Nov
20

The many mistakes of New Jersey Transit

By

You’ll have to forgive me for a bit of provincialism over the past few weeks. While focusing on the MTA’s efforts to bring New York City’s transit system back online after the flooding from Sandy, I haven’t ventured beyond our five boroughs’ borders to include the rest of the regions that contribute to our mobility. We know the PATH trains from the World Trade Center are going to be out of service for some time, but I have largely ignored the problems that New Jersey’s main commuter rail have suffered.

Whatever happened to New Jersey Transit? In the aftermath of Sandy, it was tough to figure out why the Garden State’s commuter link to New York City had gotten slammed. Although Gov. Chris Christie has been widely praised for his response to the storm and took the bold political stance of praising the opposite party’s sitting president just days before a tight election, his administration has been behind the ball when it comes to transit preparedness and response. The comparison to Joe Lhota’s and Andrew Cuomo’s efforts in New York are stark.

Recently, details concerning New Jersey Transit’s preparedness — or utter lack thereof — have surfaced, and the story is a stunning one. Essentially, NJT officials ignored the storm and flood warnings and assumed that areas that didn’t flood before wouldn’t now. They kept rolling stock and buses in low-lying areas and lost nearly a third of the rail fleet. Reuters has an in-depth look at this debacle, and I’ll excerpt:

The Garden State’s commuter railway parked critical equipment – including much of its newest and most expensive stock – at its low-lying main rail yard in Kearny just before the hurricane. It did so even though forecasters had released maps showing the wetland-surrounded area likely would be under water when Sandy’s expected record storm surge hit. Other equipment was parked at its Hoboken terminal and rail yard, where flooding also was predicted and which has flooded before.

Among the damaged equipment: nine dual-powered locomotive engines and 84 multi-level rail cars purchased over the past six years at a cost of about $385 million.

“If there’s a predicted 13-foot or 10-foot storm surge, you don’t leave your equipment in a low-lying area,” said David Schanoes, a railroad consultant and former deputy chief of field operations for Metro North Railroad, a sister railway serving New York State. “It’s just basic railroading. You don’t leave your equipment where it can be damaged.”

….Most of the avoidable damage came at NJ Transit’s Meadows Maintenance Complex, a sprawling 78-acre network of tracks and buildings in an industrial area of Kearny that is surrounded by wetlands. The complex is the primary maintenance center for the agency’s locomotives and rail cars, with both outdoor and indoor equipment storage; repair, servicing, cleaning, inspection and training facilities; and the agency’s rail operations center, which houses computers involved in the movement of trains and communication with passengers.

The yard sits in the swampy crook where the Passaic and Hackensack rivers come together. Elevation maps show that it lies between 0 and 19 feet above sea level. The National Hurricane Center was predicting a storm surge of 6 to 11 feet along the New Jersey and New York coast on top of an unusual tide that already had the rivers running high.

…The agency has been operating its Meadows complex since the 1980s, and it had never flooded, not even during Hurricane Floyd, which caused record flooding in New Jersey in 1999, said Kevin O’Connor, vice president and general manager of rail operations. Several former NJ Transit employees who worked there for decades said they could not recall any time it had flooded.

The details go on. Despite projections and maps that showed a significant risk of flooding — as well as problems related to Irene last year — New Jersey Transit stood pat. Meanwhile, in New York, the LIRR and New York City Transit suffered no damage to its rolling stock while Metro-North saw some damage to just two locomotives and 11 passenger cars at the Harmon yards. “What do you do with your personal valuable assets when you hear a hurricane is coming?” Alain Kornhauser, director of Princeton’s Transportation Research Center, said. “You put them in your pocket and get out of there, don’t you? You don’t need to be a rocket scientist for that one, do you?”

Eventually, New Jersey Transit will recover. It will cost tens of millions of dollars to repair the equipment, and the current service outages have caused headaches and long commutes for customers who have to brave the overcrowded Port Authority and its myriad bus routes. I have to wonder though what the state will find when and if it investigates. Was this just garden-variety hubris from officials who lived through Irene and saw it as as the weatherman who cried wolf? Was this inept leadership from people who just don’t care? Was this a sign of the way we don’t prioritize the transportation modalities that most people use to get to work? No matter the answer, it’s a black eye for New Jersey Transit and one they should learn from for years to come.



Categories : New Jersey Transit

96 Responses to “The many mistakes of New Jersey Transit”

  1. Eric says:

    NJT has shown it cannot run itself competently, time for it to be absorbed into MTA.

    • TP says:

      I really doubt this could ever happen. Although most NJTransit ridership comes from NY-bound commuters, it’s actually the statewide transit agency and includes local buses in Vineland and Camden and routes into Philadelphia as well. It’s already kind of odd that the MTA is this NYS-run agency that covers transit in just the NYC metro — upstate cities have their own separate transit agencies. For the MTA to merge with NJTransit would be a really bizarre arrangement.

    • pedrotravers says:

      moron…2 different states and agencies..njt suxx..the socalled bosses arent very sharp and have zero rail experience.

  2. lawhawk says:

    It’s most certainly a combination of hubris and incompetence. The logistics people who thought that they could store their equipment in low lying areas like Kearny and Hoboken refused to listen to the weather reports and hydrology reports indicating that all those areas would be flooded.

    And it’s not like Hoboken Terminal hasn’t flooded before. It does – fairly regularly when they get a heavy rainfall in a short period of time. They even saw some flooding in Irene.

    But with every weather report indicating that this storm would cause beyond record flooding and tidal surge, they didn’t move the equipment to higher ground (which wasn’t as difficult as one might think since the Bergen Tunnels are one of the higher points in the Hoboken vicinity. Heck, they could have moved equipment up to their Waldwick yards or the elevated track between Secaucus and NYP. They didn’t do any of that.

    It’s not like NJT commuters don’t know that the agency can’t deal with these kinds of problems. We see it all the time – the incomplete and incompetence in handling even regular delays and routine problems (power/signal failures, etc.) The agency can’t get its act together on informing the public and then it makes asinine statements and schedules that it can’t possibly handle such as claiming that bus service will handle rail overflow (when a bus is ordinarily full with its regular riders, where are the 800 people from a single scheduled train supposed to go). The PABT was a horror show of epic proportions as a result.

    And the agency repeatedly claimed that it couldn’t restore service in areas like the MBPJ line because of power outages to signals and gates (when we’ve seen that generators could be brought in to power those systems to get the mass transit up and running that could help alleviate the gas station mess we saw). Yet it somehow got the service up and running on the Long Branch line before the MBPJ even though the LB line had more physical damage.

    Then they claimed that service couldn’t get restored because of the flooding at the Kearny rail operations center.

    Even as service was restored elsewhere, the agency couldn’t commit to a time frame or indicate the kinds of damage it dealt with.

    Every single aspect of the agency’s preparations, notifications, and response was flawed.

    As good as the MTA was in handling the disaster – with prompt and regular updates and media presentations showing the kinds of damage and how they were responding to the damage, the NJT was that bad.

    And PATH wasn’t that much better.

    Speaking of PATH, I seem to recall that when they were renovating the PATH tubes between NYC and Exchange Place that they were going to install flood gates to prevent flooding of the tubes of the kind that occurred when the water mains broke in the 9/11 attacks and flooded them. Whatever happened to that? Where were the preparations to reduce the chances of flooding in the PATH tubes.

    I get that the HOB PATH was going to get slammed because of its location (beneath and adjacent to the flooding at the terminal, but it seems that PATH and NJT simply didn’t marshal their resources in the way that the MTA did to restore service.

    We have no way to know if the flooding for the PATH tubes is like that for the Montague line or what; the flow of information is lacking and no one seems to want to deal with this, even though it causes tremendous problems for those commuting to Manhattan on a daily basis.

    • BoerumHillScott says:

      PATH got flooded by water coming in at both WTC and Exchange Place, with massive flooding of both street level/fare control and platform level at Exchange Place.
      Exchange Place is very deep, and I think PATH would be incredibly stupid to open it without working escalators.

    • Eric F says:

      NJT is working off of historical experience. What is that experience? It is that in bad storms, the NJT’s right of ways get blocked by trees, river flooding and knocked down wires. What NJT wants to do is absorb the storm and get back to just about full operations in a couple of days. You can’t do that if your rolling stock is stuck Hopatcong or wherever on a right of way that won’t be cleared for a week. NJT placed its assets in an historically secure location that is accessible to key hubs so that it could get the system moving again quickly. This is not an absurd plan, it’s just one that didn’t work well based on the effects of the storm surge.

      I’d suggest trying to imagien why NJT did what it did without assuming that it’s because the people running a state railroad are dumber than people posting Internet comments. They may in fact be dumber, but that’s not the way to bet.

      • Bolwerk says:

        The professional railroaders at NJT no doubt are quite skilled, but I somehow doubt they make these calls. The political hacks who make decisions for the railroad could very well be the type of googly eyed insider sire who gets shoveled to what is supposed to be a low-action, low-importance position for a dignified pay.

        Regardless, Christie seems like the type of irrational blowhard who would appoint Dunning-Kruger effect-impaired hacks. Surely they understand the arithmetic of things like water depth and sea level, but probably think they’re too smart to need to worry about it because everyone knows past performance predicts future results.

        So, yeah, they might actually be dumber than people posting comments on the Internet.

        • Eric F says:

          So you are saying that a political appointee who knows nothing of trains was told by his/her professional staff to place rail asets on high ground in some western suburb, but then vetoed that advice and insisted on storing stuff in the flood plain. Sounds like a movie screenplay. I’m guessing it’s also about as accurate as a movie screen play too.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Sheesh, do you even pay attention to regional politics? Where did you get such a spectacular denial mechanism? Many, many appointees are a bit on the side of unqualified, if not plain incompetent, on both sides of the river and beyond. This shouldn’t be a controversial observation.

            And no, I’m not saying what you described transpired. I’m simply saying they could be incompetent and probably are. I don’t know what other specific instances of incompetency transpired, though ignoring a high probability of record flooding seems to be operative here.

            A movie screenplay would have Cuomo/Christie parachuting in to save white babies from sharks swarming in with the storm surge.

            • John R says:

              To defend them. The the fact that the yards were low was subverted in risk by the flood gate and levy system meant to protect Kearney and Moonachie I believe. When the flood gate failed, all havoc broke loose.

    • Gamma says:

      Before we get into the details, let me first thank all the hard working employees of NJT for putting back the railroad together. It is no easy task given the devastation and will take quite a few months, maybe even years before everything is back to the way it was before this storm.

      First, the bad stuff: leaving anything in Hoboken was really really bad idea given the history of flooding in the past. That is something I can see no excuse for.

      Second: leaving stuff in the Meadowlands was actually quite reasonable ex-ante. The yards have been there for more than 100 years. These yards have never flooded in the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad, later Penn Central Railroad and more recently NJTransit which inherited the yards in the eighties. Yes, portions of the yards flood, but other portions are actually so high (maybe as high as 20 feet above sea level) that they never ever did until now. It is my understanding that all equipment was left in the high portions which unfortunately were not high enough this time, but reality is that this was really a once in a 100 years event and predicting such events precisely and then knowing what to do is quite difficult with the benefit of hindsight being 20/20. The last people to see a surge of these proportions in this location probably lived in the XIIX or XIX centuries and they probably were not in the Meadowlands measuring how deep the water was.

      Parking equipment between Secaucus and NYP is not really an option. The tracks are owned by Amtrak, not NJTransit. Also if something happens to the equipment there so that it cannot be moved for weeks (for example, the fills under the tracks being washed out in the manner in which Irene washed out the Port Jervis line tracks, or if the equipment was pushed off the tracks by falling trees, catenary poles or just water) then service to and from NYP would have been blocked for weeks because they would have to first move the equipment out of there before being able to repair the Right of Way. Imagine the beating Amtrak would take in such a case … so NO, NO and NO! Amtrak is not letting NJTransit to store the equipment there.

      Storing equipment on main lines is possible, but not easy undertaking. So yes, NJTransit could have stored the equipment on their own main lines, but there are some good arguments against doing so which is why it was not done. Many of the main lines have trees or catenary poles around them, so if the storm knocks out any of these and your equipment is nearby it can get easily damaged. In many locations the main lines are sloping one way or the other, so one needs to ensure that the train sets do not start rolling in some direction causing damage wherever they stop. The way train brakes work is that they need to have air pressure which keeps the brakes engaged. When the air pressure decreases the brakes get dis-engaged and you can move the train set (that is what the air line connected to the locomotive does). When parked the air pressure is supplied by reservoirs in each car, but as any practical system it is not perfect and slowly leaks, so after a few days the reservoirs will get depleted enough to let the train roll downhill. Yes, one can put mechanical stops at the wheels, but in some situations even those are not effective enough — think about the cargo train that washed on the NJ Turnpike. So in practice there are risks in leaving the trains on the main lines especially in populated areas where they can cause huge damage if they roll by themselves or get vandalized.

      So while I agree that overall things could have been done differently, it is no easy to have come up with a plan that would have prevented this damage and also everything else NJTransit has experienced in the past — think Irene or any other bad storm/flooding. It is unfortunate, but most rail yards that NJTransit owns do flood really badly sometimes and knowing which one will flood during each particular storm is anyone’s guess (the ones that really never flood do not have the capacity to take all the equipment).

      The other issue I see is not with NJTransit, but “tree lovers” and similar environmentalists who prevent NJTransit and utilities from keeping their Rights of Way clean enough from vegetation. Generally in Europe the Right of Ways and the areas around them are kept, so clean of vegetation that even on hundreds of miles of track they have no more than one or two trees falling per storm of this proportions. Of course, here people living in rich towns have all the free time and money to sue NJTransit and the utilities for every single tree that gets cut that NJTransit and the utilities have concluded that it is cheaper to repair the damage afterwards than to defend the lawsuits. Same people do not want the rail yards in their towns because of noise, nuisance or god know what other stupid reasons, so what is the railroad left with? It is only option is to put the yards in areas far from these people, but in this state these areas are the ones that flood the most, so this is in fact the result of the own doing of the people who complain the most that their commute to NYC is impacted, but they do not realize that they are responsible for some of the impact — it is not just the storm, it is the fact that the appropriate preventive and design measures were not taken when they should have been taken.

      • Eric F says:

        Absolutely.

        The point about the vegetation causing issues is very well said. I’d also note that NJT has a lot of single tracked lines in the suburbs, which can’t be double-tracked due to NIMBY opposition. NJT does not want to move stuff to narrow right of ways if it can avoid it because such lines are way more prone to being kocked out for extended periods. And even if they are unscathed, it takes forever to move rolling stock en masse over a single-tracked RoW. The bigger RoWs tend to be Amtrak owned, except for the coast line, which is exactly where you don’t want to stick stuff with a hurricane approaching.

      • pedrotravers says:

        seems like a good idea to store your most valuable stock in a friggin swamp..helllloooo..perdicted by every hack weatherdude to flood.predicted. they said flooding could occur evrywhere nearn water…and it did…you dont park the car at the bottom of the hill you park it at the top of the hill.

      • MetroDerp says:

        This is no longer a once-in-100-years event. It’s happened twice in as many years, and NJT – along with everyone else – had better get used to it and prepare for this to be a regular occurrence.

  3. Phantom says:

    I qm amazed that this has not been a more major issue in the NJ and regional media. Or that tough goy Christie has been really quiet on it.

    NJ Transit chose to do nearly nothing in the face of a slowly arriving megastorm, while a few miles away, the larger MTA was implementing a widely publicized shutdownn of the system so as to save all rhe rail cars.

    I hope NJ Transit gets zero Federal Aid for replacement of water damaged rolling stock. You should not benefit from goss neligence of the worst kind.

    • AMM says:

      I hope NJ Transit gets zero Federal Aid for replacement of water damaged rolling stock. You should not benefit from goss neligence of the worst kind.

      Unfortunately, it is the NJ commuters who would suffer, not the NJT officials and employees whose misjudgement caused the problems.

      • Eric F says:

        It would be great if this circumstance was the impetus for adding redundancy toute suite, such as starting on additional and safer rail tunnel under the Hudson. That would be a great lesson to learn, but I haven’t heard anyone mention that, even from our trainophile administration in Washington. This would seem an abvious teachable moment that will fall by the wayside.

  4. alek says:

    NJT should had followed the MTA’s plan. The MTA did very impressive job to restore service the few days after the storm.

    • Eric F says:

      NJT service is pretty much restored now. In spite iof the loss of rolling stock, the impediments to full service have been substation and tuinnel damage and right of way damage to track in forested areas and to drawbridges. No plan could have stopped that stuff from happening. NJT is particularly challenged by tree falls because it relies on overhead wires.

      • Bolwerk says:

        With overhead wires, the railroad should be keeping the trees pared pretty far back from the wires. Actually, they should more or less be doing that anyway, regardless of wires.

        • Eric F says:

          People go nuts when transportation agencies do tree-trimming. People die each year on the Merritt in CT due to falling trees and people still sue when CT wants to clear vegetation. You can google the absurd overreaction I think it was 2 years ago when the NJ Turnpike Authority did mass tree trimming on the Garden State Parkway in southern NJ. One wonders if the GSP would have been impassable for a week down there had that trimming not occurred.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Never heard about that, but, hey, I believe you. NIMBYs and incompetent local officials go hand-in-hand.

            Still, we have have overhead wires, tracks, little redundancy, a propensity for being on the receiving end of the occasional major storm, and enough transit dependency even in NJ and CT to warrant more care. Not keeping things trimmed is just doin’ it wrong.

          • Walter says:

            CT has this problem in spades, like when Metro-North tries to trim trees on the New Canaan Branch. These are the type of people who still complain when the train horns sound at grade crossings, but you know, the tracks have only been there 150 years so maybe they overlooked them when they bought their house.

  5. Eric F says:

    It looks like NJT had a very detailed granular plan and it was followed to the letter. The system was shut down and assets were moved and secured. NJT has a sprawling system covering an entire state, so this wasn’t easy by any means, I’d imagine. The plan wasn’t updated to cope with something like Sandy, and the decision-makers weren’t nimble enough to modify it on the fly.

    Interestingly, the worst wind damage was in southern Jersey, and yet the Atlantic City line and River line light rail systems were, I think, the first restored. So the plan actually handled an onshore direct hit by a Cat 1 hurricane where it had its worst traditional effects, but it couldn’t account for a massive surge in the north where the wind damage wasn’t nearly as great.

    Keep in mind, among the assets hit hard, were the Hudson tunnels, owned by Amtrak and the Kearny substation, just restored last Friday, which is not an NJT asset. Also, I think that Meadow yard was a legacy asset of the Penn Central Railroad (NJT being heir to Penn Central’s operations), and it must have served Penn Central reasonably well for years. It’s not like NJT sited it there on its own.

    Note also that NJT did pretty well after Irene last year. They actually lent SEPTA equipment which stored stuff in Trenton I think where it was knocked out by river flooding. NJT probably thought it had a pretty solid plan based on historical experience. Some of these post mortems would be much more impressive to me if they were written before the storm about what would happen to NJT, but none of them were.

    To my mind, the bad move was keeping stuff in Hoboken, which floods routinely. The Meadow flooding was probably harder to conceive of. It’s really too bad top brass couldn’t have been more nimble. What a waste of money.

    • I’ll grant that they had a detailed plan and followed it, but part of their plan admittedly involved ignoring flood forecasts and the weather report. That’s the key takeaway here. Imagine what would have happened in NYC if the MTA had done the same.

      • Eric F says:

        They didn’t ignore the flooding. They stored stuff where there had never been flooding! And then it flooded. They could have done better, but they didn’t ignore anything.

        • But didn’t they store stuff where there never had been flooding with the warning that it was an area that was vulnerable to flooding and could potentially flood? The whole point is to listen to these warnings because not doing so is far, far more costly.

          • Eric F says:

            Right, the annoying thing about what occurred is that it could have been prevented if assets were stored in other places. That said, the actual storm surge was worse than the forecast surge. I’d also note that in the hours before Sandy, forecasts, including surge forecasts kept changing. There is a realiztic cut off time after which you are just stuck responding to earlier forecasts. It may be possible to move an automobile or even a fleet of buses in response to a changing forecast. Good luck moving trains under such conditions, especially with winds already kicking up. When people say that sandy was a slow-developing storm I want to tear my hair out. Landfall was predicted anywhere from Maine to North Carolina in the day or so before it actually happened. It takes a long time to coordinate mass rail movements. The very people who mention the track, yard and general caacity constraints on NJ trackage are shocked that an entire railroad can’t be quickly evactuated in response to hourly updates on the weather channel.

            As another commenter noted, the yard has low points and high points and never flooded. NJT put its stuff in the highest parts of a yard that never flooded.

        • pedrotravers says:

          SWAMP.

      • Researcher says:

        My thought exactly. The MTA would have been crucified.

        • Eric F says:

          The MTA still has stations out of service.

          • lawhawk says:

            Yes, the MTA has stations out of service, including South Ferry, and parts of the A line are out to the Rockaways due to extreme damage. But they put other service back in place in what appears to be record time and that includes flooded out tunnels and washed out rail in places like Long Island that also had tree damage.

            We’ve seen the pictures and the damage assessments.

            Now try to find the same for each of the NJTransit lines. NJT put together a compilation of problems, but not detailing what they are for each of the lines, or the flooded out yards, etc. It’s a lack of communications that rankles.

            The comparison between MTA and NJT is stark. Both have bus, rail, and subway-type components including tunnels, catenary, 3d rail, etc. Yet the performance outcomes are quite different.

            So, while the MTA has stations out of service and part of the A is out in the Rockaways, they’ve restored service to the rest of the city and have sufficient overlap that travel can resume to those areas that even lack service (buses to South Ferry, nearby subway stations, etc.)

            For NJT, the problem is that there’s insufficient capacity for all the alternatives, and if 1/3 of the rail fleet was inundated that means that they can’t run as many trains or as long a train set as needed.

            It frankly boggles the mind to claim that service can approach anything nearly normal when 1/3 of the rail cars and locomotives were damaged by flooding.

            And how many of those cars/locomotives are now back in service?

  6. John-2 says:

    The other thing to remember is that sometimes it takes a major screw-up to get people to agree to a major reworking of plans — the MTA already got their spanking in December 2010 after the bus and subway woes caused by the Christmas blizzard. Because of that, the people involved with disaster contingency planning were more alert to the possibilities of stranded and lost buses and railcars from Hurricane Sandy, because they had first-hand experience with the consequences.

    Irene provided the MTA with a test run for last month’s storm. In contrast, NJT didn’t suffer the same sort of problems and criticisms from the 2010 snowstorm, and didn’t incur much long-term infrastructure damage from Irene — the only rail line into Hoboken that really was affected by the 2011 storm was the MTA’s Port Jervis line. As a result — and since government bureaucracies tend to move slowly, if at all without the motivation of major public pressure — NJT was lulled into a false sense of security that what had worked in 2011 would work again in 2012.

    Just as with the MTA after losing buses for days in Brooklyn snow drifts and an A train south of Conduit Avenue, the embarrassment of screwing up and the pressure on the politicians in office due to the screw-ups will make the agency hyper-sensitive to emergency precautions for the next decade or so (though as with the MTA forgetting the lessons of the 1969 blizzard by 2010, eventually as personnel, politicians and commuters change, those lessons will be forgetten unless we are in for a glut of hurricanes and blizzards in the coming decades). NJT should have been looking at the MTA’s mistakes in 2010 and their pre-emptive measures in 2011 and 2012 and proactively mirroring them, but you really need a forceful agency leader or top politician to push for major changes in a government agency based on a hypothetical, because the bigger anything is (public or private) the harder it becomes to implement proactive change.

    • Eric F says:

      Yup. There is a pervasive tendency to fight the last battle. This goes fore individuals as well as organizations. How many tens of thousands of private autos were swept up and destroyed 3 weeks ago. Moving a car is not 1% as difficult as reloacvting rolling stock, and car ownership has pretty much none of the agency issues that a bureaucracy has to handle, and yet people put their cars in historically safe places, and summarily lost them.

      NJT was all ready to do battle with Irene and it wasn’t ready for Sandy. NJT will never again be caught unprepared by a second coming of Sandy, and one would hope that such preparations will translate over to whatever actually occurs in the future.

      • John-2 says:

        The bigger anything is — government agency, multi-national corporation, whatever — the more difficult time it has walking and chewing gum at the same time, especially if it’s trying to chew on the fly in an emergency situation, where a ‘worst case’ scenario is met that surpasses previous worst case incidents.

        Why did it take WMATA 40 years to adopt New York City-style subway passenger railcar safety standards? Because it took 35 years for WMATA’s existing railcar safety standards to be shown to be inadequate for not just a hypothetical worst-case scenario, but a real incident, as with the Red Line’s 1000 series car fatalities. They weren’t going to spend the extra $$$ to strengthen their subway cars it until public pressure forced them to do it. Same thing here, though no one was killed because NJT didn’t anticipate for the worst possible hypothetical.

        They gambled that the existing hurricane contingency plan would be adequate because the last one was, and the added costs of moving all rolling stock to higher ground wouldn’t be necessary. If the 2010 snowstorm and Irene’s trashing of the MTA’s Port Jervis line hadn’t affected the agency prior to Sandy, the MTA possibly would have been caught just as flat-footed as NJT, because we would have been back to dealing with hypthetical ‘worst case’ outcomes and not the reality of failing to act that the agency had to deal with in 2010 and 2011.

        • Nathanael says:

          WMATA’s case is worse than you think; WMATA has the same signal system as BART. The problems with BART’s signal system were identified pretty much immediately. The whistleblowers were abused and mistreated, but within 10 years BART’s signal system was retrofitted.

          WMATA never adopted the retrofit from BART, resulting in the signal failure a few years ago. *20 years* of ignoring best practice from a sister agency.

          Parochial thinking is definitely part of the problem.

  7. Scott E says:

    To be fair, I don’t know if the reason equipment was stored where it was was because of negligence, defiance, or simply a poor organizational structure. Who has the authority to make such a call? Remember that NJT operates trains on tracks owned by a variety of agencies: Amtrak, freight, as well as their own. Moving trains around is not so easy when you rely on other agencies to permit you to operate on their tracks, and I think storing trains through the storm on another entities’ tracks is even harder. If I recall, NJT is owned by the NJ Department of Transportation, and if they needed to bless any of NJT’s storm-preparations, that would have added even more delays.

    Compare this to the MTA facilities: with the exception of portions of Metro-North and Penn Station, they own most of their rail infrastructure and rely on nobody else to make the needed preparations.

    Lessons will surely be learned for the future, but it might not be entirely fair to be a critical Monday-morning-quarterback in this situation.

  8. Bolwerk says:

    I don’t see any great mystery as to why NJT didn’t handle this as well. NYS simply had more to lose than NJT in this case, or at least perceived that it did. The still-fundamental difference between NYC and NJ is transit orientation vs. car orientation, although at least NYC/NYS are apparently too dumb to realize it for long-term planning. We had a top-down preemptive response, which New Jersey didn’t have and perhaps wasn’t capable of.

    • Eric F says:

      You are saying that the people who run the railroad are car oriented and therefore didn’t care much about what happened to their rail equipment? Hey, when all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail amirite?

      • Bolwerk says:

        To put it bluntly, the political class in NYS must be quietly aware that its cash cow is Manhattan, and Manhattan ain’t gonna work without transit.

        The people who run the railroads (MTA included) are definitely car-oriented, but NYS pretty much had the entire hierarchy from the governor on down responding by protecting transit assets. I don’t think that happened at all in NJ.

        • Eric F says:

          The cars destroyed the trains. I knew it!

          • Eric F says:

            And since the Meadow Yard was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad 100 years ago, the cars planted their evil seed in the mind of The Pensy’s civil engineers during the Harding Administration. Those cars wil get you one way or another, that much is certain.

            • Bolwerk says:

              I didn’t realize I was responding to a Turing bot programmed to post non-sequiturs to blogs.

              • BBnet3000 says:

                What is Eric F on today?

                He thinks it makes sense that they were just “going from experience”, rather than being cautious with tens of millions of dollars of equipment and following the flood warnings?

                • Bolwerk says:

                  Truthiness. The same kind of pervasive misplaced faith in gut feelings, instead of doing qualitative/quantitative analyses, might ultimately be what cost Romney the election two weeks ago.

                  • Eric F says:

                    Finally someone is talking some sense around here! I knew when that storm surge hit and those trains were flooded that Romney had a lot to naswer for. And thanks for posting on October 28th, when and where NJT should move its rail fleet. That advance plan of yours was wonderful. If only they had heeded your reality-based advice.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      Huh? I wanted Romney to win. Need me a tax cut. I got a whole brood of sprogs to feed and get to temple and a six figure income based mainly on proceeds from capital gains only buys so much. :(

                      Also, it’s funny how this reaction to mentioning Romney proves my point. At least to anyone who isn’t bonker in the conker.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Seriously, where do you get stuff like that? I’ve never seen someone lean so much on sarcasm who is so bad at it. I really can’t see a point to that sentence.

            • Eric F says:

              Eric F is invigorated by the diversity of opinion which includes the notion that a car-oriented railroad management is responsible for the sabotage-by-negligence of a commuter railroad employing a pre-set disaster-preparedness plan that has served it and its predecessor carriers for 100 years.

              Here’s a point that society (and tort juries) have forgotten. Sometimes bad things happen. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s not because you breathe out carbon dioxide. It’s not because the governor is in the wrong party. It’s not because the Illuminati took a vote in cellar somewhere. Soemtimes bad stuff just occurs, there’s not much you can do about it other than plan for the future. It’s bad that 100+ people have dies for no larger life lesson than that, but such has been the case since the beginning of time. There is no perpetrator, no Lex Luther to go after, not that that’ll stop people form looking.

              • Bolwerk says:

                Eric F. needs to work on his reading comprehension, shut off the voices in his head, and/or fix his uplink to the mothership. ‘Cause nobody said anything about sabotage-by-negligence or fault. Here on Planet Earth, I said something to the effect that there are perfectly good reasons for the institutional responses to be different in New York and New Jersey, a point Eric F. failed to address at all.

                Soemtimes bad stuff just occurs, there’s not much you can do about it other than plan for the future.

                I don’t know if you missed the memo, but we’ve been talking about something that was fairly predictably bad; there was a very simple precaution for dealing with it. We didn’t know 100% that it would turn out as it did beforehand, but we had a pretty good idea that it very likely would be about as bad as it turned out.

                • Eric F says:

                  Is that what happened? Or is what happened that MTA Subway, LIRR, Metro North and NJT all put into place their standard disaster-preparedness plans with post-Irene adjustments and it turned out that it pretty much worked out for everybody except NJT? Because that’s what it seems like to me.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    I don’t especially disagree with that, but you can’t really accept that and then deny that there wasn’t a serious problem with NJT’s plan. Plans can and should be changed to account for new data.

    • John-2 says:

      My guess still is if the MTA doesn’t have it’s snowstorm fiasco in 2010, and doesn’t have to deal with the massive Port Jervis damage in 2011, it’s performance in 2012 would probably have mirrored NJT’s, only with a far higher cost to damaged rail cars and other equipment left in areas that hadn’t flooded before, but would have this time.

      That doesn’t negate the credit the MTA deserves from learning from the problems of 2010 and 2011 and taking proper precautions this time around. But if the order of the storms had been reversed, and Sandy had been the first to hit the city instead of the third, odds are good the desire to be proactive in dealing with the impending crisis would have been far lower, because they wouldn’t have been dealing with with the recent problems and failures to be proactive still on their minds.

      • Bolwerk says:

        You could be right, but I don’t think that’s it. NJT operated through those events too. NJT is actually the agency that operates Port Jervis. When it comes to weather, if the MTA gets spanked, NJT gets spanked. Even if they weren’t speanked, they’re right next door watching.

        Also, and I know Eric F. thinks this is spooky black magick or something, the storm surge brought pretty predictable results. Predictable, like filling a 1-gallon pot with 1.5 gallons of water is predictably going to cause an overflow. Understanding that a 13′ surge will flood an elevation of 6′ (approximately Hoboken Terminal’s elevation) doesn’t take an engineer. It takes a grade school grasp of arithmetic. Unusual it was, but unusual doesn’t mean hard to predict.

        • John-2 says:

          NJT had to go through both storms. But if you go back and look at the coverage of the 2010 snow, NJT did not get spanked in the media and by the area politicians in any way close to the public relations pounding the MTA received over their failure to be proactive about the effects of the blizzard to the subway, bus and commuter rail networks (some of the stories on the stranded A train made it sound like something out of the movie “Alive”, once the tabloids and the local newscasts got through massaging the story).

          The MTA really didn’t take much of a hit on Irene, just as NJT didn’t, because both the media and the pols pretty much understood the Port Jervis washout was beyond the agency’s control. But combined with the snow fiasco, it made the agency’s planners alert to the possibilities of the ‘worst possible scenario’ in ways the people across the Hudson weren’t — it’s easier to be aggressive in taking action that will make sure you’re butt doesn’t get chewed out and you possibly lose your job if you’ve just been through an incident where you got your butt chewed out and you almost lost your job.

          That doesn’t absolve NJT from not being more proactive in protecting their rolling stock. But as I said, not moving fast to take action on a hypothetical is something big government agencies or bloated corporations have a hard time doing, absent any fear of consequences.

  9. Phantom says:

    Did NJT move any of its rolling stock to higher ground?

  10. IanM says:

    The key question I want to know is – ARE there other, more elevated places that NJT could have stored all this equipment? Or is the fact simply that all of their major train yards are low-lying? Certainly this was not well-planned, but it hasn’t really been said what a good plan would have looked like, and where, if not in Hoboken and Kearny, they could possibly put all those trains.

    Is part of the problem, apart from leadership, just that the system’s infrastructure itself is not well-equipped for flooding? Certainly it does seem to me that just about every part of it East of Newark is very low in elevation. What are the other options here?

  11. Phantom says:

    Who says that every train car had to be in a yard?

    Plenty of them could have been moved to track at higher ground like NY did

    After they saw what the NY subway did last year with the shutdown and securing of all equipment, as repeated this time, against a background of very loud warnings of a megastorm aimed directly at NJ?

    How many rail cars were moved to high ground? Any?

    • Gamma says:

      You cannot just pick a high portion of the line and move the rail cars and locomotives there. If the equipment is to be left on the main line during a storm it has to be secured REALLY well so that it does not roll one way or the other after a few days when the air leaks out of the brakes. Just imagine the headlines in the newspapers and the images on TV if a train set or two start rolling downhill from the place they were parked (you do not need a large slope for this to occur), then derailed on some curve or switch and smashed into a bunch of houses. I guarantee you that such a scenario would be much more expensive than the repairs currently needed to all rolling stock.

      • Spendmore Wastemore says:

        Air leaks out of main brake line…

        that means the brakes clamp on. Air pressure is used to hold the brakes off, so that the failure mode is brakes on.

        There’s also a parking brake.
        and wheel chocks.

        Aside, it’s wise to carry a couple of folding wheel chocks in your car, packed in with the spare tire. When you have eventually have to change a tire en route, there’s no button to push labeled “helicopter my car over to a 100% level spot of hard pavement”.

        • Gamma says:

          Unfortunately these statements about brakes are not completely correct and that is where the problem is. Yes, drop in the air pressure causes the brakes to be engaged, but the pressure for this is supplied from a reservoir in each car. If the reservoir is not refilled after a few days, the pressure will drop enough by leakage for the brakes to become dis-engaged. For reference read up on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railway_air_brake .

          Also all the parking brakes and the wheel chokes did not help that cargo train that washed on the Turnpike, so parking stuff on the mainlines is not as simple as it sounds. Yes, it can be done, but it is no easy thing and in the light of liability issues with a train rolling downhill, it is not a decision to be taken lightly by any railroad.

          • Walter says:

            A train of empty passenger cars is much easier to secure than a heavy freight train, so chocks and a hand brake on each car should be enough to secure passenger trains on at least moderate grades. Metro-North routinely drops the pantographs on trains in Stamford and New Haven yards to save electricity during high summer usage days, and gets away fine with just a few handbrakes.

            Plus, NJT Transit has a ton of diesel locomotives that should presumably pull cars when evacuating equipment, and could simply run during the entire event making reservoir leakage a non-problem.

      • Phantom says:

        You couldn’t move even one locomotive to a somewhat higher elevation?

        It would have been impossible to do so?

        Did the MTA do the impossible? Did they repeal the laws of gravity?

  12. Spendmore Wastemore says:

    “Was this inept leadership from people who just don’t care?”

    Yet another one of Ben’s posts which makes me think “dunno who this Kabak is, but the guy’s OK”. This is the sort of thing everyone close to the action knows but has practiced 283 ways not to say.

    It’s curious that a first time poster here has conducted a brass band of “Not Their Fault”, expounded allegro meso-forte in D Minus for the brave, new Episilon class of embedded employee. Eric F might do well to offer his debating services to a group trying to stick Intelligent Design into public school curicula; he does a fine job of avoiding those nasty, logical methods used by communists scientists and reality based pencilnecks, hoping no one will notice that

    Swampland at the intersection of two rivers
    at high tide
    at the highest storm surge of the past 100 years
    is rather not a great place to park electrically powered stuff worth a million per unit.

    Saltwater doesn’t care with how honey-voiced you can trill “NotMyFaultNotMyFault-Hoo-Hooo-HooCoulddaKnown WoulddaCoulddaWoulddaCouldda Hoo-Hoooo”.
    Could it be that saving the equipment wasn’t what these people were aiming for, their MO is blameshifting and pensionpadding.

    • Eric F says:

      Romney, intelligent design? What the heck??!!

      If you want to make this ideological, you can very easily post:

      “The road network was 100% restored within two weeks after the hurricane. The rail network, including subway, PATH, NJT and the LIRR is still not back at 100% and may not be for months. Discuss.”

      Please, in all sincerity, point to one post anywhere on any site on or before October 28 that said, ‘NJT better be evacuating Meadow’. I’d love to see that. That could be a key point to be brought up in any inquest, if it were out there with any visibility.

      Do you know what takes no perspicacity? Predicting the past.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Calling the flood wasn’t hard. I don’t know who knew NJT was deliberately storing equipment in storm surge-prone lowlands (I sure didn’t), but there is a number of people, including me, predicting a bad storm surge on this SAS thread.

        And, you make it ideological almost every time you waste everyone’s time making up strawmen to attack. Can you kindly take a minute to read and understand what people are saying before you blow your load responding to all these things nobody suggested? I made a narrow comment about Romney: he lost, in part, because he didn’t take the mathematics of the race seriously, and relayed on the “gut feeling” of his advisers. Even if you disagree with that, why the hell should it bother you so much?

      • Spendmore Wastemore says:

        “point to one post anywhere on any site on or before October 28 that said, ‘NJT better be evacuating Meadow’

        This is exactly the sort of excuse used by people with contempt for doing their job. It’s NJT’s job to know their property and contact weather services in advance so that they can make that call. A director pulling in $200K+ per year can’t use the excuse “but no one stood over my shoulder telling me how to do my job”.

        In this case, that work was largely done for them. There was massive publicity regarding the expected storm surge, and that it would be larger than any in recent history. It isn’t rocket science to add up
        — “Our big yard in next to swampland”
        — “Our other yard flooded quite recently”
        — “This time a storm is headed straight at us, not a couple states away”

        Conclusion: May as well roll stuff away from the coast. Hey … they’re _trains_, we could just couple them together and have an engineer move 40 cars at a shot! Hey, we have train operators etc already on the payroll… and since it’s an emergency we can even use yard staff, management, repair shop staff and so on to move the stuff.
        Yes, this is very subtle reasoning, requiring an Feynman-esque knowledge of nuclear physics, fluid dynamics and the puddles outside Ms Beasely’s 3rd grade class.

        btw, for that $ multi-hundred K pay package, we could hire Ms Beasely, a PhD in risk management, a hydrologist and the entire 3rd grade class. The 3rd grade knows that you don’t mix water and high voltage.

        • Nathanael says:

          Amtrak moved a bunch of its equipment to CHICAGO and FLORIDA in advance of the storm.

          All NJT needed to do was move it to Boonton.

  13. LLQBTT says:

    And it’s a shame because NJT has so much ROW on higher ground, such as the Main Line Ridgewood and north, Hackettstown and so on. Even by Montclair, just to rattle off a few of many.

    • Eric F says:

      There should be an independtly-produced written post-mortem on what NJT did right and wrong and next steps. They have to fix their stuff first before they start on that, but that’s a fairly obvious thing to do. My intuition is that there are some obvious remedial steps that could help a bit, and there are some key steps that would help a lot and will cost an absolute fortune to implement.

    • Gamma says:

      Monclair is high and generally not flood prone, but it is in a woody area with lots of trees next to the right of way. Storing the equipment next to trees some of which are known to have been uprooted in the past is not a good idea if you do not want them falling on the equipment. Also moving the equipment afterwards will be a nightmare with the catenary wires down onto the equipment.

      Ridgewood is certainly better as the right of way there is wider and the trees are further away from the tracks. Also there are no catenary wires to fall onto the rail cars, but then it is still not a piece of cake because the electric equipment cannot get there by itself.

      Overall it is not all that easy to store stuff on the mainlines. It can be done, but not as simple as driving your car and parking it on the side of the highway.

      • Nathanael says:

        The point that the ROW has not been kept clear of trees is an important point. This is something which needs to be done and is standard practice.

  14. Andrew Smith says:

    1. Those who argue that it was reasonable to place hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment in the Meadowlands on grounds that the yard there had never, ever flooded — not in more than a century of use — seem to be ignoring the weather forecast. It simply is not reasonable to take that risk when the professionals say, “This will be worse than any previous flood, so experience doesn’t matter and our models say that yard will probably be under water.”

    2. That said, I suppose it is possible that the Meadowlands was the best place to put the trains, that there really is no place whatever, owned by NJ Transit, where the overall danger to the rolling stock would have been lower. But it seems really, really improbable. For me to believe this was a calculated risk and a smart call given the information available at the time, I’d need an unimpeachably genuine document from before the storm, written by NJ Transit execs and saying, “We realize that the Meadowlands probably will flood but it is still our best option because every other storage place poses a worse danger for reasons X, Y, and Z.”

    3. Barring such a document, the people who did this need to face consequences. Every single person who signed off on this needs to be fired. Now. The people who really called the shots probably need to be prosecuted for criminal negligence and sent to jail. People, on boards like this and elsewhere, always bitch and moan about stuff like this and wonder why it’s possible. It’s possible because there are never serious consequences and because the lack of consequences does two things: prevents public agencies from weeding out incompetent people and, worse, gives the people who run those agencies incentives to intentionally worsen problems rather than avoiding them. Think about it. Suffering huge damage in a storm is terrible for the people who ride NJ Transit but great for the people who work for NJ Transit. The more storm damage there is, the more OT there is for the workers who fix the track, the more contracts there are to award for new rolling stock, the more overall activity and money and manpower that’s needed at the agency. NJ Transit employees will remember this storm as one of the best things that ever happened to them, the thing that sent their kids through college, and it’s just not acceptable to have incentives mismatched that much.

    • Phantom says:

      Andrew Smith

      Your point 3 is hard, but correct.

      But the governor appears to be asleep on this issue, so there will be no accountability.

      • Nathanael says:

        Unfortunately, that’s why it’s a bad idea to elect clowns like Chris Christie. Preparation, planning, and expertise are not things which are valued in the Republican Party any more.

        • Phantom says:

          The Republicans were not in charge of Ray Nagin’s New Orleans.

          The lack of preparation and planning is very bipartisan in this country.

          If there are to be solutions,they too must be bipartisan in.nature.

          • Bolwerk says:

            I’m not sure Ray Nagin was in charge of Ray Nagin’s New Orleans. I know it has its charm, but that was a poor, broken city living on borrowed time, in a state that never much cared for investing in infrastructure. Nobody, from the feds on down, was going to build the kind of Rotterdam-style levy system needed to save New Orleans.

            Sure, there are plenty of examples of incompetent Democrats. Republikans are just much worse because at least the modern crop is literally ideologically opposed to public investment. That’s why Bush could tell Michael Brown, who recently reemerged, he was doing a “heckuvajawb” with a straight face.

            And one thing’s for sure: a lot of the public investment we should have been doing yesterday, while we had (and still have) record low borrowing costs, could be what saves our butts tomorrow.

            • Phantom says:

              New Orleans couldn’t cone up with a plan to move its school buses from the lowest lying areas when the well publicized storm approached?

              If they couldn’t be responsible for that, they couldnn’t be responsible for anything.

              http://www.google.com/search?q.....=644#biv=i|9;d|bKCXzr-F2MadLM:

              How soon we forget.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I’m sure NOLA’s denial mechanism is similar to — well, Eric F.’s? When bad shit happens, the commentariat gropes around for simple explanations; “conservatives” blame “liberals,” “liberals” blamed Bush, Bush pretended nothing was wrong, blah blah. Christian supremacists blamed homosex for the flood. (The gay part of town survived more or less intact.)

                I think the key term is “institutional failure,” and it’s certainly not strictly a partisan thing. I take it to be regional. The northeast is perhaps at least risk of environmental disasters, historically anyway, but has generally been better at dealing with them than elsewhere in the USA. Earthquake-prone California is probably the only place that copes as well.

                Anyway, the thing with NJT was an obvious flub, as NJ overall dealt well with Sandy. But I somehow doubt that Chris Christie teleported to NOLA in 2005 would have been able to cope much better than Nagin.

  15. publicadmin031568 says:

    I will not comment on the ineptness of NJT’s railroad operations during Hurricane Sandy, as this has been dissected quite well already.
    My questions are about NJT BUSSES. Let’s say I work for NJT as a bus driver. Could I not be counted upon to drive my bus to higher ground before the storm? Could I not have been allowed to use the bus to evacuate my possessions as well as my family? Shades of Katrina here, folks!

    • Phantom says:

      Publicadmin

      How many NJT buses were water damaged?

      We’ve heard of the flooded trains, but I had not heard of any significant water damage to buses.

  16. JJJ says:

    The good news is that MAP-21 includes a new section on replacing damaged equipment after an emergency.

    NJT will be first in line for the dedicated funding. I, for one, welcome the new fleet of federally funded rail cars.

    • Phantom says:

      JJJ

      That almost makes one think of the possibility that NJT’s complete lack of action was intentional.

      Lose old rail cars to salt water, get Uncle Sam to buy new stuff to replace them.

      These NJT guys maybe smarter than anyone thinks!

      • JJJ says:

        That was my initial thought as well. My first question was: what was damaged, was it 100% 40 year old vehicles? Because if so, they did good. Have nature destroy vehicles, have the feds buy new ones with the budget which started up on October 1st.

        Personally, I would have rushed to store as much old equipment in Hoboken as possible. Cram them in.

        Sadly, it looks like it was newer stock that was damaged. Meaning they didnt quite think it through too well.

  17. JJJ says:

    One other thing, is there a list of places where trains COULD be stored?

    I mean, train yards are where they are because no one else wants to live there. NJT doesnt exactly have prime pick of real estate. Go ahead, try proposing a new rail yard anywhere, enjoy your fifty years of litigation.

    Might just be it was meadowlands or meadowlands.

    • Phantom says:

      Again, this was a temporary situation. The idea was to get those cars out of the Low lying yards and onto tracks that were on higher ground. Its labor intensive, which is why the NY subways were shut down 24 hours before the storm, so they ha time to move it all.

      Lots of the NY yards were exposed such as the giant yard at Coney Island. Everything had been moved out of there by the time the storm surge hit.

      I can’t believe that there were no high ground tracks available and no means to get them the cars there.

      • JJJ says:

        Well, take for example the NEC with its 4 tracks. Is it possible to simply park trains in the middle two tracks for a couple of days? Or are things like that not an option?

        • Phantom says:

          Aren’t those tracks owned by Amtrak? ( Though I think that they would be cooperative )

          There are outer tracks by Newark Airport that I have never seen a train on. They surely could have been used.

  18. BBnet3000 says:

    Eric F: Didnt plenty of MTA yards that have never flooded before flood? (west side yard, 178th st?) This is why you leave flood forecasts to the people who do flood forecasts, and get your trains out of the areas that they say may flood, as MTA did.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] « The many mistakes of New Jersey Transit Nov […]

  2. […] had never flooded before so why would they know. In light of a new report, these mistakes, which I examined in November, seem even worse […]

  3. […] very closely. The agency suffered $450 million worth of damage to its rolling stock because it made many mistakes including erroneous modeling and the ignominious decision to ignore a report on vulnerabilities […]

  4. […] The agency suffered through $450 million in damage to its rolling stock when officials made a slew of mistakes including, as I mentioned, erroneous storm modeling. Claiming that their emergency preparedness […]

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