Report from the Chair, March/April 2023

The biggest train-related story since our last issue of the Railgram has to be the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. We note that the problem was compounded by a slow EPA response that allowed the corporation’s request to burn off toxic chemicals—possibly necessary to avoid an uncontrolled explosion, but done in such a way that the burn was incomplete and unknown chemicals, possibly dioxins, were released. Worse, the rather delayed air-quality monitoring did not include testing for the deadly dioxins, but only for their precursors.

Sadly, this just further damages the public image of railroads, building on railroad workers’ almost-strike of early December of last year. The president shut down the strike, in the interest of avoiding supply-chain issues, but it was surely a controversy that damaged the public image of rail.

Here in New Jersey, NJ Transit is spending down national subsidies at a great rate, with no plans to address the fiscal cliff that is coming in year 2026 if nothing changes. At our March meeting, we will hear from our Legislative Director looking at NJ Transit’s funding—for years, advocates have asked for dedicated funding for NJT, so that the agency can make multiyear plans and passengers have a sense of security about the continuity of the service and an understanding of when and why fare increases happen. I note that Governor Murphy has announced another year of no fare increase—naturally, passengers are pleased, but if one delves into NJ Transit finances, and sees the size of the deficit coming in Fiscal Year 2026, one can’t help but fear either a large increase or a deep cut to service looming on the horizon.

One ongoing problem at NJ Transit is its traditional and continuing lack of transparency. We joke about even the windows not being transparent, but from many perspectives, it is hard to get information from NJ Transit management. The most recent concern is that of the Senior Citizen and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee, with which the Coalition shares a number of members (including me). New regulations for the committee were proposed at the December board meeting, and members of the committee only learned of a proposed drastic reduction in their purview accidentally and shortly before that meeting. When we voiced our objections, the item was tabled, and the committee and NJ Transit management are negotiating.

The record of board votes—with the few members who voted No on an item (other than pulling the Academy bus contract after years of dishonesty were revealed) or even asked hard questions either not being reappointed or resigning—is worrisome. Let’s hope that someone at NJ Transit sees the value of advice from a committee with firsthand experience, especially as the committee has no direct power to put any policy into action.

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