Archive for New Jersey Transit
Come next February, New Jersey Transit will be in charge of taking tens of thousands of Super Bowl-bound riders to and from the Meadowlands, and to that end, someone decided to go on a scouting trip to New Orleans a few weeks ago. It was, unsurprisingly, a trip not without controversy. As The Record reported today, three New Jersey Transit officials managed to spend $14,000 on a four-night trip, including nearly $8000 on lodging and over $5000 for airfare. I realize Super Bowl week in the Big Easy is expensive, but that is one hefty bill for taxpayers to stomach.
To make matters worse, one of the men on the trip was Joseph Meade III, the superintendent of the Hoboken rail yards who was one of the people in charge during New Jersey Transit’s disastrous non-response to Superstorm Sandy. Meade has come under fire from New Jersey politicians for his role in the storm planning, and this latest development won’t make matters better.
Now, on the one hand, it is important for New Jersey Transit officials to prepare for next year’s Super Bowl and the related festivities, but on the other hand, a $14,000 four-night trip seems particularly egregious. It’s worth noting, as well, that everyone involved in NJ Transit operations during Sandy is still employed by the agency. What a mess.
Even as New Jersey Transit nears its pre-Sandy service levels, stories of its storm preparation failures have continued to emerge. Despite questions concerning what NJ Transit executives knew and when, we’ve seen Gov. Christie defend his deputies in charge of the transit agency. Now, a new casts further light on mistakes New Jersey Transit made in advance of Sandy’s landfall.
The latest comes to us from Reuters where Ryan McNeill and Janet Roberts have reported that NJ Transit botched its own modeling. They report:
New Jersey Transit incorrectly used federal government software that otherwise could have warned officials against a disastrous decision to leave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment in a low-lying rail yard before Superstorm Sandy struck, a Reuters examination has found. The agency based its decision, at least in part, on software provided by the National Weather Service that allows users to simulate an approaching hurricane and show areas vulnerable to flooding from storm surge, according to Sandy-related forecast documents obtained by Reuters from New Jersey Transit. Exactly how the agency used the software is unclear because the agency declined to answer any specific questions.
Reuters asked for the documents that New Jersey Transit relied upon in deciding to leave the trains at its Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, New Jersey. Among the documents was a screen-shot of storm prediction software that indicated the user had the storm traveling northeast, away from the New York area, while moving at the wrong speed. As a result, the software predicted surges that were about half the levels actually forecast – errors that underestimated the threat to the Meadows complex.
New Jersey Transit takes issue with the findings. But a Reuters analysis shows that had the software been used to produce surge estimates similar to forecasts, agency leaders could have seen a different picture. The result would have pointed to potential inundation of a large portion of the rail yard, mirroring the flooding that ultimately occurred.
In a back-and-forth with Reuters, New Jersey Transit defended its actions. “NJ Transit used the most current weather forecasts and available data at that time,” spokesman John Durso said, “along with accepted analysis practices by emergency management professionals and historical experiences, to inform and guide decisions up to and through Sandy.”
Yet, despite these protests, a Reuters examination of documents made available by the agency showed that their inputs into the modeling software differed from the forecasts at the time. Additionally, New Jersey Transit did not reach out to the National Weather Service’s New York or New Jersey offices to receive updated forecasts or storm surge predictions.
Ultimately, New Jersey Transit cannot undo their costly mistakes to model the storm and protect their rolling stock, but it seems, again, that someone should be held responsible for the agency’s failures. If anything, the corporate culture seems to be one of isolationism and stubbornness, and the people who suffer the most are the riders. At a certain point, saying “Well, we tried” isn’t good enough, and we’re well past that point.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is flying high these days. After taking a hard stand against his GOP colleagues in the House on Sandy relief, his star has risen among both Republicans and Democrats in the northeast. While his national future is cloudy — it’s hard seeing too many GOP establishment figures lining up behind him right now — he has bipartisan support in his own state and in New York as well. Still, his defense of New Jersey Transit’s actions during Superstorm Sandy leave much to be desired.
While speaking to reporters earlier this week about his extreme disappointment in Congress, Christie again responded to criticism over New Jersey Transit’s handling of its rolling stock. Saying that NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein’s decisions were “not a hanging offense,” Christie issued a rigorous defense of the transit agency. A reporter and Christie engaged in the following exchange (via Transportation Nation):
Reporter: In light of the report last week that NJ Transit had been warned months ahead of time that rail yards in Kearny would likely flood in the event of a storm like Sandy, do you still support the leadership?
Christie: “I absolutely support the leadership — and I don’t believe that that’s what the report said. I mean, I think you’ve gilded that report up pretty well in the lead up to your question. I don’t think that’s what the report said. I think these guys made the best judgement they could under the circumstances. And all of you are geniuses after. Once you see that the Kearny yards flooded, you could say ‘well, geez, they should have moved the trains.’ Well, you know, if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, executive director Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains. This is a guy with decades of experience in government, with extraordinary competence, who made the best decision he could make at the time. Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It’s not a hanging offense.”
“If they knew for sure it was going to flood, we would have moved the trains” is a great statement in modern times. We already know what the report said because we had a chance to read it last week, and we know that Weinstein himself admitted that he hadn’t studied it much prior to the storm.
What strikes me about Christie’s language, though, is the definitiveness of it. Last summer, Christie yelled at surfers to get off the beach before Hurricane Irene when we didn’t know how Irene would hit the area or behave. We didn’t know what would or wouldn’t flood, but citizens were expected to act as though the worst might happen. Here, with Sandy — a stronger storm aiming directly at New Jersey — Christie is excusing NJ Transit’s response because they didn’t know Kearny would flood. Of course, they didn’t know; that’s part of the unknown of a weather event. But being safe rather than sorry is why New York had its transit system up and running relatively quickly.
New Jersey failed, and, as an added insult, some Metro-North trains suffered damage because of it. They were warned; they ignored the warnings; and Weinstein should be replaced. I think it’s that simple.
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.
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.
PATH trains may be out for as much as 7-10 days, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced at a press conference this morning. Noting that the system sustained “serious damage,” Christie explained that with salt water in the system, crews will have to drain, inspect and repair the PATH system.
Additionally, Christie said, there is “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines” and “large section of track were washed out.”The New Jersey governor anticipates that New Jersey Transit trains will be offline for a few days as well as the system sustained a lot of damage but thinks those trains may be back sooner than PATH. As always, I’ll update as news develops.
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Update (3:02 p.m.): As more news has emerged from New Jersey, the situation for New Jersey Transit sounds dire. As the agency tweeted earlier today, “Early inspections this morning reveal that Sandy has devastated NJTransit’s operation & infrastructure.” Service will not returning any time soon.
Kate Hinds from Transportation Nation had more from NJ Transit officials. An agency spokesperson said the network had been “quite damaged, if not crippled.” “This is unprecedented damage,” Nancy Snyder said. Hoboken, Secaucus and Newark Penn Station were still underwater, and New Jersey Coast Line bridges had sustained serious damage as well. There is currently no timeline for the resumption of service.
Toward the end of last year, New Jersey Transit released its first quarterly customer assessment report, and the results were not good. Overall, the agency drew in a 5.3 on the customer satisfaction scale with rail scoring even lower. Now, the next quarter results are available, and the pictures looks even bleaker.
As the survey shows, customer satisfaction with New Jersey Transit is now down to 5.1. Only 55 percent of rail travelers say they would recommend the service to a friend, and perception of on-time performance is lagging as well. NJ Transit, however, noted that its own on-time rail performance was at a very respectable 94.9 percent. Other complaints focused around dissatisfaction with communication during service disruptions — a challenge transit agencies everywhere must face — and issues surrounding frequency of weekend service.
So what’s going on here? One article on the survey speculates that riders remember only the bad trips and the myriad problem-free rides. The long delays stick out and cause headaches, and New Jersey Transit should get credit for improving its on-time record and upgrading its rolling stock. Furthermore, the agency won’t be raising fares this year. Still, without added cross-Hudson capacity, the commuter rail network will never be able to achieve its potential, and its customers seem to recognize as much.
Geography or schematic? That is the question. In a new map showing the state’s commuter rail network, New Jersey Transit has gone with the latter. The new diagram, unveiled yesterday, is supposed to be “customer-friendly” with “more open design and new color scheme for easy customer reference,” the agency said.
“The new design is intended to be simple, familiar and inviting, not only for our regular customers, but also for those residents and visitors who have never before traveled on the State’s rail network,” NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein said. “We hope that customers will find the new map to be a valuable tool in their travels on our system.”
The map, designed in house, marks a move from the previous version which featured the train system in a purely geographic setting. Through color-coding and a streamlined design, the map now better highglights transfer points and routing. It also features the “completion of Hudson-Bergen Light Rail 8th Street Station, accessibility improvements at Somerville, Ridgewood and Plauderville stations, and the addition of the future Pennsauken Transit Center.”
Still, despite the upgrades, there’s no small bit of state-based protectionism involved. While the PATH system gets its day in the sun and the Port Jervis line branches into New York, New Jersey Transit pays scant attention to SEPTA’s connection from Trenton to Philadelphia and beyond. Transit networks are regional, but this map doesn’t extend far beyond the borders of the Garden State.
While I like the simplicity of the design and the idea behind it, it certainly has its flaws. Over at the Transit Maps tumblr, Cameron Booth is not a fan. Calling the map “sad, tired and amateur,” Booth finds it an unwieldy amalgam of styles: “It seems to have taken elements from many different transit maps and mashes them into one big mess. We have the thick route lines and giant circle transfer stations of Washington, DC Metro, icons for the lines similar to – but nowhere nearly as well executed – the Lisbon Metro, and different station symbols for each and every mode of transit.”
Form vs. function. Design vs. geography. The rail map battle always rages on.
In an effort to provide transparency and improve service, New Jersey Transit released this week the results of its second annual rider survey. Unfortunately for the commuter authority, its riders aren’t very happy. As the survey shows, train customers gave NJ Transit a 4.2 out of 10 in overall satisfaction with announcement during service interruptions ranking just a 3.6. Fares, which have increased a bit lately, earned just a 3.3, and few people said NJ Transit was a good value for the money. Overall, just 57 percent of respondents said they would recommend New Jersey Transit’s rail service to a friend or relative.
While satisfaction with the rail offerings declined, customers ranked buses higher this year than last, and the light rail has been particularly well received with 85 percent saying they would recommend it. For their part, NJ Transit officials said they would use these results to improve. “The customer satisfaction survey results are driving NJ Transit’s understanding of what really matters to customers, enabling us to better respond to their needs and demands,” Executive Director James Weinstein said. “While these results show that overall we’re moving in the right direction, we need to continue to work to make meaningful changes and improvements that increase customer satisfaction.”
It’s notable that the commuter rail network suffered the most with regards to service disruptions. Without an alternate route into Manhattan, NJ Transit will always be at the whim of trains entering through the lone rail access point. Until a second tunnel is constructed — and who knows when that will be — customers will have to wait out those delays.
After a quiet Monday morning spend digging out from this weekend’s storm, the MTA announced this evening that most of its Metro-North service will be restored for Tuesday morning. The agency says that 85 percent of its morning peak customers will have service tomorrow as the entire Hudson and New Haven Main Lines along with the Lower Harlem Line to North White Plains will enjoy a regular schedule. Service will remain suspended on the Upper Harlem and New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as the Port Jervis Line west of the Hudson. It might be a few days for the remaining 15 percent of impacted Metro-North riders.
Meanwhile, across the river, New Jersey Transit said it would restore “most” service by Tuesday morning. As the Wall Street Journal summarized, the authority still expects “delays and cancellations,” but Northeast Corridor trains will run to and from New Brunswick. Trains will leave from New York once an hour and run into the city every 20 minutes. Montclair-Boonton line will go only as far as Little Falls while the Port Jervis line could remain shut for a while.