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.