NJT Web Site Disappoints During Storm

As an “Alberta Clipper” snowstorm blanketed New Jersey on Tuesday, January 21, transit riders rushed to NJ Transit’s website to ascertain whether their trains were running—but for more than 3 hours in the middle of the storm, the website was largely unavailable, according to reporting in The Record newspaper by Karen Rouse (January 22).  At first, NJT said the site had been taken down for maintenance reasons; a notice to that effect greeted users, along with a very limited set of capabilities.  Later NJT admitted that technical problems caused the outage.  Many commuters decided to stay home on Tuesday, fearing they wouldn’t be able to get home as the storm intensified in the afternoon.  On Wednesday, though, the storm was over, and many headed back to work – only to discover that NJT trains were operating on an “enhanced weekend schedule.”  Savvy riders consulted the printed weekend schedule and guessed that “enhanced” meant that additional trains that usually run only on holidays would run on Wednesday.  However, those who visited the now-repaired website were greeted by instruction to type in a future date, February 17, to get the right information.  Instead of modifying the website to display the actual schedules in effect, customers were told to pretend it was a future holiday: February 17, President’s Day, when the “enhanced weekend schedule” was already set up.  Many were mystified.  NJT promised to discuss website issues with their contractor, but meanwhile observers speculated that the outage on Tuesday may have resulted from high demands on the site during the snowstorm, and wondered if the same thing could happen during Super Bowl Sunday, February 2 – less than two weeks away. NJT expects to carry thousands of first-time riders to the event, and many may visit the website for guidance.

The complete story formerly was found at http://www.northjersey.com/news/A_malfunctioning_NJ_Transit_website_raises_concern_for_Super_Bowl_transportation.html

1000 Stranded by Downed Wire

On the coldest night of the year, 1000 riders on a packed rush-hour NJ Transit train from New York to New Brunswick got no farther than a little beyond Newark on Tuesday evening, January 7, after an overhead wire fell on the train.  Heat and main lighting immediately failed, and the train sat from 6:15 p.m. until shortly after 8 p.m., according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli and Richard Havkine in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 8).  Published photos suggest that the downed wire was part of the overhead catenary system that supplies electricity to electrically-operated trains.  The long delay in pulling the disabled train back to Newark was apparently caused by the need to investigate the problem and deenergize any live wires.  Commuters were cheered by frequent announcements by train crew, who tried their best to keep the riders informed.  However, with only one working toilet for 1000 customers, patience wore thin as the evening progressed.  Once passengers left the train, some reported a chaotic situation without clear instructions as to how to continue their journey.  According to NJ Transit, passengers were transferred to another train to continue their travel—about 2 hours late.

Read the complete story at:

http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2014/01/nj_transit_train_chaos_clears_after_downed_wire_stranded_1000_passengers_in_newark.html

Gladstone Service Returns Aug. 25 after Storm Disruption

Less than 10 months after Hurricane Sandy devastated NJ Transit’s rail operations, the railroad received a sharp reminder of the power of nature on Thursday, August 22, as intense local storms struck northern Somerset County and wiped out the roadbed on the line’s Gladstone Branch in multiple places, disrupting train service for days.  Local weather observers recorded 4″ or more of rain in downpours over several midday hours, causing rapid flooding of the North Branch of the Raritan River and tributary streams—the hilly rail line runs in the upper Raritan watershed in its westernmost section, from Bernardsville to the Gladstone terminus. According to a staff report in the Courier News regional newspaper the next day, there were 4 to 6 significant washouts, each 10′-15′ wide by 50′-60′ long; the damage was generally in the area between the Far Hills, Peapack, and Gladstone stations, with major washouts reported on both sides of the Far Hills station.  A “washout” is a condition in which powerful water current undermines the track, often leaving the track suspended in midair.  The condition can occur suddenly and can be highly dangerous to train operations, as the track often remains connected and the damage cannot be detected by the signal systems; in this case, fortunately no damage to train movements was reported.

NJT’s planning for storm damage includes avoiding equipment stranded at outlying points; after Hurricane Sandy, emphasis on flood-proof storage yards has increased.  Had the August 22 event occurred at night or on a weekend, many trainsets would have been stranded in the Gladstone yard; but at midday on weekdays, the yard is typically empty, so stranded equipment was not a serious problem.  However, with the line out of service in the area, normal service could not be provided.  By 1 p.m. on Aug. 22, NJT had announced suspension of all service between Bernardsville and Gladstone.  By 4 p.m., all inbound service on the entire Gladstone branch had been cancelled and evening outbound commuters were being accommodated by bus service west of Bernardsville, through the damaged area.  NJT’s inability to offer inbound service was likely caused by the erratic outbound service (delays of 30-45 minutes were reported), and the consequent inability to schedule inbound trains on the single-track line.

Service disruptions continued on Friday, Aug. 23, as repair crews struggled to repair the railroad.  For some reason, NJT chose not to provide any substitute bus service through the affected area; instead, riders were advised to find their own transportation to Bernardsville, where 5 trains departed between 6 and 9 a.m. (normal service would be 8 trains in that period, plus 2 runs even earlier).  After 9 a.m., only bus service was available between Bernardsville and Stirling, where trains were available.  In the evening, again trains ran only as far as Bernardsville and a number of trains were cancelled or truncated, with passengers sometimes asked to transfer at Summit, the eastern end of the Gladstone branch.

Weekend service on the branch was provided on normal schedules, but only as far as Bernardsville, as repairs continued.  Normal service had been predicted for Monday morning, but in fact NJT was able to resume service between Bernardsville and Gladstone at about 8 p.m. Sunday evening, August 25.  However, further repair work was needed, so buses again provided midday service on Monday.

The destruction of track structure by rampaging water has always been a serious event for any railroad, and NJT is to be commended for the rapid restoration of the line, in contrast to the experience after Hurricane Sandy, when service on the Gladstone line was suspended completely for an astounding 5 weeks. However, the inability for more than 3 days to provide bus service to the outermost 3 stations is troubling, particularly on the weekend, when hundreds of buses stand idle throughout the state and could easily have been pressed into service.

Flood-Proof Yards Make Progress

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.

NJT Analogizes Weather Emergencies to Terrorism When It Comes to Preparedness

New Jersey Transit management has refused to disclose information regarding its plans for hurricane preparedness, telling the Lackawanna Coalition that storm preparations are considered part of an “All Hazard Planning Process” that includes planning concerning “terrorism issues”.  The Coalition had requested a copy of NJT’s plan to deal with severe storms, in light of the severe damage done to many of the agency’s rail cars and locomotives, which flooded after being left in low-lying yards in Hoboken and at the Meadowlands Maintenance Center.  The Coalition understands that information on how to deal with terrorism issues is sensitive and is normally restricted, but objects to NJT characterizing severe weather preparation in the same way. 
The Coalition believes that our riders and our communities have a right to know how NJT plans to safeguard costly assets that were paid for with our tax dollars and our fares.

NJT Executive Director Blames Sandy Indirectly for Service Outage during Snowstorm

NJT Executive Director James W. Weinstein indirectly blamed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy for a shutdown of rail service on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone Lines during the snowstorm on Friday and Saturday, February 8th and 9th.  He said that, with the Mason Substation out of service and only a substation in Summit to supply power to trains, it would be unduly risky to operate under those conditions.  Mason Substation was washed out in flooding caused by Sandy, and there are still no electrically-powered trains running to or from Hoboken.

M&E, Montclair Restored after Storm

 Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines are scheduled to restore service at noon, Saturday, Feb. 9; service had been suspended at 8 p.m. on Friday during  the snowstorm.  NJT attributed this action to the vulnerability of those lines to tree damage, citing the experience of Superstorm Sandy in October (which has resulted in continuing reduction of service on those lines).  It had originally been announced that service would remain suspended through Saturday.

 NJT’s action appears to conflict with weather forecasts that, at the time of the announcement, were actually becoming less severe; once the storm began to abate on Saturday morning, total snowfall reports did not exceed 12″ in the M&E territory, although wind gusts remained a threat on Saturday, especially with tree limbs already weighted with snow.  In general, however, the experience in the M&E territory was no more severe than elsewhere on the NJT system, which remained in operation.  Bus services north of Interstate 195 (that is, all of north Jersey) were also suspended at 8 p.m. on Friday, and restored at 8 a.m. on Saturday.

The short suspension may be attributed to an overabundance of caution, but the selection of the M&E and Boonton lines for suspension suggests that NJT may not have enough equipment to keep all lines running during an emergency.  Weather forecasts were equally severe or even worse for other lines, which were not suspended.  The NJT press release announcing the suspension noted a lack of “system redundancies”, which supports the notion that the system is stretched thin after Hurricane Sandy, and that the suspension of the M&E and Boonton lines was a question of priority-setting rather than prompted by unusual risk to those lines.

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.