For N.J. transit riders, canceled trains are part of daily commute

In fact, canceled trains have become a near daily occurrence, and many frustrated riders wonder if they will ever be able to depend on the service.

For N.J. transit riders, canceled trains are part of daily commute

Last week, the railroad canceled more than 60 trains, many of them during the morning or evening rush hours, leaving thousands of commuters scrambling to find other ways of getting to work or home.

In fact, canceled trains have become a near daily occurrence, and many frustrated riders wonder if they will ever be able to depend on the service.

In many cases, New Jersey Transit has blamed the failures on a persistent shortage of crews to operate the trains. In most others, the problem is what officials call “equipment availability,” which means the railroad did not have all the trains available it needed to carry riders.

If those explanations sound familiar to regular riders, that is because New Jersey Transit has used them before. They were often cited last year when the agency struggled to maintain its schedule after paring it back and suspending service on two rail lines for several months. The new week got off to a poor start with New Jersey Transit canceling at least 15 trains on Monday, citing “equipment availability” in several cases and personnel shortage in a couple of others.)

But New Jersey’s governor, Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, and his appointees have been promising since early 2018 that they would solve New Jersey Transit’s problems through increased funding and better management.

They say they have made big strides, but commuters remain unconvinced.

“I haven’t noticed anything improving,” said Emma Zielinski, who said her usual train home was canceled all three times she tried to ride it last week. “Commuting with N.J. Transit is a disorganized, chaotic nightmare.”

The first, last Monday, was caused by a fire in an Amtrak work train that suspended some evening service on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor line, New Jersey Transit said. Her train failed to make its run south from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan the next two nights because of “equipment availability,” the agency said.

Zielinski, 31, said she had no viable alternative for commuting to her home in Princeton, New Jersey. She already abandoned a two-stop rail shuttle, known as the Dinky, that connects Princeton and Princeton Junction, where riders can take the train to New York.

She rode the shuttle for a couple of years until New Jersey Transit suspended the service last summer. Now she drives to the Princeton Junction station and pays to park there.

“It just became too much to rely on both trains to be on time and actually working,” she said.

Citing a lack of crew members or trains as a reason for failing to fulfill its schedule is not typical for commuter railroads. The other major commuter railroads in the New York City region, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad, rarely provide those explanations.

On Metro-North, the country’s second-busiest commuter railroad, just 73 of more than 95,000 trains — fewer than 0.1% — were canceled in the first five months of this year. And the Long Island Rail Road, the busiest commuter rail in the nation, had 356 cancellations through May.

Neither railroad keeps track of either “equipment availability” or crew shortages.

New Jersey Transit officials insist the problem is not an actual shortage of trains, just difficulties getting trains in place because of a lack of engineers.

They emphasize that cancellations have been less frequent this year than last and that the railroad’s performance appears to be improving. In the past few months, its trains have been running on time more often than last year, when performance sank.

Last year truly was an annus horribilis for New Jersey Transit.

On top of its crew shortage, it was saddled with a pressing deadline to equip all its locomotives with the technology for an automatic braking system known as Positive Train Control. The need to take those engines out of service for the installation forced the railroad to reduce its schedule, including the suspension of service on the Atlantic City Line and the Dinky.

At the end of the year, though, New Jersey Transit was sending out news releases announcing that it had completed that part of the installation. In May, it restored the suspended service.

By late June, Murphy was proclaiming that the agency had made “enormous progress,” fueled in part by a large increase in direct funding from the state. At a news conference, the governor promised, “You’ll see a quantum increase, I think, by the fourth quarter of this year.”

Kevin Corbett, who runs New Jersey Transit, was more measured in his optimism. Corbett pegged significant improvement to the recruitment and training of more engineers to drive the trains. The railroad has about 330 engineers and aims to add more than 50 by early next year.

A class of 12 trainees finished in May, and 11 of them are now working as engineers, said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the agency. Three more classes are scheduled to complete training by January.

“When we get into next year, we’ll be at the level we need to be to provide all service and have an ample bench,” Corbett said.

That may not be soon enough for riders.

On Twitter, one rider who comments regularly about frustrations with New Jersey Transit wrote last Wednesday that most of her trips had been overcrowded, forcing her to “stand, smashed like a sardine, for FIVE of these commutes, most of which were not my normal trains because of cancellations or lateness.”

“In what world is this ok!?” she added.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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