Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim replaced James W. Weinstein as New Jersey Transit’s Executive Director on March 1. She was hired at a special meeting of the NJT Board on Feb. 24, although neither she nor Weinstein were present. Commissioner James S. Simpson praised her, and advocates hoped for positive changes at NJT. They included this writer, other members of the Lackawanna Coalition, and members of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP). Simpson said that Hakim would meet with our organizations soon. We look forward to the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions to her, as well as to learn about her plans for NJT and its riders.
Media Questions NJT Sandy Response Anew
A month-long investigation by New York public radio station WNYC, New Jersey Public Radio, and The (Bergen) Record newspaper has resulted in extensive reporting questioning NJ Transit’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the region on October 29, 2012. The report contrasts the extensive damage suffered by NJT in comparison with the generally minor damage to other transit systems and attributes the damage to NJT’s ignoring warnings both long before the storm and as the storm approached; bad decisions regarding storing equipment; and NJT’s response to a public-information request (nearly all of the reply was blacked out). The report was previously available at http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/transportation-nation/2013/may/13/njtransit-sandy.
Author Kate Hinds was interviewed on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer talk show Monday morning, May 13. The segment replayed NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein’s testimony on NJT’s Sandy response; Weinstein had said that the models that NJT used in forecasting hurricane damage predicted that the probability that the Meadows rail storage yard would not flood was 80–90%. This sparked pointed comments from host Brian Lehrer, who noted that 10–20% damage probability of billions of dollars in assets should have sparked immediate defensive action; Lehrer asked if you would get on an airplane if there was “only” a 10% chance of a crash. Hinds noted that other agencies, such as Metro-North Railroad, used the same computer software to estimate storm impact, but seemed to have prepared their strategies in advance and did not input possibly faulty data into the software. A U.S. Weather Service expert was brought in; he commented that the numbers used to predict the course of the storm, including its course and forward speed, were completely wrong. Hinds and Lehrer also discussed possible political impacts on NJT’s actions: Hinds noted that planning for environmental disaster might not be a wise course in an organization that works for N.J. Gov. Christie, who has slashed funding for environmental preparedness. She also noted that the relationship between NJT Director Weinstein and his boss, NJ Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, was frosty: “They don’t get along at all.” Finally, she noted that although Gov. Christie has been getting high marks for the overall New Jersey response to the storm, there has been little public discussion of the experience of NJ Transit, which is part of Gov. Christie’s responsibilities.
Following legal action by The Record, NJT did release part of their storm planning document. Apparently it was a very slim plan, nothing like the more comprehensive plans created by other railroads, which had much better experiences when Sandy struck.
Are the Trains We Had before Hurricane Sandy Coming Back Next Month?
NJT Executive Director Blames Sandy Indirectly for Service Outage during Snowstorm
NJT Executive Director James W. Weinstein indirectly blamed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy for a shutdown of rail service on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone Lines during the snowstorm on Friday and Saturday, February 8th and 9th. He said that, with the Mason Substation out of service and only a substation in Summit to supply power to trains, it would be unduly risky to operate under those conditions. Mason Substation was washed out in flooding caused by Sandy, and there are still no electrically-powered trains running to or from Hoboken.
No Wheels Means No Trains
Why do NJ Transit rail services remain substantially reduced nearly 4 months after Hurricane Sandy? A shortage of wheels for rail rolling stock is a major factor, according to NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, reported by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Feb. 14). According to operations manager Kevin O’Connor, “There’s only so many people producing wheels. We need wheels for every single vehicle that was damaged, as well as bearings for the locomotives that were damaged. Wheels is a big, big, tough issue.” Many cars and locomotives were damaged when two major storage yards were flooded, in Hoboken and in Kearny. Low-slung “multilevel” passenger cars, the railroad’s newest equipment, were turned into “aquariums” by the saltwater flood.
NJT officials have taken fire for the decision to move the cars into the low-lying yards, relying on forecasts that the yards had never flooded and wouldn’t this time; other forecasts accurately predicted the flood that did indeed materialize. In the event, 70 locomotives and 272 train cars were reported damaged, and an electrical substation supplying train power to the Hoboken area was also taken out by the storm. Electric-powered trains have not yet been able to operate into Hoboken, a restriction that has crippled service on the Morris & Essex lines, particularly the Gladstone Branch, where most of the regularly-scheduled trains operate by electricity into Hoboken. Lackawanna Coalition chair David Peter Alan commented that the Gladstone has “the worst service outside of peak commuting hours since 1984”, citing gaps between trains of 2, 3, and even 4 hours. Alan called the situation on the Gladstone “absolutely unacceptable”. The Hoboken situation will improve with installation of a temporary substation in March, but Weinstein hedged his bets, saying that delays in getting wheels and other parts for the rolling stock might further push back a full restoration of service, saying full restoration might take “the better part of the year”. Meanwhile, to avoid future flooding damage, the railroad is investigating the possibility of developing new storage yards in Linden and New Brunswick on unused property.
Commish: NJT Head Needs Help
According to New Jersey State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, NJ Transit is probably the most complex transportation company in the country; “It’s more complex than United Airlines—it’s United Airlines on steel wheels and rubber tires”, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 30). Therefore, says Simpson, NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein needs an assistant. Simpson said that although the job posting appeared after the recent hundred-million-dollar flood damage, which has prompted some to call for heads to roll, the need for a deputy executive director had been in the works for some time. Simpson said he and Weinstein discussed the idea of an assistant 3 years ago and decided at that point to save the money, but it has since become apparent that more help is needed. Simpson said that when things go wrong, commuters blame NJ Transit and, “Even if everything goes perfect, it”s a lot of work.” About 40 résumés have already been received, Simpson said.
Weather Experts Contradict NJT
NJ Transit suffered serious damage to its passenger cars and locomotives when Hurricane Sandy flooded storage yards at Kearny in the Jersey Meadows and at Hoboken. Whether the decision to move equipment to those yards in advance of the storm was a wise one has become a front-page controversy. NJT Executive Director James Weinstein has steadfastly held that the decision was a wise one, based on the weather models and forecasts available to the railroad—but according to reporting by Stephen Stirling on Dec. 12 in the Star-Ledger, most advice from scores of forecasts and computer models showed that the Kearny yard was far more likely to flood than the 10-20% chance that NJT has said forecasts predicted. Some forecasters said that NJT never contacted them for advice on interpreting the forecasts; moreover, had NJT done so, they would have advised NJT as early as Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, that flooding in the Kearny yards was a near certainty. Controversy over whether NJT could have made a better decision on storing its equipment, and whether the railroad would have had time to execute moving the rolling stock to higher ground, continues to reverberate. Complicating the railroad’s planning was the history of previous storms: the Hoboken and Kearny yards had never flooded, whereas other areas had been subject to flooding from rising rivers, notably the Trenton station area, which might have stranded equipment across the Delaware in the railroad’s Morrisville, Pennsylvania, yard. Fearful of this, NJT apparently decided to move equipment out of that facility into the Kearny yard, safe from river flooding but unfortunately subject to flooding from the ocean storm surge that caused great damage in this storm.
Riders’ Frustration Rises
While NJ Transit rail service has been returning slowly after the massive damage of Hurricane Sandy, riders’ frustration has been mounting, and not just over the lack of service, writes Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (November 13). The riders are also angered by what is perceived as a lack of communication from NJ Transit about the situation and when riders might expect relief.
The lack of information flow seems to arise from a desire by NJ Transit not to raise false hopes by making promises they might not be able to keep. NJ Tranist Executive Director James Weinstein says, “We have been conservative in predicting what service is going to be available, because we don’t want to say something and have people sort of plan their lives around that and find we can’t deliver.” The complex flood-related problems means “we’re dealing with a situation nobody has had to deal with before; there’s not a cookbook for this stuff.” However, Josh Crandall, founder of Clevercommute.com, said that NJT could do better. “To say, ‘We don’t know, and we don’t know when we’ll know,’ that doesn’t work,” Crandall said. He noted that although schedules were posted on the NJT Web site, they were so tiny that they couldn’t be read.* Frassinelli’s article also notes that while 257 rail cars and 65 locomotives were damaged in the storm, Director Weinstein said that this was not a big problem: “We have more than enough equipment”, Weinstein said—and NJT hopes to resume service between New York and Long Branch on the North Jersey Coast Line later this week, good news for hard-hit Jersey Shore riders.
*The schedules are in PDF format; perhaps Mr. Crandall had a computer problem, as we had no trouble reading and printing a hard copy of the schedules. However, we did find that they were quite difficult to locate within the NJT Web site.— Editor
Update: printing the standard schedules does give the problem that Mr. Crandall cited; one must know where to look for the printable versions, which are different PDF files.—SJG, chairperson, 12 June 2021.
Coalition Says Information Flow Lacking
Although most rail transit services in the Northeast have been restored after Superstorm Sandy, in New Jersey most NJT commuter rail services remain severely curtailed or totally suspended. As the outage nears its third week, many users of the service find little information available as to when it might resume, or even what is being done to restore service. NJ Transit has established a network of emergency bus and ferry services to substitute for rail service, but these are largely targeted toward peak-hour riders with Manhattan as their destination; riders seeking to travel elsewhere find few or no alternatives. The Lackawanna Coalition has received many comments on the situation, and has written the following communication to NJ Transit executives:
Dear Messrs. Simpson and Weinstein,
I am the treasurer of the Lackawanna Coalition. In the absence of our Chair, who is out of town, I am writing on behalf of the Coalition. In regard to the damage from Hurricane Sandy, I have questions on behalf of myself, of the Lackawanna Coalition, of the counties and municipalities we represent along the former Erie-Lackawanna lines and especially the riders of the lines we represent. I am not writing this letter to complain about the effort that NJ Transit is making towards the restoration of rail service. I hope, like the other operations, that you are working with all possible speed to restore your physical plant to working order. I further understand why NJT is not specifying the details of damage to the general public, as those are details they will not understand. However, for us (members of which Mr. Simpson has previously addressed as personal advisors) that is information we will understand fully, and appreciate the knowledge of. We know and understand, for instance, why the North Jersey Coast Line is not yet operating. The damage to the Raritan Draw Bridge is there for us to see in vivid color. It makes no sense to operate trains on the line just to Avenel and Woodbridge when capacity on the Corridor is so constrained.
However, while we do not expect the public to be informed of the minutiae of damages along the lines, the amount of information being offered is too limited. All our riders know is that the trains aren’t running, and that you do not mention when they will be. The riders knowing that the line is damaged, that your rolling stock is constrained, as we understand it to be, and that the time frame for partial and then full restoration is days or weeks or months would help ease their minds, or at least let them make longer term temporary plans for substitute mobility if need be. It has been two weeks almost since the service was ceased. With this much time, at least a ballpark timeframe is a reasonable expectation.
In our capacity as a representative of the riders of NJ Transit’s M&E and M-B lines, we want to be able to honestly give our personal assurances to our constituents that NJ Transit is working towards service restoration as quickly as humanly possible, and that all effort is being made to provide as much mobility as possible. The details listed on your website are not enough to allow us to report that to our constituents. It is our mission to provide representation for all riders of our lines, and that not only includes the riders that ride MidTown Direct into Manhattan, and those that ride trains into Hoboken Terminal, but also those who do not. The Morris and Essex line, as you know, has the highest level of intra-line travel of any American commuter rail line. We applaud your efforts to provide shuttle service from several park-and-ride locations along the route. We are, however, disturbed that you are not providing at least some bus service directly and fully paralleling the rail line to provide mobility for those riders that travel to destinations along the line. It is a serious problem, one which our members are demanding explanations for. Several of our members are unable to get to work because of the lack of connectivity along the line. Many commuters can take advantage of the park and rides. But other riders cannot, because they do not or cannot operate a car. This is not small, this is people’s livelihood. They can’t get to work, they can get fired, they are not being paid, and they can’t feed their families. Our non-New York-bound constituents need that intra-line service desperately.
As such, we request the following. First of all, we would like to have an open discussion about the condition of the lines that are presently not operating. Secondly, we would like to have your assurance that as soon as bus equipment is available, frequent and effective service will be operated along the line servicing stations as a temporary replacement for trains to provide mobility for intra-line riders. Thirdly, we would like you to provide us, in the strictest of confidence, your estimates of when service will be restored, to where, and at what level of frequency. With this information, we can assure our riders of the best possible service given the dire circumstance the state finds itself in. Thusly, we help our riders by providing them with the best information we can. And we can help you by assuring our riders that you, NJ Transit and the NJDOT, are doing the absolute best you can, from a source they can trust to be objective. Finally, some of our associate members have connections and friends within the national rail and transit communities. Our chair, David Peter Alan, has authorized me on behalf of the Coalition to offer our good offices to help with whatever we can in terms of procuring assistance.
Jesse S. Gribin,