Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NJ Transit Goes Off Rails In Latest Customer Survey

NJ Transit has done an incredibly poor job in the past year following rate hikes and service cuts. That double whammy, combined with a series of ongoing problems along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) snarling traffic and ruining the commutes for hundreds of thousands of people daily has meant that the agency rightfully suffered in its latest customer survey.

The problems on the Northeast Corridor aren't always within the agency's control since the tracks and power systems are shared with Amtrak. However, NJ Transit has done a poor job in communicating about delays on those NEC trains.

The rail schedules also aren't conducive to getting people out of cars and onto mass transit; the schedules simply don't provide service into the evening, even though people would be willing to take mass transit into Manhattan to avoid the hassle of finding parking and dealing with the traffic in the city. The same people who commute regularly are likely to consider using mass transit at other times, but the rail schedule is lacking in many areas and service has been cut because the agency simply lacks the operating funds because they've blown so much money on projects that have not stayed within budget (see Secaucus junction aka the boondoggle, or the Ramsey Route 17 transit station that is sorely underutilized and two nearby stations remain open despite their close proximity).

The agency needs to orient itself better to customer needs and the top priority must be to reduce problems along the NEC and better communicate when problems do occur.

I've been relatively thankful that the conductors on my trains along the Bergen Line have been good at issuing updates on problems with the NEC, but that's an exception - and the statistics bear this out.

Clearly, riders see that fares and mechanical reliability are major problems - and they have been for years. The issues with mechanical reliability should have been resolved with the purchase of hundreds of new double-decker cars and refurbished Comet IV and V cars, along with dozens of new electric and diesel locomotives, but apparently the problems are much deeper than that. The problems are institutional. That goes to top management and all down the line.

The agency is set to vote on a new budget, and it will be slightly higher than last year to account for higher fuel costs. No fare hikes are proposed in the budget, and while lip service is being paid to the survey, it remains to be seen whether NJ Transit can turn things around and improve on-time performance and performance during service disruptions.

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