The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

New Jersey Transit trains may grind to a halt after Midnight Saturday, March 12 into Sunday, March 13. The dispute between management and a coalition of seventeen unions representing NJT Rail employees continues at this writing, and the result could be that hundreds of thousands of riders have no trains. Two Presidential Emergency Boards have recommended proposed settlements that NJT management claims the agency cannot afford. It has been reported that the stickiest issue is employee contributions to health care costs. If the dispute is not resolved by the deadline, the workers can go out on strike, or management can lock them out. Labor has urged NJT to accept the recommendation, and several members of Congress have urged both sides to settle the dispute. NJT asserts that the agency cannot afford the Board’s proposed package. Daniel J. O’Connell, Legislative Director for the union, disagrees, saying that it would not be necessary for NJT to raise fares to pay for a settlement.

The result of a strike or a lockout would be the same for riders: no trains. NJT buses and light rail will still operate, since the unions that represent bus drivers and light rail operators have agreements with NJT. These services could not replace the mobility lost if the trains stop running, because there are a limited number of buses available for extra runs, and capacity is already strained at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. Stephen Burkert, General Chairman of the union representing the train crews, told the Lackawanna Coalition that NJT has 300,000 rail riders, and that 900,000 daily trips involve rail and bus segments.

NJT says that the agency is preparing contingency plans in the event of a strike or lockout, but these plans have not been made public at this writing. NJT spokesperson Jennifer M. Nelson told this writer on Feb. 23: “NJ Transit is actively involved in developing a robust alternative service plan in the event the unions call a strike.

We are working with our regional partners, including NJDOT, to provide as much service as possible to our customers. However, it is premature to discuss details of this plan. We remain focused on reaching an affordable settlement with our rail unions.”

The last time there was a rail strike in New Jersey was in 1983, when NJT Rail was formed after the Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail) was forced by statute to stop operating “commuter” trains. Conrail was formed from predecessor railroads by Congress in 1976, with a six-year limitation on running local passenger trains. That strike lasted for 34 days, and NJT ran extra buses. Some were operated from temporary park-and-ride facilities, with charter buses, only during peak-commuting hours. There were similar operations again in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy devastated much of New Jersey, including NJT. These operations did little to replace the mobility that persons who depend on transit normally have.

In the event of a strike or lockout, we will do what we can to keep you informed of available alternative bus services. We invite you to check our website, www.lackawannacoalition.org. If the trains stop running, though, our advice is to stay home as much as you can.

NJ Transit shut down service before the blizzard struck on Saturday, Jan. 23, which meant that the Garden State had essentially no public transportation until service came back over the next three days. Did management make the right decision?

John Bobsin, our Online Editor and former Vice-Chair, says YES:

As the blizzard of Jan. 23 bore down on the Northeast, no one could say it was a surprise: TV weather forecasters had accurately predicted the course of the storm for days. Of course, there was always the element of uncertainty: what if it goes out to sea? With the clock ticking, transit managers faced the usual, unenviable decision: tough it out and keep running, or take the safe course and shut down operations, risking media opprobrium should the storm prove a bust.

In the event, NJ Transit chose to lead the way, announcing that no service at all would run after close-of-business the night before, Friday, Jan. 22. Other systems waffled, trying to run through the storm, and mostly came to grief as the storm worsened, services had to be canceled at the height of the storm, and thousands of people were left stranded, unable to get home on the same trains and buses they had used Saturday morning. Not so in New Jersey, where everybody stayed home, or set forth in cars at their own risk.

But even if the storm had proved to be minor, did NJT make the right decision? Yes, they did: the risks of operating into a severe storm are just too big, putting the customers into real danger. Sure, it might be possible to keep tracks open and the trains running, but what happens when people are dropped off at suburban stations into the teeth of a blizzard? They find platforms deep in snow, and their cars buried in unplowed parking lots. Their reliable transit system has just catapulted them into a life-threatening situation. Transit operators have to look at more than running their trains and buses, they have to look at the big picture. Fortunately, NJ Transit this time did so.

Coalition Technical Director Jesse Scott Gribin disagrees.

He says:

On the day of the blizzard, New Jersey Transit stranded millions of New Jersey’s residents in their homes with no way to move about the region. No trains into the city. No waytoget to work. No wayfor businesses toopen and serve their customers. The effect on the region’s economy of this decision was potentially crippling.

During the blizzard, our state’s State Of The Art ALP-45DP locomotives are designed to be able to go into New York under the wire, or serve as a diesel engine and keep the carriages warm and cozy. At $12 million apiece, these locomotives, ideally suited to surviving all that a blizzard could throw at them, sat idle, as if laughing at the riders for not being able to get anywhere.

NJ Transit has shut down more times during the Christie Administration than in the rest of its history combined. Yes, the blizzard was a significant, even historic, storm. But 50 years ago trains not only set out in storms like this or worse, they generally often still arrived at their destinationson time.Every objection to service that existed on Jan. 23 existed 50 years ago, including uncleared platforms, and the difficulty of crews getting to work. Bunks could have been set up at major terminals to allow the crews to come to work, but they were not.

This is a continued partof the pattern on the part of our government to use “safety” as a blunt beat-all tool for avoiding providing the public services they need and deserve; even as they spend moneyon toolsfor them to provide these services.

We may lose our trains very soon. After five years without a contract, NJ Transit’s rail workers could walk off the job, or management could lock them out. On Sunday, March 13, and maybe for a long time after that, the only trains in New Jersey besides light rail, PATH or PATCO in South Jersey, could be Amtrak trains running between New York Penn Station and points far beyond Trenton.

That would cause an economic catastrophe for the region; only short of the devastation that a work stoppage on the New York City transit system would trigger. Motorists would still have mobility, at least in theory, but the roads would be clogged. Bus riders would face the same problem, along with the additional burden of rail riders attempting to crowd onto the buses. Whatever contingency plans that NJ Transit might implement would do little to alleviate the overall loss of mobility. Their plan to run commuter buses form temporary parkand-ride lots would do little to help motorists who could get to those facilities, and absolutely nothing for people who depend on transit, without access to an automobile. People who depend on transit will suffer more than anyone else; they will be stuck.

It is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail, and a work stoppage does not occur. People who depend on transit are being used as unwilling pawns in a monetary chess game being played by politicians who have access to automobiles and do not need to ride transit. The Republican Christie Administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature have literally decimated support for transit; cutting it by 90% since the Christie Administration took office. It is easy to understand why NJT management says they cannot afford a labor settlement like the ones recommended by the Presidential Emergency Boards. That does not get us to where we need to go, however. We, the riders, do not need political posturing. However the details are worked out, we need our trains

The Lackawanna Coalition has made some changes in its officers’ roster for 2016. Stephen E. Thorpe, formerly Technical Director, is now Vice-Chair. Steve has been the champion for the expansion of “Quiet Commute Cars” to all NJT trains; not only trains for commuters. As Chair of the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC), Steve is also one of New Jersey’s strongest advocates for community transportation. He lives in Winfield and served as Chair of the Union County Transportation Advisory Board for several years.

The new Technical Director is former Treasurer Jesse Gribin. Jesse plans to focus on our campaign to convince NJT to order new Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) cars, rather than the untested technology of Multilevel Power Cars that NJT has expressed a desire to order. We believe that EMU cars (an updated version of the 1970s-vintage “Arrow” cars) would make boarding easier, speed service on the M&E and Gladstone Lines, and improve operational flexibility.

Brad Payeur of Gilette has succeeded Jesse as Treasurer. Brad is an accomplished international traveler, who has ridden trains and rail transit in more than 50 countries. This writer will continue as Chair, and Donald Winship will continue as Communications Director. Former Vice-Chair John Bobsin will remain active with the Coalition as online editor for our website, www.lackawannacoalition.org.