NJ Transit, in efforts to avoid equipment damage such as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, on January 8th approved engineering contracts for its plan to build and expand storage yards in the New Brunswick area, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (January 9). The Sandy disaster unfolded after NJT stored equipment in yards in Hoboken and the Jersey Meadows that proved vulnerable to storm-surge flooding; hundreds of cars and locomotives were damaged, and some have still not been repaired more than a year later. The railroad had already activated plans to make safer storage locations available in Linden and Garwood. The $7.64-million design and engineering contract will be for the County Yard, at the Jersey Avenue station south of New Brunswick, and the adjacent Mile Run Yard, not presently in service. A recent report on the Sandy disaster, commissioned by NJT from the Texas A&M Engineering and Extension Service, concluded that NJT needed better flood protection models to predict storm impact. Critics have said that NJT ignored reports that forecast the flooding that took place, relying instead on overly optimistic forecasts. Phil Craig of the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers called the Texas A&M report “a whitewash, pure and simple.”
NJT’s massive loss in Hurricane Sandy was caused by a bad decision by a low-level official, not by reliance on poor storm forecasts. So said NJ Gov. Chris Christie, as reported by Karen Rouse in The Record newspaper (Oct. 3), after Christie met with The Record’s board that day. The low-level employee “ditched” a plan that was in place to protect hundreds of cars and locomotives, all without the knowledge of NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, according to the article’s account of Christie’s comments.
Christie said that the unnamed employee was disciplined internally and not fired; Christie said the employee cannot be fired, as he is protected by Civil Service rules. However, NJT officials said that NJT is not within the Civil Service system and none of its employees fall under Civil Service rules. NJT and State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson either had nothing to add or did not return messages on the subject.
The controversy expanded on October 5 as Rouse filed a follow-up article to the effect that NJT internal e-mails show that multiple NJT officials, including Executive Director Jim Weinstein, were well aware of the plans to move equipment to what turned out to be flood-prone areas. Weinstein has not yet commented on the latest stories, but during the months after the Sandy disaster he has repeatedly stated that the ill-fated plan was unfortunate but deliberate. This is in apparent conflict with the governor’s assertion at the October 3 meeting with The Record; Christie said “it was a low-level official that made the decision on the cars that you”re talking about, where they were placed. It was a low-level decision that was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain.”
The story continued to have legs; WNYC aired an interview with Ms. Rouse on Monday morning, October 7, in which she recapitulated the details of her investigation and said that NJT has not revealed much about a new storm plan that NJT has promised, other than construction of some new rail yards to store equipment during a future storm. On October 8, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairperson of the Assembly Transportation Committee, was quoted on a WNYC newscast as announcing hearings to determine just who was responsible for the decision to store equipment in flood-prone areas.
After Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, NJ Transit belatedly realized that not all of its storage yards for rail equipment are storm-safe, after storm-surge waters flooded yards in Hoboken and the Jersey Meadows and damaged many cars and locomotives in the NJT fleet. In response to the disaster, the railroad decided to invest in additional “storm-safe” facilities to store equipment, should another storm strike. The railroad already has some of these facilities in place, according to NJT executive director James Weinstein, quoted in reporting by Larry Higgs in The Record (Sept. 6). Facilities already ready for use include the Garwood industrial trackage on the Raritan Valley Line and Conrail yard facilities in Linden on the Northeast Corridor, now ready for emergency use. Geotechnical studies were performed, according to Weinstein, to make sure that the new facilities would not be subject to flooding; NJT came under criticism after the Sandy storm for assuming that the Hoboken and Meadows yards would not flood, since they never had before. Some forecasters had predicted that they would flood, but NJT relied on other, more optimistic predictions. Additional storage will be provided by facilities still to be constructed in the New Brunswick and South Brunswick areas, also on the Northeast Corridor. Meanwhile, repairs of equipment damaged in Sandy continue, with 229 rail cars and locomotives returned to service out of the 343 damaged in the storm. According to Weinstein, 91% of the rail fleet is available for service: “There is virtually no impact on service from equipment shortages,” Weinstein said. Observers note, however, that a number of trains on the Morris & Essex lines have not returned after the storm, leaving significant gaps in service, which NJT doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge.
NJ Transit service as of mid-January continues to be limited since Superstorm Sandy on some lines, mainly those relying on electric service to Hoboken. Why is the service limited? NJT has not been particularly forthcoming on this point, but many observers point to limited availability of nonelectric rolling stock, perhaps limited by equipment damaged by flooding during the storm, in yards that proved not to be a safe haven when the water rose. Now there are reports that NJT is seeking safer havens for its equipment in future storms. One possibility, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Leger (January 18) is a Conrail rail yard in Linden on the Northeast Corridor. That yard was once used to stage rail cars used by the nearby General Motors plant, which closed in 2005.
According to NJT VP & General Manager of rail operations Kevin O’Connor, “We have nowhere on our system to bring vehicles out of the [Meadows Maintenance Complex], which was flooded.” O’Connor spoke at a meeting for the New York chapter of the Transportation Research Forum. O’Connor also declared, “No, I am not going to resign”, in response to a written question from Joseph M. Clift, former LIRR planning director (and Lackawanna Coalition technical director), if he would “accept responsibility for the decisions that led to $100M in [car and locomotive] damage” by offering his resignation. “It just seems to me that we have a level of damage that suggests decisions that somebody should take responsibility for,” Clift said. Many would disagree with O’Connor’s assertion that NJT had no safe place to store equipment, pointing out that there are many miles of mainline track that could’ve been used, including the center track on the Morris & Essex line between Newark and Millburn. Other railroads, such as the Long Island, reportedly used mainline track to store equipment during the storm, and suffered little damage to their fleet.