Archive for New Jersey Transit

After months of taking hits for its non-response to the threat of Sandy, New Jersey Transit announced storm-preparedness plans that will better protect its rolling stock. As The Star-Ledger recently reported, the rail agency has identified two new locations to house trains in the event of a flood threat. “We have an agreement with Conrail. It’s a lease agreement, basically, for that property,” NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein said of storage yards in Linden. “We also have made improvements at our facility in Garwood, which will be able to house a couple of hundred of the rail cars. Between Linden and Garwood, we can do 450 vehicles.”

During Sandy, New Jersey Transit saw damage to nearly 350 rail cars, and the agency has vowed to remove trains from vulnerable areas, including the Meadows Maintenance Complex, if forecasts dictate. As of last week, 46 of the 70 locomotives and 141 of the 272 rail cars had been repaired and placed back in service.

By identifying new storage facilities that are on higher ground, New Jersey Transit is hoping to keep its rail cars both protected and available. Numerous car sets were stranded after Irene when storage areas were cut off by flooding and track wash-outs, and Sandy swamped other storage yards. The agency can’t store trains along the right-of-way due to concerns over downed trees. Perhaps the next discussion should focus around clearing trees from the ROWs.

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A few weeks ago, I had the chance to take the Acela from New York to Boston, and after years of hearing about Amtrak’s terrible WiFi service, I was pleasantly surprised by the Internet connection. I could stream audio for the entire duration of the trip and saw my connection drop just once. Were I trying to do productive work that required web access, Amtrak’s service was more than sufficient.

More recently, I had the chance to compare Amtrak’s service with the cell signal available on Metro-North’s Hudson Line up to Beacon. It was abysmal. Despite the dramatic views of the river, I could barely get my phone to send text messages, let alone load web-based services. For anyone trying to be productive, the Hudson Line seems out of time and out of place, and I’ve run into similar problems along the Northeast Corridor route through New Jersey. The city’s underground subway stations, as we know, are slowly becoming WiFi equipped.

I’ve long been a believer that reliable WiFi can be a big driver of transit adoption. If daily commuters have the opportunity to be online and can hammer out an extra hour’s worth of work during their ride, such access can incentivize them to leave the car at home and hop on the train instead. Amtrak’s service is a good first step, and Metro-North has been threatening to equip their cars with wireless access as well. Now, New Jersey Transit is set to leap-frog them.

Earlier this week, the NJ Transit Board of Directors announced a public-private partnership with Cablevision to provide high-speed wireless internet access at stations and onboard trains. Cablevision will make this network available to NJ Transit riders via a dedicated, trackside Wi-Fi network, and the two companies say this is a first-in-the-nation arrangement.

“Through customer forums and surveys conducted as part of NJ Transit’s Scorecard initiative, we know that wireless internet service will be a welcome amenity for NJ Transit customers, enabling those who wish to remain connected during their commute to do so continuously,” New Jersey’s Transportation Commissioner and NJT Board Chairman James Simpson said in a statement.

Cablevision will shoulder the capital costs of installing new fiber-optics and getting the network up and running. The cable provider will also run the service for 20 years, and the parties believe a full system roll-out will be completed by the end of 2016. The initial phase will involve bringing service to Newark Penn Station, Secaucus Junction and Hoboken Terminal, three of the more heavily-used stations in the Garden State. Stations and rail cars will follow.

While Amtrak’s offerings and the subway’s new system are provided free of charge, according to other reports, only Cablevision customers will avoid a fee. Others will have to pony up if they want to surf while riding the rails. Still, for a modest fee, a reliable connection is well worth it for those seeking out the Internet.

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When WNYC and The Record published their in-depth examination of New Jersey Transit’s failures leading up to Hurricane Sandy, one aspect of their story seemed like a bad joke. In response to a FOIA request for the agency’s storm preparedness plans, NJ Transit had released a four-page memo, all of which had been redacted. It harkened back to an old Onion story, and The Record had filed suit to gain access to the documents.

Today, facing pressure from lawmakers and that lawsuit, NJ Transit released a less redacted version of their storm plans, and unsurprisingly, the document is light on details. Whereas the MTA keeps five three-inch binders worth of materials, New Jersey Transit’s plan is four pages long and offers mainly boilerplate warnings. It urges crews to keep trains out of flood-prone areas without divulging what those areas are and features timelines that many NJ Transit officials admit aren’t sufficient.

Karen Rouse has more:

Details in the plan are sparse and offer little explanation as to why so much of the fleet was left in low-lying areas. The plan does not specify an estimated number of locomotives and railcars that need to be moved to higher ground; system locations that need to be sandbagged; or the impact a storm could have on the shutdown. Such details, however, are in a hurricane plan released by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The NJ Transit plan includes language similar to what the agency used in its pre-Sandy press releases. It says that an orderly shutdown will ensure customers and employees are not at risk, cites the need to protect rolling stock and infrastructure from flooding, and warns that the agency should not announce to the public a date for service resumption until after inspections are completed.

But in contrast to press releases and statements from agency officials following Sandy — which told the public a minimum of 12 hours is needed to shut down the system — the plan says “the actual suspension of service” is triggered “at least 8 hours prior to the storm impacting the state.”

Rail operations Vice President Kevin O’Connor, however, has said that it is not possible to move the fleet in less than 12 hours. “Having a plan to remove the equipment is not possible in 12 hours,” he said in an interview last week. “There is no way I can move every piece of equipment out of the MMC [Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny] in 12 hours.”

A full copy of the plan, courtesy of Transportation Nation’s coverage, is embedded at the end of this post.

What we’re left with though is a confounding conclusion: New Jersey Transit lived through Hurricane Irene; it witnessed the MTA implement its own storm preparedness efforts; and it did the bare minimum to protect its key assets. Nothing that’s come out has made me reassess my view that NJ Transit’s response to Sandy was an absolute failure in leadership. That no one has been held responsible is a real insult to the 940,000 people who use the system every day.

NJ Transit Rail Hurricane Plan

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In my review of WNYC’s reporting on NJ Transit’s response to Sandy, I noted how the transit agency had offered up four redacted pages as an overview of their storm preparedness efforts but neglected to mention the ramifications of the document. The WNYC report was but one half of a two-headed effort with The Record of Bergen County to tackle the story, and Karen Rouse has details on the dispute over the document in her piece in the paper.

According to her reporting, New Jersey Transit refuses to share the four-page document and hundreds of emails due to safety concerns. “Recent events including the uncovering of an al-Qaida-led ­terrorist plot targeting rail service reinforces why NJ Transit will not disclose sensitive information |that could potentially undermine the security of our transit infrastructure, our customers or our employees,” John Durso Jr., a spokesman for NJ Transit, said to The Record.

The Record has filed suit over the redacted and omitted documents, and they are essentially requesting what I said should be requested of NJ Transit. As Rouse writes, they asked for “details about whether NJ Transit had identified locations in its statewide rail network that were at risk for flooding prior to Sandy; whether rail crews were on duty and prepared for Sandy prior to its surge making landfall; and if NJ Transit police officers assigned to its Office of Emergency Management were trained in reading weather forecast data.” The MTA, also vulnerable to terrorist threats, could provide this information readily; New Jersey Transit opted not to. What are they hiding?

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A screenshot of the heavily-redacted documents New Jersey Transit supplied in response to WNYC’s FOIA request.

Since Superstorm Sandy swept through the region in November, I’ve followed the story of New Jersey Transit’s utterly inept reply 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 which led agency officials to move trains to vulnerable areas. No one has been fired yet.

Now, though, we have the ultimate tale in this saga as WNYC’s Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein have put together a comprehensive look at New Jersey Transit’s response. Their piece compares NJ Transit’s actions with those from the MTA, and the Garden State’s rail agency does not come out looking prepared or knowledgeable. It remains a stunning gap in leadership that has gone unpunished in the intervening months.

Throughout the piece, Hinds and Bernstein tackle some familiar territory. The two reporters focus on how NJ Transit used models with incorrect data inputs that led them to think vulnerable areas were safe. They track how officials ignored dire warnings relating to flood zones and rising tides. They touch upon the excuses officials have put forward and the lack of responsibility assumed by anyone in the storm’s aftermath, but as an exercise in synthesis, it tells a very damning story.

“The fate of NJ Transit’s trains – over a quarter of the agency’s fleet – didn’t just hang on one set of wrong inputs,” the two write. “It followed years of missed warnings, failures to plan, and lack of coordination under Governor Chris Christie, who has expressed ambivalence about preparing for climate change while repeatedly warning New Jerseyans not to underestimate the dangers of severe storms.”

When compared with the MTA’s uber-preparedness in the aftermath of both a crushing summer rain storm in 2007 and Hurricane Irene in 2011, NJ Transit’s response is even more bewildering. The trouble started at the top, and even as Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota stayed in close contact, Chris Christie and Jim Weinstein did not. Meanwhile, Hinds and Bernstein offer us more details on the reports NJ Transit commissioned and ignored:

In 2010, David Gillespie, the agency’s Director of Energy and Sustainability, rustled up funding for his own study: “Resilience of NJ Transit Assets to Climate Impacts.” The report was commissioned, Gillespie explained in a presentation to planners in March 2012, to help him sort through a pile of literature that he described as “two-and-a-half feet high.”

The report, prepared by First Environment of Boonton, NJ, also did not mince words. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” it said. And, on page three, it referenced the “Flooded Bus Barns” report, emphasizing that “NJ Transit is already experiencing many of the climate impacts (flooding, excessive heat, larger storms) that are expected to occur in the Northeast over the next 20 years.”

The report specifically did not include recommendations for how to handle train cars. “The mitigation plan we have for moveable assets – our rolling stock – is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said in his presentation. Still, the report suggested the Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC), located on dozens of acres in Kearny and positioned between the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers — might have actually been in harms way in a “storm surge area.”

Gillespie gave several presentations of the report at professional conferences. He shared the report with counterparts at other transit agencies and with the Federal Transit Administration. But, requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records act for all of Gillespie’s emails referring to climate change (which filled an entire box) unearthed no evidence he sounded alarms at NJ Transit about the report, or that he even delivered it to the rail operations team.

The reporting then moves to focus on how NJ Transit ignored week-of forecasts as well:

In the days leading up to Sandy, NJ Transit was at the receiving end of a series of increasingly chilling reports from the National Weather Service that warned of record storm tides of up to 15 feet. “Very Dangerous Hurricane Sandy,” read the briefing issued Sunday, October 28. It contained a personal plea from Szatkowski to take the storm seriously. “If you think this storm is over-hyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution,” [National Weather Service’s Gary] Szatkowski wrote to the agency. That kind of warning “never happens,” he later told WNYC.

New Jersey’s state climatologist, David Robinson, told a panel at a January transportation conference that the forecasting was “brilliant.” “Sandy hadn’t even formed yet,” he said, “and models were showing a major storm.… We had plenty of warning.”

But despite this, NJ Transit was not prepared for the storm surge that swept in and engulfed its yards. Weinstein maintains he was at the yards at around five p.m. on Monday evening when the storm was on its way. “There was no flooding, no indication of flooding. The elevation is about 10 feet. A storm surge of six feet reinforces what we are telling you.”

But the prediction was for up to 15 feet, and even at low probabilities, Szatkowski says those numbers “convey huge, dangerous risk to both life & property.… Based on an analysis, if there was a 10 percent risk of a particular bridge collapsing over the next 72 hours, would that be deemed an acceptable risk? I don’t think so. A 10 percent risk of a catastrophe is huge.”

The real kicker though comes in the documentation. The MTA has publicly released hundreds of pages of documents concerning storm preparedness efforts. New Jersey Transit’s response to a FOIA request for its rail operations hurricane plan was a four-page document in which every single word was redacted. Did they even have a plan or did they just black out four pages to make it seem like their super-secret (and seemingly inept) plan can’t be revealed to the public?

It’s been nearly seven months since Sandy, and the same people are still in charge in New Jersey. We’ve heard story after story highlighting the poor responses, the bad decisions and the misinformed officials, and yet no one has been fired. Does Chris Christie have such a low regard for New Jersey Transit? Is he concerned that admitting an error in hurricane response will hurt his national image? Is everyone willfully ignoring what happened? Now that we know the story from Sandy, these questions demand answers.

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New Jersey Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein keeps digging his own grave over the agency’s response to Sandy, but no one seems willing to fire him. After spending months defending his and his employees’ actions leading up the storm — the same actions that resulted in $450 million worth of damage to vital rolling stock — Weinstein was at it again on Wednesday. This time, he sat in front of a New Jersey State Senate committee and discussed how New Jersey Transit moved trains into low-lying areas ahead of the storm.

Karen Rouse of The Record was on hand to report on Weinstein’s testimony. She summed it up:

NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein acknowledged publicly on Wednesday that the agency actually moved rail cars and locomotives into its flood-prone Meadowlands rail yard for storage just before the yard was inundated by superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters in October. The move resulted in millions in flood damage to the rail equipment.

“We brought some additional equipment in there to store during the storm,” Weinstein told members of the Senate Budget Committee during a hearing on the Christie Administration’s transportation budget Wednesday morning. At the time, he said, “there was no reason to believe it would flood.”

Weinstein did not say how many rail cars were moved into the vulnerable spot, but that it won’t happen again. More than a quarter of the agency’s rail fleet was damaged during the storm, most at the maintenance facility. “We are informed by the experience,” he said. “We won’t be bringing equipment there in the future in the event we are faced with a similar situation as we were with Sandy.”

It won’t happen again! Well, what a relief.

Now, the first question that pops to mind concerns Weinstein’s truthiness. Could he actually believe that “there was no reason to believe it would flood”? Hard to say. Four months before Sandy hit, New Jersey Transit received a report warning of flood-prone infrastructure, and the Meadowlands yard was clearly highlighted in this summary. In late 2012, Weinstein admitted that he hadn’t bothered to read the report despite the fact that New Jersey Transit had specifically commissioned it after Hurricane Irene.

To make matters worse, when handed their own storm-modeled software, New Jersey Transit officials couldn’t figure out how to use it properly. Thus, they were lead to believe that it would be perfectly fine to move trains from high-elevation areas to low-lying spots near rivers that could flood. It was, in effect, the perfect storm of ineptitude and bad planning.

During his testimony on Wednesday, Weinstein further elaborated on the decision. According to The Record, the agency had moved trains to higher ground during Irene, but “after that hurricane, NJ Transit rail crews could not access the equipment because it was surrounded by flood waters in lower-lying areas in Trenton.” So their solution involved moving the equipment into these lower-lying areas and then acting surprised when those lower lying areas flooded. How do all of these people still have their jobs anyway?

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In a week from this Sunday, New Jersey Transit’s electric-powered train service will return to the Hoboken Terminal. Nearly five months since Sandy, this announcement marks a major recovery point for the beleaguered transit agency, and word of this service restoration came during the same week NJ Transit issued its request for federal aid. It’s not nearly as extensive as the MTA’s, but it should have been much, much lower.

Over the past few months, I’ve been very unforgiven toward New Jersey Transit. The agency ignored outside warnings, botched its own internal projections and left a large portion of its rolling stock in vulnerable areas. It suffered damage to 272 of its rail cars and 70 locomotives, and as of Thursday, only 97 cars and 45 locomotives had been returned to service. Only 13 of the 84 multilevel coaches that were damaged are back in service.

Somehow, someway, no one has been held responsible for this destruction. While New York City Transit suffered extensive infrastructure damage, everything that could have been moved to higher ground was. No subway cars were damaged by storm flooding, and the MTA’s preventative measures ensured that a bad situation didn’t get worse. New Jersey Transit officials seemingly sat back and shrugged. They’ve been very defensive in the aftermath of the storm, and everyone in positions of power is still there.

This week, as NJ Transit received its first federal funding grant of around $144 million, Executive Director James Weinstein thanked Garden State officials — including both Senators and his Governor — and outlined the full request for $1.2 billion. “Repairs and resilience both take funding. Money invested in preventing future storm damage will limit the bill for future storm relief – as well as ensuring that our transit systems have a better chance of avoiding service interruptions. We are committed to rebuilding our system in a stronger, more resilient manner to withstand future storms on par with, or exceeding that of Sandy,” he said.

The bulk of NJ Transit’s funding request [pdf] is for rolling stock resiliency. The agency wants $565 million for both short-term safe-harbor provisions and long-term emergency facilities. It’s not hard to make the argument that this requests and facilities should have been in the planning stages, if not completed, long before a calamitous storm swept through the area.

Transportation Nation has a summary of the other requests:

  • $194 million to replace wooden catenary poles with steel ones along the Gladstone Line, constructing sea walls along the North Jersey Coast Line, elevate flood-prone substations, and raise signal bungalows
  • $150 million to upgrade the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, including building flood walls
  • $150 million for flood mitigation at its facilities in Hoboken and Secaucus and to provide crew quarters “to ensure the availability of crews post-storms”
  • $26.6 million to improve the resiliency of the Hudson-Bergen light rail and the Newark city subway.

I won’t begrudge them these requests. New Jersey needs the money for transit investment one way or another, and the region needs New Jersey Transit to be up and running. But Weinstein’s comments continue to irk me. “If you think about it,” he said, “what Sandy has created [is] a billion dollar-plus capital program overnight, basically. And that billion dollar-plus capital program has to be evaluated, implemented, executed and completed, under some very strict guidelines that were enacted by Congress.”

A good portion of that “billion dollar-plus capital program” came about because Weinstein and his deputies didn’t take the storm seriously enough. So now taxpayers get to foot their bills while everyone else keeps their jobs. That doesn’t quite add up.

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Every now and then — or let’s be honest, rather regularly — stories come out about New Jersey Transit that remind us of just how inept the agency can be. Lately, seemingly everyone has escaped responsibility for leaving rolling stock in an area vulnerable to floods as a giant hurricane came in, and despite a $450 million repair bill, Gov. Chris Christie has yet to fire anyone in charge. But there’s more to New Jersey Transit’s problems than that.

On a smaller scale, even mundane stories are a cause for concern. Take, for instance, New Jersey Transit’s decision, after decades of ignoring the problem, to close up a shortcut. For decades, Manhattan-bound riders walking to the Teterboro station were faced with a tough choice: Walk a mile on Route 46, a dangerous road with no shoulder or sidewalks or cross the tracks, an otherwise illegal maneuver that NJ Transit had tacitly approved. That approval ended recently when the NJ Transit built a fence. Officials cited “safety” as the primary concern which is laughable if you consider the remaining access options. It might be “safer” for New Jersey Transit’s exposure to liability, but it’s not safer for the people walking to the train station.

We could debate the best way to solve this problem for a while. Maybe an underpass would work or an overpass, but for now, New Jersey Transit has gone with a fence. And just how much does this fence cost? According to the report, NJT will spend $100,000 to build a fence eight feet high and 300 feet long. One hundred thousand dollars. It blows the mind. According to a fencing cost estimate site, installing 300 linear feet of chain-link fence in Teterboro, New Jersey, should cost a little over $5000. Instead, New Jersey Transit is going to spend twenty times that amount. No wonder it’s impossible to have a rational discussion on expanding the region’s transit network.

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For New York City and the MTA, the post-Sandy recovery has come in fits and starts. Transit managed to protect its expensive rolling stock from any storm- or flooding-related damage, but the tunnel infrastructure suffered billions of dollars in damage. The subway connection to the Rockaways and the 1 train’s South Ferry terminal remain temporarily out of service for the long haul.

For Transit officials, Sandy and the storm surge provided an opportunity to conduct a real-life test of contingency plans the agency had developed over the past half a decade. Since a strong summer rainstorm swamped the system a few years ago and since Irene’s near-miss in 2011, MTA staffers had worked to put together a plan that would provide as much protection as possible. Even though the agency got service back up and running within days of the storm, it could do only so much to protect some of the immovable infrastructure from damage. Tunnels were flooded; signals destroyed; but as I said, the rolling stock remained safe and dry.

Across the river, New Jersey Transit had no such luck. There, officials erroneously modeled storm surges, failed to heed internal warnings and suffered significant operational damage. To make matters worse, everyone involved in planning for the storm is still employed.

As more time has passed, we have come to learn that New Jersey Transit’s damage was even worse than first believed. A recent article in The Record from Bergen County reveals that damage to rolling stock alone could top $450 million, and to make matters worse, the agency has had trouble tracking down spare parts. Karen Rouse had the report:

NJ Transit said [last week] that more rail cars and locomotives — 342 — were damaged by superstorm Sandy than originally thought and that the cost of the storm to the agency has risen to $450 million. Originally, 323 pieces of equipment were reported as damaged and the costs of the storm was thought to be $400 million.

But even as the agency revised upwards its damage and cost estimates, officials could not say where the equipment would be placed if a similar storm were to occur in the near future. “NJ Transit does not speak in hypotheticals,” spokesman John Durso said, adding that the agency is “exploring both short term and long term solutions for safe harbor storage for storms on par with – or exceeding that of Super Storm Sandy.”

…Now, the race to repair the equipment is being hampered by difficulty NJ Transit is facing in finding spare parts, Weinstein said. “The major challenge right now is the repair of the multi-levels [rail cars],” said [Executive Director Jim] Weinstein. He said NJ Transit and Bombardier, a Canadian company that manufactures much of the rail equipment, will be meeting Thursday.

“We’re in the process now of fixing what we believe the price per car will be to fix it,” Weinstein said. He said there are 77 multi-levels that need to be repaired, as well as large diesel and dual-mode locomotives. “The challenge is parts. All of our replacement parts for all of those were destroyed when the maintenance facility flooded.”

You’ll have to pardon my repeated incredulity over the scope of this story, but as more information emerges in fits and starts from the Garden State, no one emerges looking as though they had a clue. New Jersey Transit keps its rolling stock and the replacement parts in the same low-lying flood plane that luckily — or unluckily — enough hadn’t flooded but was clearly vulnerable. They still haven’t identified a price per car for the repairs and seem to have no clear-cut contingency plan in place for the next big storm.

Some of these short-comings will clearly be resolved in the coming weeks and months, but to me, this shows a clear inattention to transit and a lack of understanding of the importance of New Jersey Transit in the region’s economy. Nearly 1 million riders rely on NJ Transit each weekday, but these folks are seemingly an afterthought in the eyes of planners tasked with protecting the system. Somehow, everyone in charge on the day Sandy swept through the area is still in charge today, and that should not stand.

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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.

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