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.