NJ Tran­sit head: Cell­phone use, other vi­o­la­tions un­ac­cept­able

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Michael R. Sisak

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors have found nu­mer­ous safety vi­o­la­tions on New Jersey’s trou­bled com­muter sys­tem, in­clud­ing the lack of on-board emer­gency tools and work­ing fire ex­tin­guish­ers, trains stop­ping too close to each other and work­ers us­ing cell­phones when they shouldn’t have.

NJ Tran­sit Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Steve San­toro dis­closed the find­ings on Fri­day to a panel of state law­mak­ers that’s in­ves­ti­gat­ing the agency in the wake of a fa­tal train crash in Hobo­ken in Septem­ber.

San­toro said the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­view also found train en­gi­neers some­times failed to blow horns at grade cross­ings, as re­quired by law, and didn’t al­ways per­form re­quired brake checks.

San­toro said the find­ings are un­ac­cept­able. He said NJ Tran­sit has im­ple­mented stricter rules for em­ployee con­duct and longer sus­pen­sions for safety vi­o­la­tions, but con­ceded more needs to be done.

A dozen po­si­tions in NJ Tran­sit’s sys­tem safety of­fice, formed two years ago, have gone un­filled. The agency has seen its main­te­nance staffing and spend­ing drop while trains are break­ing down at higher rates than other com­muter rail sys­tems, and it’s been slow to re­place man­agers who’ve re­tired or moved to bet­ter pay­ing jobs else­where.

“New Jersey Tran­sit is at a crit­i­cal junc­ture, and we have is­sues to ad­dress,” San­toro tes­ti­fied. “First and fore­most is the safety of our cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees. There’s no sub­sti­tute for it, no al­ter­na­tive to it and no way around it. It is the pri­or­ity.”

San­toro apol­o­gized for skip­ping last month’s over­sight hear­ing on short no­tice to meet with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors, telling up­set law­mak­ers he didn’t mean it “as a sign of dis­re­spect or dis­in­ter­est.”

San­toro said NJ Tran­sit has ad­e­quate fund­ing to cover es­ca­lat­ing la­bor costs and fees to op­er­ate on the North­east Cor­ri­dor. The agency is pay­ing Am­trak $64 mil­lion this year to op­er­ate on the tracks from Tren­ton to New York City. That’ll in­crease to $73 mil­lion for next year and $104 mil­lion in five years, San­toro said.

A project to in­stall the so­phis­ti­cated safety tech­nol­ogy known as pos­i­tive-train con­trol is fully funded and on sched­ule to meet a De­cem­ber 2018 in­stal­la­tion dead­line, with testing slated for next year.

But other ma­jor cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­tures loom, in­clud­ing new rail­cars to re­place ag­ing mod­els and in­crease ca­pac­ity, and the re­place­ment of the 106-year-old Por­tal Bridge, a choke­point on the North­east Cor­ri­dor near Se­cau­cus.

Still, San­toro pledged NJ Tran­sit wouldn’t hike fares for at least year.

The 16-year NJ Tran­sit vet­eran was ap­pointed to run the agency af­ter the Sept. 29 Hobo­ken crash. One woman was killed more than 100 peo­ple were in­jured when a packed train go­ing twice the 10 mph speed limit slammed into a bump­ing post at Hobo­ken Ter­mi­nal.

San­toro said the agency would look into whether pos­i­tive-train con­trol tech­nol­ogy should be in­stalled at Hobo­ken Ter­mi­nal or if other tech­nol­ogy could be used to au­to­mat­i­cally stop trains at the end of the tracks. Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors have granted the agency a pos­i­tive-train con­trol ex­cep­tion for the sta­tion.

Af­ter the crash, NJ Tran­sit low­ered the speed limit to 5 mph and or­dered con­duc­tors to stand with en­gi­neers and act as a se­cond set of eyes.

Ac­cord­ing to fed­eral data, NJ Tran­sit trains break down about ev­ery 85,000 miles, com­pared to more than 200,000 miles for the Long Is­land Rail Road and the Metro-North Rail­road that serve sub­ur­ban New York City com­muters.

An As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of fed­eral safety data from Jan­uary 2011 through July 2016 found NJ Tran­sit trains have been in­volved in 157 ac­ci­dents since the start of 2011, three times as many as the largest com­muter rail­road, the Long Is­land Rail Road.

Richard Ham­mer, the chair­man of NJ Tran­sit’s board of direc­tors, quib­bled at an ear­lier hear­ing that NJ Tran­sit has got­ten more scru­tiny from reg­u­la­tors than other rail­roads be­cause it counts all in­ci­dents and ac­ci­dents and not just those that guide­lines re­quire the agency to re­port.

All of the in­ci­dents re­viewed by the AP ap­peared to meet fed­eral re­port­ing cri­te­ria. San­toro said Fri­day “there’s no ques­tion­ing the data” used in the AP’s anal­y­sis.

“New Jersey Tran­sit has not fallen asleep at the switch, so to speak,” he said. “We’ve been proac­tive. We’ve been fo­cused. But the sta­tis­tics are what they are.”

CHRIS O’NEIL — NTSB PHOTO VIA AP — FILE

This Oct. 1 photo pro­vided by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board shows dam­age done to the Hobo­ken Ter­mi­nal in Hobo­ken, N.J., af­ter the Sept. 29 com­muter train crash.

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