Weather Experts Contradict NJT

NJ Transit suffered serious damage to its passenger cars and locomotives when Hurricane Sandy flooded storage yards at Kearny in the Jersey Meadows and at Hoboken.  Whether the decision to move equipment to those yards in advance of the storm was a wise one has become a front-page controversy.  NJT Executive Director James Weinstein has steadfastly held that the decision was a wise one, based on the weather models and forecasts available to the railroad—but according to reporting by Stephen Stirling on Dec. 12 in the Star-Ledger, most advice from scores of forecasts and computer models showed that the Kearny yard was far more likely to flood than the 10-20% chance that NJT has said forecasts predicted.  Some forecasters said that NJT never contacted them for advice on interpreting the forecasts; moreover, had NJT done so, they would have advised NJT as early as Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, that flooding in the Kearny yards was a near certainty.  Controversy over whether NJT could have made a better decision on storing its equipment, and whether the railroad would have had time to execute moving the rolling stock to higher ground, continues to reverberate.  Complicating the railroad’s planning was the history of previous storms: the Hoboken and Kearny yards had never flooded, whereas other areas had been subject to flooding from rising rivers, notably the Trenton station area, which might have stranded equipment across the Delaware in the railroad’s Morrisville, Pennsylvania, yard.  Fearful of this, NJT apparently decided to move equipment out of that facility into the Kearny yard, safe from river flooding but unfortunately subject to flooding from the ocean storm surge that caused great damage in this storm.

Did NJT Ignore Flood Warnings?

Since Superstorm Sandy struck more than 3 weeks ago, NJ Transit has been working to restore normal service.  NJT was the hardest-hit suburban rail system in the Northeast; other New York-area systems, such as Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, quickly restored near-normal service, but NJT continued to struggle with reduced schedules and one line still completely suspended.  Most attention has been focused on damage to track: flooding in the Amtrak Hudson River tunnels used by NJT, flooding of electrical substations, flooding of the Hoboken terminal area, storm surge damage to the North Jersey Coast line, and trees down on all lines—but what about the railroad’s passenger cars and locomotives?

Early reports that there was massive damage from flooding were quickly countered by denials from NJT and statements that the system “has plenty of equipment”.  Media reports hinting that NJT did not adequately prepare for the storm began with a Reuters “exclusive” about November 18; as of Nov. 22, they continue to reverberate in print, broadcast, and electronic media.  Reuters reporters Janet Roberts, Ryan McNeill, and Robin Respaut reported that there is indeed massive damage to NJT rolling stock; moreover, they say, the damage resulted largely from bad decisions by NJT in the hours before the storm struck: moving much equipment to the modern storage and maintenance facility that NJT has built in the Jersey Meadows at Kearny, in a location which had never flooded in history, but which computer models apparently predicted was likely to flood when the hurricane hit.  Other rail operators, including the New York subway system, used the same prediction to evacuate their equipment to high ground before the storm surge hit the New York harbor area, and emerged with little or no damage to rolling stock—and rapid restoration of service.

Equipment was also moved to the Hoboken yards, which also flooded, according to Reuters, which also noted that among the damaged equipment were 9 brand-new “dual-mode” electric/diesel locomotives planned for single-seat service from diesel lines into Manhattan, and 84 recently-acquired “multilevel” passenger cars; a total value of $384 million was cited.  Other sources reported damage to additional equipment, including 124 single-level locomotive-hauled coaches, 53 electric multiple-unit (Arrow) cars, and 54 locomotives: 43 diesel-only and 11 electric-only.  Reuters also cited sources to the effect that an internal probe was in progress regarding the railroad’s response to the hurricane threat, although other sources denied this or said it was routine following a major event such as Sandy.

The final analysis will involve a determination of just what information was available, how accurate it turned out to be, and whether NJT believed the information and took appropriate action.  The Reuters story suggests that the information was available, proved accurate, but that NJT refused to believe that flooding that had never happened before could in fact occur. NJT officials insist that the equipment was where it “should be” during the storm.