Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

As Christie Hounds Amtrak, N.J. Transit Safety Fines Mount

  • Inspectors cite worn Hoboken switch, no brakes on idle trains
  • Similar conditions caused fatalities, derailments around U.S.

Fresh details of safety lapses are emerging at New Jersey’s beleaguered mass-transit agency even as Governor Chris Christie deflects blame and excoriates Amtrak, the national railroad, for mishaps and riders face upheaval.

In Hoboken, a major hub for New York-bound commuters, a “worn and chipped” track switch remained in use more than three months after it was identified, according to documents that New Jersey Transit provided after a public-records request. The faulty part, cited as a possible cause of a minor two-car derailment in 2014, endangered “thousands of commuters” a day, a Federal Railroad Administration inspector wrote.

At a Morris County yard, inspectors documented out-of-service trains left without brakes applied.

“This car had two wooden chocks under the first wheel, the only measure taken to prevent this string of 13 cars from rolling,” inspector Sean Fitzpatrick wrote in August 2016.

The reports come to light as Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, which share tracks under the Hudson River to Manhattan, tell riders to expect months of inconvenience due to maintenance and repairs after two Amtrak derailments at New York Pennsylvania Station. At the same time, Christie is withholding millions of dollars in fees due to Amtrak to keep its rails in good shape.

“If that’s the political game -- pointing across the river to hide your own mismanagement -- that’s unacceptable,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat presiding over hearings on New Jersey Transit after a fatal wreck in Hoboken in September.

In all, New Jersey Transit faces 67 citations reported over two years that have yet to be settled, as railroads typically litigate them for years.

Commuter Hell

Passengers already suffer mounting delays and crowding at the hands of the nation’s second-busiest railroad, plus the long-term threat of a failure in Amtrak’s flood-damaged Hudson tunnel. Christie in 2010 canceled construction of a second tunnel, and President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint includes no funding for another passage, part of Amtrak’s proposed $23 billion Gateway project.

No injuries or fatalities have been linked to New Jersey Transit’s violations. In the 2014 Hoboken incident, “passengers were quickly escorted off the train,” Nancy Snyder, a New Jersey Transit spokeswoman, said in an email. The derailment, she said, “was not caused by NJT equipment nor human error, and the FRA inspector finding remains in dispute.”

Steve Santoro, the agency’s executive director, told lawmakers today in a state Senate budget hearing that the Hoboken switch incident was old news.

“We’ve done a lot of things to our railroad in the past two years,” Santoro said. “I can unequivocally say the railroad’s safe.”

As a whole, the reports detail a broader and more serious scope of troubles beyond those disclosed by the railroad at a legislative hearing in November.

In March 2015, for instance, a technician at a Morris County crossing used unapproved cables to bypass wiring that controls gates, warning lights and bells, then failed to reset the circuit, according to the reports. A crew noticed the defect while their train was in the crossing; the technician was given 10 days off without pay.

Deep Dive

Inspectors repeatedly pointed out potentially lethal hazards and issued violation notices when some persisted. For 2015 and 2016, New Jersey Transit faces penalties of at least $262,000 -- half the total it paid over five years as the U.S. leader for commuter-rail fines.

In June, the Federal Railroad Administration, citing declining safety, started an operations audit of New Jersey Transit. In response, the reports show, the railroad issued directives on applying brakes and cutting engines.

“It was clear to me that we needed to do a deep dive and look at the instructions we were providing our crews,” Robert Lavell, vice president and general manager of rail operations, wrote in a Sept. 21, 2016, letter to Janet Lee, a deputy regional administrator for the federal railroad agency.

New Jersey Transit has started filling positions in its system safety office, created with fanfare in 2014 and then not staffed as promised. It’s also expanded a program to confirm switch positions, and conducts random safety checks at crossings and stations.

Still, setbacks continue, and aggravated commuters are using a Twitter hashtag, #NoPayMay, to encourage mass fare evasion.

Fatal Crash

Eight days after Lavell’s letter, New Jersey Transit logged its first fatal accident in two decades, when a train going double the speed limit struck a Hoboken platform, killing one and injuring more than 100. On April 14, riders were stuck in the Hudson tunnel for three hours because of a power disruption.

On April 24, the railroad told riders to expect 15-minute weekday delays, and double that on weekends “until further notice” as Amtrak works on tracks. That evening’s commute was an hour behind schedule because of Amtrak power problems, according to New Jersey Transit.

“Traveling on NJ Transit should be the easy part of your day, not the most challenging,” Santoro said in an April 25 memo to customers posted online. “We share your frustration and are committed to earning back your trust.”

Santoro, appointed by New Jersey Transit’s board in October, has been invited to testify at an April 28 hearing in Trenton. Wick Moorman, Amtrak’s chief executive, also is scheduled to appear.

Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Throwing Stones

In the wake of the Penn Station derailments in March and April, Christie said Amtrak was failing on maintenance, and he promised to withhold as much as $5 million in monthly payments. Christie, a second-term Republican who leaves office in January, has diverted $2.94 billion from capital projects on his own railroad to cover day-to-day operations and patch budget holes.

About 25 percent of New Jersey Transit’s federal violation notices involve switches, which guide rail cars crossing to other tracks. They were a factor in three derailments in Chicago in 2002 and in an Amtrak derailment in 1991 that killed seven people in South Carolina, according to accident-investigation reports.

At New Jersey Transit’s Morris yard, nine violations were issued covering four unattended trains at risk of rolling. From 2009 to 2012, six railroad workers around the U.S. were killed by unsecured trains, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

McKeon, the New Jersey lawmaker presiding over hearings, said it may be time for the Federal Railroad Administration to issue violations to New Jersey Transit more readily.

“When you get a speeding ticket and have points on your license, maybe you think twice about speeding the next time, as opposed to just getting a break,” McKeon said. “Getting a break for New Jersey Transit doesn’t seem to have resulted in their reforming.”

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