Archive for New Jersey Transit
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.
The never-ending push to generate excitement and, more importantly, revenue from transit naming rights deals has spread across the Hudson. New Jersey Transit is engaged in an effort to sell the naming rights to stations and advertising space on trains, and the bidding procedure has sparked a controversy.
Mike Frassinelli of The Star-Ledger reports:
In the not-too-distant future, a commuter going from Newark to Hamilton might board a Minute Maid express train and take it to Sprite Platform at Coca-Cola Transit Center. Such an itinerary could result from NJ Transit’s intention to sell advertising rights to its stations, terminal facilities and locomotives.
This planned sale of naming and product-advertising rights has set off a frenzy among companies trying to pay NJ Transit tens of millions of dollars to broker the potentially lucrative sales. It also has led to a formal protest from one bidder, who contends the transit agency would leave almost $12 million on the table by renewing with the advertising company that now holds the contract.
Craig Heard, president and CEO of Gateway Outdoor Advertising in Hackettstown, said NJ Transit did not allow his company into the final round of bidding even though Gateway’s $65 million offer of guaranteed revenue was nearly 20 percent more than the $53.3 million guaranteed by the current contractor, the Titan Outdoor advertising agency.
Over the past few years, I’ve followed transit naming rights deals closely, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they are mostly smoke and mirrors. Transit authorities speak glowingly of them as potential revenue sources while advertisers sound excited for a few months. When the bidding process begins though, dollars at all but the most trafficked of stations fall far short of expectations.
In New Jersey, I can see a few things happening: First, the deal to sell ad space on the outside of trains will be far more popular and lucrative than the station naming rights deals. Perhaps NJ Transit can realize some dollars for Newark Penn Station or Trenton, but beyond that, it won’t sell many station names. Second, New Jersey Transit is sacrificing some dollars by putting its eggs in the Titan basket. This company, after all, was recently dumped by the MTA for failure to make payments.
Anyway, with money short, New Jersey Transit seems to be joining a long list of transit authorities who think they can strike gold when all they’ve found is nothing.
In addition to increased cross-Hudson capacity, one of the primary benefits New Jersey commuters would have derived from the ARC Tunnel concerned travel speeds. As New Jersey Transit, its equipment and its lone Hudson river crossing are configured, riders along the Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast Lines do not enjoy one-seat rides into New York City. Through a combination of equipment upgrades and capacity increases, commute times would have dropped and property values would have increased.
With ARC off the table and its replacement years or even decades away, New Jersey Transit officials are trying to deliver on that one-seat promise without a new tunnel. Earlier this week, NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein pledged that he would work to make the one-seat ride a reality along the Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast Lines. Larry Higgs from the Asbury Park Press offers up a little bit more:
In both cases, NJ Transit officials will go forward with equipment purchases that were part of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project, canceled by Gov. Chris Christie in October over concerns about cost overruns the state would have had to absorb. “One of the issues is acquisition of more bilevels,” Weinstein said. “There are 100 on order and we’ll go forward with that.”
The first of 36 dual-mode electric and diesel-powered locomotives, which will be essential to providing one-seat ride service on rail lines now served by diesel locomotives, is scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s testing facility in Colorado, Weinstein said.
“I don’t think anything precludes a one-seat ride,” he said. “We’re going forward with the dual-mode locomotives. There are issues we have to work out at some point to provide a one-seat ride.”
Beyond Higgs’ story, news reports don’t add much to this revelation, and I’m curious as to where it will go from here. The main problem is that the Hudson River tunnels cannot handle increased traffic, and if New Jersey Transit is promising new one-seat rides along certain routes, it will likely have to take away some river crossings from other routes. That’s not going to be too popular among commuters.
Meanwhile, an alternative to Amtrak’s Gateway alternative is making the rounds. As Higgs also reported earlier this week, New Jersey rail advocates have proposed yet another plan to build a tunnel. He reports:
The plan, outlined by Joseph Clift, a member of the Regional Rail Working Group and a past Long Island Railroad planning director, would put off building some of the more potentially expensive parts of the Gateway project to a second phase. As a first phase, the group proposed building a new two-tube tunnel, a new bridge next to the existing Portal Bridge and a second set of tracks on the Northeast Corridor line from Kearny to the Hudson River to relieve bottlenecks.
Gateway’s plans to build a “Penn Station South,” consisting of seven tracks and four platforms under Manhattan’s 31st Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, would be deferred to a second phase under the group’s plan. That phase would include Gateway’s proposal to construct two new sets of tracks between the Passaic River and west of Secaucus Junction, a second set of platforms at that station and some new bridges.
“It is a much more accomplishable project,” Clift said. “You would have a project that is more affordable (to start) because all the Manhattan property cost (for Penn Station South) goes away.”
Funding would come from a variety of sources. New Jersey would reapply for the $3 billion in federal funds it sacrificed when Gov. Chris Christie canceled ARC while the Port Authority would contribute its billions as well. New Jersey and Amtrak would contribute money as well.
With all this talk though of replacement plans and one-seat rides, I have to wonder if too many cooks are stirring the cross-Hudson soup. New York is working on formulating a plan for the 7 line extension with New Jersey while Amtrak is requesting $50 million to start planning on NEPA work on their Gateway Tunnel. This third proposal throws yet another variable in the mix and could garner support from state officials in New Jersey. At some point, the region will need a concerted, unified and funded effort if cross-Hudson rail expansion is to be realized any time soon.
As snow and ice knocked out the MTA’s full service at points during January, New Jersey Transit suffered as well. As Mike Frassinelli of The Star-Ledger reports today, the commuter rail service saw trains delays hit a six-year peak as January’s winter onslaught led to more and more late trains.
Noting that New Jersey Transit considers trains late if they arrive at least six minutes after the scheduled time, Frassinelli offered up the gory details: “Trains were late six or more minutes 8.8 percent of the time last month, the worst showing since January 2005, when the number was 11.1 percent. Last year, only 4.1 percent of trains were tardy for the same month.” To make matters worse, nearly 25 percent of all peak-hour Northeast Corridor trains were delayed.
New Jersey Transit officials were quick to point fingers at the weather. “January’s on-time performance is what you’d expect in a month of extreme weather,” Dan Stessel, agency spokesman said. “We played the hand we were dealt as best as we could. We believe the system performed better in January than similar extreme-weather months in past years.” That said, I can’t help but think that a new cross-Hudson tunnel built for the benefit of New Jersey Transit would go a long way toward alleviating these constant delays. As the trains grow more crowded, after all, it’s only going to get worse.