Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

NJ Transit Admits Safety Crisis

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

NJ Transit Admits Safety Crisis

Article excerpt

Contradicting years of statements by NJ Transit, the agency's executive director acknowledged Friday that its safety record is significantly worse than other American commuter railroads and that it needs more money and 305 new employees to operate safely.

But instead of doing more maintenance to boost the safety and reliability of NJ Transit trains and buses, the agency actually cut its maintenance staff by 5 percent between 2010 and 2014, even as ridership rose steadily, Steven Santoro, NJ Transit's new leader, said.

Santoro also revealed critical findings from a federal investigation into NJ Transit's safety problems: train workers using their personal cellphones while on duty, trains without required emergency tools or a functional fire extinguisher, crews that failed to conduct required brake tests or blow the horn at railroad crossings, and failure to properly secure locomotives in train yards.

"These findings are unacceptable," Santoro said, referring to the inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration that was launched in the spring, months before the train crash in Hoboken on Sept. 29 that killed one person and injured 110.

Santoro testified Friday at a joint hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which together are investigating NJ Transit's beleaguered leadership and poor safety record.

He said that NJ Transit also has relied too heavily in recent years on transferring money away from construction projects to pay for day-to-day operations and big purchases, including new locomotives and passenger cars. The practice has been the subject of a years-long argument between passenger advocates -- who describe the transfers as evidence of NJ Transit's deep budget crisis -- and NJ Transit leaders, who depict it as established industry practice.

As recently as two weeks ago, state Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer told legislators that "NJ Transit has sufficient money to fund its operations."

In his testimony Friday, Santoro appeared to contradict Hammer. He said NJ Transit will stop using construction funds for major equipment purchases. That change will have a significant impact on the agency's budget in the next few years because it plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fleet of locomotives and double-decker passenger cars. This year, the transfer will total $407 million this year, Santoro said.

The agency is working with the state treasurer's office to find additional money and hire the safety staff it needs, Santoro said. NJ Transit needs to fill 245 vacant jobs, he said, and create 55 new positions to boost safety and reliability.

Open positions include NJ Transit's chief of compliance, who must ensure the agency follows all state and federal safety rules. The agency needs an unspecified number of new uniformed officers for its police force, Santoro said, and more than 20 people to implement Positive Train Control, a high-tech safety system. …

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