Home New Jersey Transit Superstorm Sandy and what New Jersey Transit knew

Superstorm Sandy and what New Jersey Transit knew

by Benjamin Kabak

In late November, as Garden State lawmakers grilled the state’s agency officials on their responses to Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Transit executives seemed rather defensive. The rail agency had kept a significant portion of its rolling stock in low-lying areas, and employees and executives kept excusing their decision on the grounds that the areas 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 today.

As The Record reported yesterday, NJ Transit officials had a document on hand that warned of vulnerabilities and flood risks. The final document [pdf] had been delivered to the agency in June, four months before Sandy hit, and NJ Transit failed to act on its recommendations. That $400 million price tag for the damage continues to be a tough one to swallow.

Karen Rouse has more:

The $45,990 study included a map that shows the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards sit squarely in “storm surge areas.” Sandy floodwaters inundated both yards, swamping locomotives and rail¬cars — including 84 new multilevel passenger cars — and damaging spare parts. In those two yards, damage to railcars and locomotives was estimated at $100 million.

Nearly two months after the storm hit, NJ Transit’s rail service is still not operating at 100 percent. And the decision to leave locomotives and passenger cars in the low-lying yards has provoked a torrent of criticism from lawmakers and rail advocates. Throughout it all, NJ Transit officials, at hearings in Trenton and Washington, D.C., have maintained that they had no prior knowledge the yards could flood.

“I wish I had had the foresight and the understanding to know that a yard in the Meadowlands, in Kearny, that the western part of the yard in Hoboken, which had never flooded before, was going to flood. But I didn’t,” Executive Director Jim Weinstein told the Assembly Transportation Committee during a Dec. 10 hearing that focused largely on the agency’s costly decision not to move the equipment out of harm’s way…

NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. said the report was read by David Gillespie, NJ Transit’s director of energy and sustainability, but characterized it as “generic,” with no specific predictions for flooding of the magnitude caused by Sandy…

Weinstein acknowledged to the Assembly committee earlier this month that while the report was completed, “I confess I have not studied it…That study concluded that we had as much as 20 years to adapt to the [climate] changes that are taking place,” he told lawmakers.

He also said NJ Transit relied on weather reports that showed there was a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of flooding in the yards and that the yards had never flooded before in 30 years. Neither Weinstein nor Durso offered details on the data the agency relied upon.

New Jersey rail advocates are livid. “If someone said there is a 10 to 20 percent chance you’ll get hit crossing Route 1, would you?” Joseph Clift, a former LIRR planner and current NJ-ARP member, said. “That’s basically the equivalent risk they took in the Meadowlands.”

The report also flies in the face of public statements made by New Jersey Transit in November and makes me question current leadership’s ability to lead effectively. Yes, it’s true that these areas had never flooded before, but New Jersey Transit officials essentially played chicken with key equipment and infrastructure. With the forecasts from Sandy particularly dire and state leaders urging residents to move from flood-prone areas, New Jersey Transit left its rolling stock in a spot rather likely to flood. And then when it flooded, they were surprised it did.

To me, New Jersey Transit’s attitude toward Sandy and its aftermath speaks to the way rail is classified in the northeast. Despite the fact that more commuters rely upon commuter rail to get into the city each day than they do bridges and tunnels, rail is treated as an afterthought. It’s impossible to fight for an expansion of the rail network or additional service, and executives running these organizations don’t seem too concerned with the safety and well-being of equipment. Sandy was an absolute failure of leadership at New Jersey Transit, and someone should be held accountable.

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lawhawk December 27, 2012 - 11:08 am

NJ Transit knew, or had reason to know, that flooding was a definite possibility. That means that Weinstein’s got some accounting to do to both Congress and the NJ legislature where he testified.

Moreover, even with today’s noreaster, Hoboken saw minor flooding in the track platform areas (the East end). There’s standing water that is close to the top of the tracks, particularly on the Southern end of the terminal. It’s an area that regularly sees flooding during heavy rain events.

The Hudson River was pretty angry this morning, but not near the top of the seawall along where the HBLR embarks in Hoboken or over at Exchange Place where PATH is operating to the WTC.

Through the Meadowlands, the Bergen/Main Line didn’t have flooding today, but the water was well up from its usual high tide levels, and lapping close to the track alignment where the Bergen line bends south towards the hookup with the Main Line along the Hackensack River. That was about as high as I’d want to see it while riding the tracks. Sandy was well above those levels.

Flooding was a possibility. Flooding out a third of the rail inventory was a serious and flawed miscalculation by NJTransit that ignored all the evidence coming in to the decision makers.

Christie needs to step up and hammer this point home. Weinstein needs to be canned for the decisions made to leave that equipment in the flood zones.

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:30 pm

Weinstein should resign. If he doesn’t resign, he should be fired.

Gillespie should also resign or be fired, unless he warned Weinstein or the operations people that they were screwing up (in which case he should be promoted, obviously).

Of course, Christie is probably incapable of appointing anyone competent who understands global warming. 😛 Poor New Jersey.

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:31 pm

Boy, that smiley came out looking wrong. It was supposed to be disgusted and depressed. 🙁

Douglas John Bowen December 27, 2012 - 12:32 pm

Mr. Kabak perhaps inadvertently perpetuates the problem of “afterthought” by defining NJ Transit’s role as (solely?) one involving “commuters.” Substitute “those people” for “commuters,” and one can see why, indeed, it is difficult “to fight for an expansion of the rail network or additional service.” Need contrast? Try the best regional railroad on the Eastern Seaboard, Metro-North, which not-at-all coincidentally dropped the word “commuter” from its title — and its thinking — long ago.

Matthias December 27, 2012 - 2:07 pm

If you’re saying that our transportation systems need to become more holistic by moving away from simple “commuting” to all-around “transportation” then I agree. We need to be able to rely on our systems for more than riding to/from work during rush hour. I cringe every time I hear subway riders referred to as “commuters”. What about the rest of us who are going shopping, to dinner, to a show, or to visit friends?

lawhawk December 27, 2012 - 2:10 pm

There’s been a gradual push towards treating riders as customers and not merely commuters, but even there NJ Transit has failed rail users repeatedly. Sandy is but the latest problem.

Bolwerk December 27, 2012 - 11:51 pm

What about the rest of us who are going shopping, to dinner, to a show, or to visit friends?

Technically, you’re commuting too. You aren’t necessarily “peak commuters.”

But, yeah, NJT’s orientation is pretty skewed, though that’s not entirely its fault.

Benjamin Kabak December 27, 2012 - 4:57 pm

In my defense, I use commuters here as short hand for rail riders, and I probably shouldn’t. I’m of two minds though. The vast majority of riders are commuters and those are the folks with the most political clout. They are why NJ Transit, LIRR and MNR exist.

But on the other hand, railroads aren’t just for commuters. I ride NJT and MNR now and then, and I’m never “commuting” to work on them. I’m just traveling elsewhere. I’ll be more mindful of terminology in the future.

Douglas John Bowen December 28, 2012 - 11:29 am

That’s all one could ask for. Thank you, sir.

Douglas John Bowen December 27, 2012 - 1:08 pm

And a housekeeping note: Joe Clift is not currently a member of NJ-ARP, and has not been for some time, according to NJ-ARP’s membership director. Just FYI.

Alex C December 27, 2012 - 2:40 pm

Acknowledging that areas that hadn’t flooded before could flood would be acknowledging the possibility of climate change being real. You can’t have that in a Republican-run state. Any money lost will just be balanced out by more cuts on services for the poor and elderly (and probably police cuts in poor areas).

Phantom December 27, 2012 - 7:06 pm

Or the possibility that the hurricane bounced into another storm system when it was a full moon.

There have been ” inconvenient ” megastorms much worse than this in the recorded past including this one. If the 1821 hurricane happened today, the Global Warming guys would use it as proof positive that their theories were all true!

Man Made Global Warming may well be true, but we don’t know everything, and this wasn’t the first, or worst, hurricane.

Reaching the City on September 3, 1821, the storm was one of the only hurricanes believed to have passed directly over parts of modern New York City. The tide rose 13 feet in one hour and inundated wharves, causing the East River to converge into the Hudson River across lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street. However, few deaths were attributed to the storm because flooding was concentrated in neighborhoods with far fewer homes than exist today


Alex C December 27, 2012 - 8:51 pm

I don’t dare suggest this was the worst hurricane ever. But I do suggest that a certain political party has been known to put its political talking points to keep donors happy ahead of the people it rules over. This is why I pointed out that this was regarding areas that usually don’t flood before.

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:20 pm

It’s the increased *frequency* of such large storms which provides evidence for global warming. Back in the day, you had one bad hurricane in 1821, and the next in 1936. Now, “100 year storms” have turned into “20 year storms”. That’s due to global warming.

John-2 December 27, 2012 - 2:52 pm

I’d be interested to know how many of NJ Transit’s executives actually use NJ Transit to get to and from work. The same thing would hold true of any commuter rail or subway network anywhere — if the people running the agencies are used to getting to their jobs via autos and the area’s highway, bridge and tunnel network, their self-interest in maintaining those points of access in a weather situation is probably going to be a little higher than if they’re relying on the rail network to get them from Point A to Point B.

If having the rail equivalent of Ray Nagin’s submerged bus fleet post-Katrina in New Orleans is going to personally make your travel life uncomfortable after Sandy, odds are you’re a little more focused on making sure the railcar fleet is out of harm’s way during Sandy.

Michael K January 1, 2013 - 8:17 pm

Actually, I know many upper-level employees at NJT that work at 1 Penn Plaza Newark who live along the Long Branch/NEC lines and take the train everyday. However, the snag in the commute usually occurs between Newark and NYP, not the outer areas.

D in Bushwick December 27, 2012 - 4:21 pm

Somehow the MTA knew to move their rolling stock from low lying areas and it was even reported well ahead of the storm.
NJ Transit leaders simply screwed up and are trying to justify blame with ignorance. Either way, they look like overpaid idiots who likely will see no consequences for their inaction.

Phantom December 27, 2012 - 7:09 pm

I don’t believe anything the NJ Transit guys say.

Are we sure that they are right in saying that the yards were never flooded before?h

lawhawk December 27, 2012 - 7:44 pm

They’ve claimed that they stowed trains before Sandy in both Kearny yards and Hoboken yards where they were not known to have flooded in more than 30 years (essentially going back to when NJTransit came into existence). There is some high ground in Hoboken, but the majority of the yard is within a few feet of sea level.

Portions of the Hoboken yard have flooded in the past (up to and including today’s minor flooding) during severe weather and high tides. That’s all well known.

Phantom December 27, 2012 - 9:20 pm

If these train yards flooded before under any ownership before NJ Transit was formed, then they lied to the NJ public.

Bolwerk December 27, 2012 - 11:53 pm

Oh, I got it. They lost all the records of flooding in 1982…in a flood!

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:24 pm

Actually, it appears that the Penn Central records are largely lost due to disinterest, lack of care, secretiveness, and general bad attitudes from the Penn Central executives.

A fair percentage of Pennsy records were saved by archivists; but the vast majority of the NY Central, Erie, DL&W, Lehigh Valley, Reading, and New Haven records (among others) appear to have been completely destroyed.

But this is a little beside the point; records of flooding would have been in the newspapers, who do keep archives.

Bolwerk December 30, 2012 - 6:23 pm

Obviously I was being facetious, but I’m pretty sure things like the coastal high water level are fairly standard nautical records going back decades or centuries – probably available at least from the coast guard, navy, county archivist, etc..

Someone December 28, 2012 - 9:36 am

Whoops, it looks like the yard’s been flooded. That’s a first.

TeddyNYC December 27, 2012 - 8:59 pm

It’s damn shame what happened to all of those new bi-level cars and locomotives.

JJJ December 28, 2012 - 3:53 am

Has any study been done on whether the new Transportation Bill (which I believe took affect October 1) had any thing to do with the decision?

From what I understand, it is the first federal transportation bill to set aside money to fund damage to transportation infrastructure due to disasters.

That is, on October 1st, a pile of money became available to replace rail stock damaged in a storm, and NJ will be the first to take advantage of it. Sounds like an easy way to update the equipment with federal cash.

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:25 pm

Nope. If that had been intentional, NJT would have put all the *old* equipment in the rail yards which flooded, and gotten the *brand new* multilevels out of the way.

Instead, a bunch of the brand new multilevels were damaged.

This was incompetence, not planning.

BklynJae December 28, 2012 - 8:59 am

It’s basic common sense. If there is a chance of a flood you move the trains to higher ground. To me it sounds like there was no contingency plan. Or planning at all…

LLQBTT December 28, 2012 - 9:30 am

Who needs all this fancy blather anyway? If this train yard is built on was what once a salt marsh or tidal estuary, then what else would any one expect to happen in a severe storm?

Nathanael December 30, 2012 - 3:27 pm

In fact, the entire Meadowlands rail network needs to be seriously rethought; rising sea levels and increased storms mean that the Hackensack and Passaic river mouths are unsafe areas.

Either high viaducts or deep tunnels for all the railway lines, and move the power substations and yards out of the area entirely.

Eric December 30, 2012 - 4:15 pm

That would be extreme overkill. Just build levees around everything, much cheaper.

Nathanael January 5, 2013 - 6:11 pm

Levees around bridge approaches?

Levee design is actually a lot more complicated than you might think. The problem is that there’s a whole bunch of infrastructure running through an area which was, in a “state of nature”, the “overflow basin”. Think about the design problems for a while. As you build levees, you also have to build alternative overflow basins, and then you have to arrange for the water to go into them.

Someone December 28, 2012 - 9:39 am

It feels exactly like when the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011. Three JR East trains ended up lost. I’m starting to question the methods by which the world’s commuter rail systems protect their rolling stock…

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