Monday, August 19, 2013

Gov. Christie Must Fire NJ Transit Officials For Failing To Follow Rail Plan Before Sandy

Governor Chris Christie has given his blessing and backing to NJ Transit officials in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated NJ Transit's rail fleet. 343 railcars and locomotives were flooded and damaged. A portion of the fleet remains out of service due to flood damage.

The costs are in the hundreds of millions, and yet NJ Transit officials have skated by despite incontrovertible evidence that they didn't move equipment to higher ground. They claimed that they didn't have alternative locations.

A damning new report by the Bergen Record shows a completely different story. The paper made a freedom of information request, and the document highlights the absolute incompetence of transit officials.
Only after The Record filed a public-records suit did the transit agency release a 3½-page copy of a hurricane plan prepared four months before the storm that advised transferring commuter trains to several upland sites. Nowhere did the plan recommend what NJ Transit ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of rail­cars and engines to a low-lying yard near water, where they were inundated by Sandy’s storm surge.

The NJ Transit document stands in stark contrast to the more detailed hurricane plan prepared by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which, taking into account concerns about global warming, enabled the transit system to move the vast majority of its trains to higher ground, saving all but 11 of its rail­cars from flood damage.

The damage to 343 pieces of NJ Transit equipment in low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken — 70 locomotives and 273 railcars, a third of the railroad’s fleet — is estimated at $120 million. The damaged equipment also included seven railcars and seven locomotives owned by the MTA that NJ Transit stored in Kearny, site of the agency’s sprawling Meadows Maintenance Complex.

The “NJ Transit Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” prepared in June 2012 directs NJ Transit’s train crews to move railcars and locomotives “from flood-prone areas to higher ground” in the event of a hurricane or severe tropical storm. The plan is brief, but it lists more than a half-dozen locations where equipment is to be moved.

Commuter railcars and locomotives used on the Main and Bergen lines would be stored in the Waldwick Yard, according to the plan. Equipment serving the agency’s Hoboken Division would be stored in the Bergen Tunnels under the Palisades. And cars and engines serving the Atlantic City Line would be moved to a yard in central South Jersey.

It indicates that the transit agency had a basic flood contingency plan that included moving its equipment to higher ground. That included moving its rail fleet to areas in Waldwick, the Bergen Tunnels, and several other locations.

That's exactly what I and many other rail critics have said from day one. There was no reason for the agency to store its equipment in the lowest-lying areas when they had alternatives along their own rights of way that were safer.

The Main/Bergen Line was particularly affected because its equipment was stored in Hoboken; had the equipment been stored instead in Waldwick, the service could have been restored weeks sooner.

Yet NJ Transit's Jim Weinstein has lied to anyone and everyone that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the kind of damage done to the fleet.

Gov. Christie has given Weinstein political cover, and that itself is a boneheaded move. To put this in to terms that anyone can understand - NJ Transit lied to the public. It lied to state officials. It even lied to Congress. Gov. Christie has to fire Weinstein and everyone involved in the decision not only to move the rail fleet to higher ground, but to move equipment into Hoboken and Kearney's low-lying rail yards.

NJ Transit is still trying to recover from the damage; this week NJ Transit is finally reopening the restrooms at Hoboken Yards, although the waiting area at Hoboken is a mess and the shops and restaurants in the terminal are still closed due to flood damage.

No more excuses Gov. Christie. It's past time to act and fire Weinstein and rail officials. They failed the agency, the state, and commuters. They directly harmed the state's economy by complying with their own plans to store equipment on higher ground that would have gotten rail operations back on track weeks faster than they did. As it is, parts of the rail schedule are still not back to 100% of the pre-storm schedule.

The agency doesn't have the equipment on hand to handle disruptions that can crop up on a normal basis. Trains are less reliable due to storm damage, and that means there are more delays than normal. All this affects the ridership and undermines efforts to convince people to use mass transit.

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