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.

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.