NJ Transit Missed Locomotive Safety Milestone, Records Show

Updated on
  • System designed to stop runaway trains before deadly wrecks
  • Director’s public confidence contradicts internal warnings

New Jersey Transit, whose leadership has assured a state investigative panel that lifesaving train technology is on the way, is in danger of missing its federal installation deadline, internal documents show.

In April, Steve Santoro, the agency’s executive director, told lawmakers in Trenton that 20 “skilled, technical positions” were being added to work on positive train control, a system to automatically brake runaway engines. Accident investigators are studying whether such technology could have prevented a crash in Hoboken last September, when a train going twice the speed limit crashed into the terminal, killing a woman on the platform.

“As you know, we and other railroads are under a Federal mandate to have Positive Train Control -- PTC -- installed and running by the end of 2018,” Santoro told a joint legislative committee that’s investigating NJ Transit’s safety, finances and operations. “We are on a schedule to do so.”

In December, though, the operator of the nation’s second-busiest commuter railroad had missed a milestone in its own revised project plan. In June, two months after Santoro spoke to lawmakers, a Federal Railroad Administration inspector recommended that NJ Transit be fined, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg.

In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Lisa Torbic said NJ Transit “continues to have every expectation that we will meet the federal implementation deadline.”

‘Far Behind’

The documents show that Todd Barretta, New Jersey Transit’s chief compliance officer at the time, was aware of the issue.

“In more than one candid and informal conversation, I have been told that we are very far behind and that it is unlikely that we will meet the final end of 2018 deadline,” Barretta wrote in an email to Santoro in June. “Please advise on any other role than informal monitoring and cataloging any related inspection reports that you would like me to play in helping to ensure that we are compliant.”

Barretta, hired in March and later demoted and suspended, was fired on Aug. 21 via a letter that stated he had failed to return an agency-owned laptop. In fact, he returned the laptop on Aug. 18, the deadline, according to a receipt he was issued. At an appearance before lawmakers on Aug. 28, he said agency leadership resented his attention to potential safety and legal lapses, and Santoro at one point told him that NJ Transit didn’t need “a gotcha guy.”

At the hearing, Santoro said nothing of the laptop. Instead, he said Barretta was fired for misusing an agency-issued car and hadn’t worked at NJ Transit long enough to assess its operations.

Starved of operating funds by Republican Governor Chris Christie, NJ Transit shifts about one-quarter of its annual capital budget to pay day-to-day expenses, budget data show. Once considered a model operation, NJ Transit now leads U.S. commuter railroads for breakdowns, accidents and fines, according to federal records. Last year, U.S. regulators conducted an audit of railroad operations and state lawmakers, armed with subpoena power, began its own review.

“They’ve assured us that safety is a primary tenet,” said John McKeon, a Democratic assemblyman from West Orange who is co-chairman of the legislative panel. “We’re now on our second deadline extension for this technology that can save lives. Are they confident about that deadline or are they not?”

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