Newark Liberty International Airport’s monorail system is showing its age, and it will shut down May 1 for a 75-day overhaul, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the transportation system, reported by Steve Strunsky in the Star-Ledger (April 9). The monorail is the only way to get from NJ Transit’s airport station to the airport’s terminals, so train service will also be suspended during the repair period. The repairs include fixes to the steel and epoxy running surface; the years of service have eroded 60 spots along the 6.3-mile system. Buses from airport terminals to Newark Penn Station will replace the monorail.
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In part reacting to the recent fatal train wreck on Metro-North Railroad, NJ Transit announced on April 8 that they would spend half a million dollars on an outside consultant to review NJT’s safety practices, according to media reports. The railroad also plans a 17-member internal committee to monitor safety. Investigations of Metro-North’s safety practices after the wreck yielded multiple criticisms of Metro-North, including assertions that Metro-North lacked a “safety culture” and placed on-time performance ahead of safety. NJ Transit has had a good record on train operations safety; a head-on collision of two trains in 1996 on NJT caused the death of two locomotive engineers and one passenger and led to installation of advanced safety systems on a number of NJT’s rail lines. That accident was eventually attributed to color blindness in one engineer; advanced train control systems might have prevented his train from passing the red signal that he apparently failed to perceive.
Despite an ongoing weekend shutdown of World Trade Center service, PATH may miss its own safety program deadlines, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal by Ted Mann (March 21). The 45-weekend shutdown is needed, PATH said, to allow it to meet deadlines to install “positive train control” (PTC) technology by December, 2015. The advanced safety system was mandated by Congress for commuter railroads after a fatal train wreck in California in 2008, attributed to engineer inattention. Proponents say that wreck, and other accidents such as a recent fatal derailment on Metro-North in the Bronx, could have been prevented by PTC.
A controversial deal in which the Port Authority leased the North Bergen park-and-ride lot to NJ Transit for just one dollar a year may be coming undone, and it may have implications for NJ Transit fares, according to reporting in the Star-Ledger by Steve Strunsky (March 20). The deal is under scrutiny because of conflicts-of-interest allegations involving Port Authority Chairman David Samson, whose law firm had been retained by NJ Transit to help maximize revenue from park-and-ride lots.
Responding to a Federal Railway Administration (FRA) critique of the railroad’s “safety culture”, which the FRA characterized as “deficient”, Metro-North (M-N) Railroad president Joseph J. Giulietti raised the possibility that the line’s attempt to cope with mushrooming ridership may have negatively affected safety. Quoted in reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (March 15), Giulietti said of mushrooming demand, “That’s a fantastic problem to have . . . if you’re a well-run railroad.” He said that M-N would study whether the increasing ridership had caused it to neglect safety. The total number of weekday trains the railroad operates increased to 690 in 2013, a 15% increase over 2004. “At some point, this culture turned into one of, ‘How many trains can we get in there and how fast can those trains get in there?’,” Giulietti said.
Delays to NJ Transit trains are increasing, and commuters are not happy, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 14). In all but one of the last 9 months, Frassinelli writes, NJT fared worse than in the previous year. February, in fact, was the worst month for train delays in 18 years, even worse than January’s experience, which was the worst month in 9 years. In February, just 87.4% of trains received an “on time” rating—but the standard used for determining whether a train is late allows arrival at the destination of 6 minutes later than the time printed in timetables, so trains can be behind schedule but not counted as ”late.” Of the 15,565 trains were operated in February, 2088 were late. Trains on the Morris & Essex Lines and the North Jersey Coast Line seemed to fare the worst, with only 74.6% of trains arriving within the 6-minute window. February was one of the worst months for weather-related events, which may explain why the overall performance was so bad.
A Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) study of operations at Metro-North Railroad has concluded that the rail line suffers from a “deficient safety culture” that emphasized on-time performance while not putting enough priority on the safety of riders and employees. The report, resulting from an FRA inquiry dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” was reported in The New York Times (March 14) by Matt Flegenheimer, who also appeared on WNYC radio to discuss the findings. Prompting the federal inquiry was a fatal derailment on December 1 in which a Poughkeepsie-New York express attempted to round a sharp curve at well over the speed limit. A fatality March 10 on the railroad’s Park Avenue elevated trestle in Manhattan, in which a track worker was killed by a train, again brought the railroad’s practices into the public eye. Among the practices cited by the report was a tendency for the line’s operations center to pressure workers to respond quickly to maintenance issues such as signal failures that would have an impact on on-time performance. The workers said they did not get enough time to properly perform their work.
“I threw the report in the garbage,” said NJ state transportation commissioner and NJ Transit board chairman Jim Simpson, referring to a report for NJ Transit rail operations saying that off-peak discounts for rail riders were not viable “for capacity reasons,” according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 13). “I don’t think the report was worth the paper it was written on, so I’ve asked folks to go back to the drawing board,” Simpson continued. The report was written by staff under Kevin O’Connor, who reportedly has been forced out as general manager of NJT’s rail operations; O’Connor was not at the NJT board meeting on March 12, at which Simpson made his comments.
Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim welcomes the opportunities presented by her new job as NJ Transit Executive Director, a post she assumed March 1. Reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 12) highlights the problems faced by NJT: old infrastructure, balky drawbridges and the like; but Hakim sees opportunity in these challenges. The 54-year-old Hakim comes to NJT from a career as former general counsel of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, followed by 3-1/2 years as executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. She says she’ll spend the first 30 days on the job listening to employees, senior staff, and customers; she has been riding trains and seeking out customers on them, and in waiting rooms. When she worked at the MTA, she commuted on NJT from Livingston, so she already has some perspective on the plight of riders. Lackawanna Coalition chair David Peter Alan, quoted in the Star-Ledger article, said he’s looking forward to meeting with Hakim, and called morale among NJT riders and employees “the worst I’ve seen in almost 30 years on the transit scene.” Alan called for a “new culture” more oriented toward moving people, not just trains and buses. Hakim said that what riders want most of all is more information: “I know that some days are more frustrating than others for our commuters and what I wanted as a commuter was information,” she said.