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.

Safer Yards for Next Storm?

NJ Transit service as of mid-January continues to be limited since Superstorm Sandy on some lines, mainly those relying on electric service to Hoboken.  Why is the service limited?  NJT has not been particularly forthcoming on this point, but many observers point to limited availability of nonelectric rolling stock, perhaps limited by equipment damaged by flooding during the storm, in yards that proved not to be a safe haven when the water rose.  Now there are reports that NJT is seeking safer havens for its equipment in future storms.  One possibility, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Leger  (January 18) is a Conrail rail yard in Linden on the Northeast Corridor.  That yard was once used to stage rail cars used by the nearby General Motors plant, which closed in 2005.

According to NJT VP & General Manager of rail operations Kevin O’Connor, “We have nowhere on our system to bring vehicles out of the [Meadows Maintenance Complex], which was flooded.”  O’Connor spoke at a meeting for the New York chapter of the Transportation Research Forum.  O’Connor also declared, “No, I am not going to resign”, in response to a written question from Joseph M. Clift, former LIRR planning director (and Lackawanna Coalition technical director), if he would “accept responsibility for the decisions that led to $100M in [car and locomotive] damage” by offering his resignation.  “It just seems to me that we have a level of damage that suggests decisions that somebody should take responsibility for,” Clift said.  Many would disagree with O’Connor’s assertion that NJT had no safe place to store equipment, pointing out that there are many miles of mainline track that could’ve been used, including the center track on the Morris & Essex line between Newark and Millburn.  Other railroads, such as the Long Island, reportedly used mainline track to store equipment during the storm, and suffered little damage to their fleet.