December 12, 2018

NJ Transit Woes Prompt Gov. Murphy To Launch Campaign

By Anne Levin

Travelers on New Jersey Transit (NJT) know all about delays, cancellations, aging trains, and not enough engineers to run them. And local commuters, faced with the ongoing suspension of Dinky train service between Princeton and Princeton Junction, are all too familiar with the agency’s woes.

According to a recent announcement by NJT, some relief may be in sight. Last week, the agency revealed plans to launch a “customer focused communications initiative.” The new effort “focuses on addressing customer needs, providing more timely information, and improving all customer touchpoints including announcements, station and facility conditions, and the onboard experience.”

More specifically, NJT plans to purchase 113 new multi-level cars and 182 new buses. The mobile app is being upgraded. There will be new touch-screen interactive information kiosks at four stations, but alas, not Princeton, as part of a pilot program. As for the problem of hiring and retaining personnel, there have been “successful recruiting efforts to attract additional bus operators and locomotive engineers,” the release reads. “Since January 1 [2018], more than 300 new bus operators have been hired and more than 5,000 applications for locomotive engineers have been received.”

The agency also states that four new locomotive engineer training classes are underway, with 13 engineers anticipated to graduate in May, 2019, and three additional classes graduating before the end of 2019. The average “cycle time” on procurements has been reduced by 20 percent compared to 2017 and 40 percent compared to 2016, it says.

“Under the Murphy administration, NJ Transit has made remarkable progress on the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) installation,” it continues. “In January, NJ Transit was at just 12 percent completion. NJ Transit is now at approximately 93 percent completion.”

It is the installation of PTC, not on the Dinky line, but in other parts of the
NJT system, that is responsible for the temporary replacement of the Dinky trains with buses. The suspension began in October and is targeted to end in mid-January. PTC, which is an automated braking system, must be installed throughout the state by the end of this month, according to the federal mandate. A representative of NJT told Princeton Council last fall that the Dinky shutdown was necessary in order to use Dinky equipment and personnel to help with the installation elsewhere in the system.

Concerned not only about immediate effects of the shutdown but also the future of the Dinky line, the organization Save the Dinky wrote to NJT Executive Director Kevin Corbett in October to ask him to reconsider closing down the line for an extended period. More recently, Mayor Liz Lempert and Assemblymen Roy Freiman and Daniel R. Benson met with NJT representatives to ask the agency to immediately reinstate the Dinky line. Commuters have complained that the buses that have replaced the line during the hiatus take too long, and that drivers were not waiting for trains running late before leaving Princeton Junction for the drive back to Princeton.

Lempert, Benson, and Freiman were told that immediate reinstatement was not possible due to labor contracts, among other reasons. But bus drivers would be advised of the commuters’ concerns. 

In the announcement of the customer service initiative on December 5, Murphy promised that 2019 would be a better year for commuters. “Much of 2018 has been spent reversing years of negilgence to simply get us back to par,” he said during a news conference at the Trenton train station. “We are looking to 2019 as a year where we can move forward.”

Lempert said she is encouraged by the announcement. “It’s good that New Jersey Transit acknowledges that they need to do a better job with communication,” she said. “We’ve stressed throughout our conversations with New Jersey Transit officials about the temporary shutdown of the Dinky that better communication with the town and with riders is essential.”