RUNning in the Spring

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) held their annual spring conference virtually on Friday, April 29. The theme was “Look West— here’s where advocates are fighting to restore/expand rail service in the Western U.S./British Columbia.” Seven advocates from the Rockies, Southwest, Pacific Coast, and British Columbia gave presentations on their specific region’s transit situation.

RUN Chairperson Richard Rudolph made opening remarks regarding RUN’s current activities and the latest challenges faced by rail advocates across North America; he included the fight with CSX in Alabama to restore Amtrak service on the Gulf Coast, the fight against Amtrak long-distance trains becoming triweekly, and the fight to remove the provision in the Passenger Rail Investment and that indicates Amtrak long-distance trains must have 750 miles on a route in operation since 2008. He also honored the late Dana Gabbard. A quick recap of the speakers:

  • Elaine Clegg of Boise’s City Council, also program manager of Idaho Smart Growth, spoke on restoring the Pioneer Passenger Rail Route from Seattle, Washington to Denver, Colorado. In 1997, the last passenger train ran to Boise.
  • Matthew Buchannan, a board member of Transport Action, British Columbia, presented information on the dismal rail situation in suburban and rural British Columbia, and the problems in the Vancouver area.
  • David Stohmaier, Chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, spoke on the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha Route train service, which ended in 1979.
  • President Steve Roberts of California RailPAC, who worked at Amtrak on route planning, spoke on Valley Rail project, and upgrade of rail infrastructure in California.
  • L.A. Metro’s Senior Executive Officer, Project Management Oversight, Julie Owen discussed Valley Rail in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles Metro’s major current construction projects.
  • Jim Souby, chairperson of Front Range Passenger Rail District, spoke on the proposed intercity passenger train service along the Front Range Corridor, starting at the Wyoming/New Mexico border and following Interstate 25 north.
  • J.W. Madison, based in New Mexico and president of Rails Inc, gave a presentation titled Rocky Mountain Flyer: Proposed Amtrak Superliner Service from El Paso, Texas to Shelby, Montana via Albuquerque, Denver, Cheyenne and Northern Montana.

The closing remarks were given by David Peter Alan, Esq., RUN board member, contributing editor Railway Age, and chairperson emeritus of the Lackawanna Coalition. Mr. Alan described the conference as continuing education for all. He noted that there were “14 trains in 1971, 14 trains today”, and closed with a quote from the late Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn for me. Go out and organize.” The next RUN conference will take place on Saturday afternoon, October 29, and will focus on the South.

RUN website: www.railusers.net

On the Rails with the Coalition

On Friday, May 20, folks from the Lackawanna Coalition teamed up with some folks from the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) on an inspection trip on the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines. We left from Newark Broad Street on the 2:16 P.M. Montclair-Boonton train and stopped in Dover for dinner at Ohh Que Rica, an informal Colombian restaurant a short walk from the station. A few of us turned back there, having early-evening appointments, while the rest went on to Hackettstown. There we had a half-hour layover; a few of us stayed at the station or on the train: others braved the oncoming rain to head downtown for a quick beer.

We returned on the Morris & Essex line, some of us peeling off at stops along the way, others going as far as Secaucus, where adventures ensued.

Our travelers included disabled riders: one person is blind, one uses a scooter. Arriving in Secaucus, despite crew having assured us that they would get a bridge plate to our car, our scooter user jumped the (small) gap on his own—it was taking a while, and as he said, “I didn’t want to go to New York.” As he powered forward, we looked for crew members, and we did see them coming with bridge plates from both directions— should have trusted them!

Next was a transfer to a southbound North Jersey Coast Line train to Newark Penn Station, then to a Northeast Corridor train to Hamilton Station and buses home (or, as it turned out, to a car ride to their homes). The train was expected on Track B, so I ensured that folks got there (up, across, and down, a bit more complicated needing an elevator, but doable, and we had time—though signage could have been clearer: the elevator is at the far end of the platform, facing the direction in which the train moves—one is almost ready to give up before looking around that last wall).

As I was upstairs grabbing a snack, I heard an announcement that the train scheduled for Track B instead was to arrive on Track 2—ACK! It was only a minute or so from arrival, so I hot-footed it to Track B to find my colleagues already gone. The NJ Transit employee at the gates said that they had indeed made it, so I relaxed, and headed for the Pascack Valley line.

Arriving home much later, I found an e-mail detailing the further adventures: the 3 did get to the elevator, though signage was bad and it took a while, then made it to Track 2—but they had missed the planned connection! NJ Transit policy, we heard when reporting this to SCDRTAC, is to wait for folks who had been waiting on the original platform to make it to the new one—a practice missed that evening, leading to them catching a later NEC train, avoiding the Newark transfer but at the expense of arriving in Hamilton too late for any of the bus connections.

The final verdict? A good time was had by all; NJ Transit employees along the way were helpful, courteous, and friendly; NJ Transit policies are better on paper than in reality; and South Jersey residents hoping to get home in time to make connections have to leave really, really early!

We did document some station observations on the Lackawanna Coalition’s station-inspection report form, now in beta testing on our website—watch this space for info about its prime-time debut!

NJ Transit Tackles Accessibility—Not a Success

Accessibility—something important to all of us. Some, temporarily able-bodied, need not concern themselves with it on a daily basis, able to simply take for granted that their chosen mode of transportation will not present barriers to free travel.

Any agency providing public service, however, must take into account the various barriers that people might find in attempting to use their services. For transit, some of the obvious concerns are good signage, audio announcements for those with vision-related issues, staircases vs elevators for those using wheelchairs or scooters (and lifts for such devices on buses, as well as bridge plates for train platforms—which need high-level platforms), digital material easy to read via screen readers (PDFs are notoriously difficult for screen readers).

On June 14, NJ Transit held an Accessibility Forum for riders. This mostly-online event (Microsoft Teams was used in Webinar, rather than Meeting, format) started with a public comment period—and instantly, the irony was obvious: the meeting was inaccessible! Speakers were called on to speak, but unable to open their microphones. This was not one or two tech novices with problems, or people with disabilities finding accessibility problems in the forum itself. No, this was the majority of the public speakers, folks who have been on digital platforms throughout the pandemic, getting a message that “only panelists can unmute”.

An agency as large and complex as NJ Transit definitely knows how to run MS Teams meetings—in fact, the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) does that monthly, run by NJ Transit staff—but somehow this forum was mishandled, and a large number of attendees were frustrated. Some managed to testify only by pasting their remarks into the chat feature to be read aloud by a staff person or simply collected for the record. Once this embarrassment was over, a large number of presenters discussed accessibility arrangements for various modes of NJ Transit transportation, from new software programs to equipment, and a lot of good information was shared. The closing portion was public Q&A, limited to the information just presented, which some found a frustrating limitation.

There is a second forum planned for the Fall, so watch the NJ Transit and Lackawanna Coalition Web sites, and the Railgram, to stay informed.

Engineers Mark Off, Making Riders Wait for Trains, Sometimes for Hours

Friday, June 17 was a difficult day forNJ Transitrail riders, including many forced to wait hours for their train. Worse, NJT cancelled service between 7:30 and 8:00 P.M. on most lines; the only later trains were those returning to inner terminals such as Hoboken or Penn Station.

The cause was a rash of calls from engineers who are members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), who called in sick. The Star-Ledger reported that 205 engineers called to mark off on Friday, 143 on Saturday, and at least 133 on Sunday. BLET does not have a contract with NJT, although unions representing employees in other crafts do. The dispute was over holiday pay for Juneteenth, which New Jersey observed that Friday, although the federal holiday was the following Monday.

At first, the situation on the Morris & Essex Line did not look bad. Morning reports indicated that trains had been annulled on the lines to Trenton and the Coast Line, but not the M&E; the sort of situation that could result from an equipment or infrastructure problem at or near Penn Station. As the day wore on, it became obvious that the problem was something else, and that the entire rail system was having a bad day.

For example, no northbound train on the North Jersey Coast Line left Bay Head between 11:10 A.M. and 4:02 P.M.; a 5-hour gap with no substitute buses. The 1:10 and 3:03 trains were cancelled, and this writer was stuck for three of those five hours, along with other riders who were not always kept informed about the situation. Other riders had similar complaints, including one who had to forfeit the price of tickets for the Mets game, because there would be no train home.

NJ Transit went to court and got an injunction against the job action, but the riders were the big losers. We don’t know how many were actually stranded when service was suspended early in the evening, especially to places where buses don’t run. The Lackawanna Coalition asked some pertinent questions on its Twitter feed: “The best the agency could do was to shut down service for the entire night? Not even skeleton service? Even crowded, infrequent trains would not have left passengers stranded.” A later post offered some suggestions: “Opening phone service would have helped stranded folks find alternatives on bus or PATH, rather than considering $100+ car service. This is not acceptable; blame unions, fine, but management is responsible to riders – not just cancelling everything.”

In addition to wondering where management was, some advocates also wondered where Gov. Murphy was. NJT knew about the threat of the “sick out” in advance, and their attorneys were in court on Friday, so where was the governor? Gov. Murphy said on Monday that he was “pissed off” about the situation, but why wasn’t he “pissed off” on Friday? A lot of NJT rail riders certainly were—and stranded, as well!

Report from the Chair: July/August 2022

It has been a hectic month, including a wildcat strike that disrupted service for Juneteenth/Father’s Day weekend, with almost 500 engineers calling out, some 300 trains cancelled, and thousands of passengers scrambling to make alternate plans. NJ Transit filed a request for an injunction (on Friday) but did little to help passengers caught up in the mobility disaster. Shutting down all cross-Hudson trains for hours—virtually the entire system, and not even opening phone lines to assist routine rail riders with alternative options—shows a lack of concern for customers that is simply not acceptable.

Member Joe Clift pointed out that NJ Transit is making itself nonessential, which is a problem for many, but a disaster for those who depend for all their transportation needs on public transit (especially if taxis and car services are out of economic range, as witness the Paterson-bound passenger quoted in The New York Times as looking at a $110 Uber ride). Joe pointed out that, in his days as a LIRR manager, the culture was very different from that of today’s agencies: there, culture was analogous to the theatre’s famous “show must go on” attitude: the highest priority of everyone was that the trains run, regardless of weather conditions or other obstacles.

Last week, NJ Transit hosted an Accessibility Forum; though first described as in-person, later invitations made clear that it was a virtual- first event, with only limited seating in the Newark headquarters board room. What a mess! If the third-largest regional rail agency in the country cannot run a simple Microsoft Teams meeting, then how can they possibly run such a complex system of trains and buses? Read more in this issue.

Speaking of accessibility, we took our first Coalition inspection run in recent memory on May 20, a trip to Hackettstown, and there is a report on that trip in this issue as well.

Report from the Chair

For the first time in 2 years, the NJ Transit board met in person on April 13, 2022. Much was the same: security check-in, label, escort to the 9th floor—yet there were changes: speaker check-in was done online before the meeting, for both phone and in-person speakers; in person, there was not the usual 2 sign-in sheets, speakers and attendees, but only an attendance sign-in sheet. No stacks of paper; similar reliance on the online agenda. The conduct of the meeting was familiar, and it was nice to see more than the portraits of board members, but to actually see them in person. Joyce Zuczek was missing, but Meghan Umukoro did an excellent job of conducting the meeting. During the public comment period, the main difference came after the in-person speakers: there were a number of people calling in via telephone—a welcome addition.

Continue Reading Report from the Chair

NJT Board’s “No” Vote on the Proposed Contract with Academy Is a Huge Break from Tradition: COMMENTARY

The March vote by the NJ Transit Board to reject the proposed contracts that would have given Academy Express, LLC, the right to operate several bus lines in Hudson County for the next 3 was historic, and it represented a radical departure from the past 42 years of board practice.

The decision to reject Academy as an operator and instead award the contracts to Coach, USA, marked the first time that the Board had voted against an agenda item of major significance in the agency’s history, dating back to 1979. The vote was unanimous, in keeping with Board custom.

Continue Reading NJT Board’s “No” Vote on the Proposed Contract with Academy Is a Huge Break from Tradition: COMMENTARY

NJT Signs Contract for Cutoff Construction, but It’s No More than a Baby Step

At its April 13 Board meeting, the first “in-person” meeting in more than 2 years, NJT approved a $32.5 million contract for rehabilitating the Roseville Tunnel, located along the former Lackawanna Cutoff right-of-way, west of Port Morris Yard. The project is part of an effort to restore service on 7.3 miles of new track west of Port Morris (less than 8.3% of the former 88-mile line between Port Morris and Scranton), to a 55-space park-and-ride station in Sussex County’s Andover Township.

An NJT press release said, “The Rehabilitation of the Roseville Tunnel is a crucial element in restoring passenger rail service from Port Morris to a new station in Andover,” and touted the eventual return of service to the state’s Northwestern county, but current plans call for a low-capacity station and service during commuting-peak-hours only. The release made no mention of eventual service to Scranton.

Continue Reading NJT Signs Contract for Cutoff Construction, but It’s No More than a Baby Step

Remembering Orrin Getz (1939–2022)

Riders on Metro-North’s “West of Hudson” trains on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Line trains lost a friend when Orrin Getz left us on March 21. He was 82. Getz was a member of the Metro-North Commuter Council, representing Rockland and Orange counties in New York State. Metro-North, of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), owns the tracks on the New York side, while NJ Transit operates the trains. Trains to Port Jervis use NJT’s Main or Bergen County Lines between Hoboken and Suffern, N.Y.

Continue Reading Remembering Orrin Getz (1939–2022)

Lackawanna Cutoff Mentioned at March Board Meeting, but the Reason Was Not Revealed

The March meeting of the NJT Board (actually a phone conference, the practice for the 2 years since the COVID-19 virus struck) was dominated by the historic votes to deny Academy Express, LLC, 2 contracts to operate bus routes in Hudson County, and to award them to Coach USA. Even the week-long service disruption on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone lines was not emphasized, perhaps because of the announcement that the trains would run again the next day.

There was an unexpected topic addressed by high-profile speakers during the public comment period: running trains on some restored track on the Lackawanna Cutoff.

Continue Reading Lackawanna Cutoff Mentioned at March Board Meeting, but the Reason Was Not Revealed