trains taken out of service to be outfitted with federally-mandated positive train control safety gear. Rail riders blame NJ Transit.

“Yesterday was one of the first times that the train was canceled on me when I came here. And I sat here for 25 minutes annoyed,” said customer Jody Saltzman.

“They don’t cancel my trains, but they cancel the trains before me, so then it’s like sardines in the train and it’s very uncomfortable. Some of the air conditioning doesn’t work. It’s like a sauna,” said commuter Olivia Schiffer.

The beleaguered agency does tweet as soon as a train’s canceled, but the information’s too late and incomplete to be of much help, riders complain.

“They let us know that it’s canceled, but they don’t tell us why. In this day and age we want detail. We want to be able to plan ahead and understand why or what we can do. Like, is it going to be late tomorrow also? Is this a long-term thing?” asked NJ Transit customer Josh Timari. “Because we’re paying them the money so they can run the trains.”

Unlike last year’s much-publicized “summer of hell” when NJ Transit planned for service interruption and provided extra PATH trains, buses and ferries, this summer descended into transit chaos with no apparent backup plan, critics say.

“There was the contingency plan for the summer of hell, but it turns out that this is truly the summer of hell. So it’s time to dust those plans off and start implementing them because this is just not acceptable,” said Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

NJ Transit notes in a statement that it’s “recruiting and training additional locomotive engineers … increased the number of current classes from two to four” and “will add nine engineers to the roster” within a week, adding, “the previous Administration’s failure to adequately fund NJ Transit has resulted in the significant challenges we face today.”

The agency says it’s completed 52 percent of its PTC projects — up from just 13 percent — over the past three months. But it’s canceled service on the Atlantic City line and a one-seat ride on the Raritan Valley line to make deadline.

“Because of the planning, the poor planning from prior administrations, the commuter’s the one who’s paying the price with the cancellations,” Chernetz said.

NJ Transit faces a hard deadline of Dec. 31 for installing positive train control. And now Republicans, angry at all the cancellations, are pushing for public hearings.

“You get vague answers, you don’t get direct answers. This is not an administration problem. This is a pervasive problem that’s been going on for years,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

Munoz says NJ Transit resisted legislative efforts to compel transparency during the Christie administration, when chronic underfunding starved the agency. Despite a $140 million funding increase this year, it’s still looking to transfer $511 million from its capital budget for daily operations — a maneuver Gov. Phil Murphy has previously criticized. He ordered an audit of NJ Transit records in January. That report’s still pending.

“We shouldn’t find out at the station that your train’s been canceled. We should find out ahead of time,” Munoz said.

“It’s such a huge company. NJ Transit has so much power. It’s a monopoly, like, what, am I going to ride a scooter to work?” said Schiffer.

NJ Transit had no comment on contingency plans or any estimate of when its operations will get back on track on time.