Following article appeared in the Asbury Park Press on Monday, 3-16-09.
Coast Line trains often running late
March 16, 2009
By LARRY HIGGS
New Jersey Transit's North Jersey Coast and Northeast Corridor lines almost tied for dead last in 2008 with the worst peak-hour on-time record among the agency's seven commuter rail lines.
The Northeast Corridor eeked out the dubious honor of the worst on-time performance in 2008 by 2 percentage points over the Coast Line, based on an Asbury Park Press analysis of NJ Transit monthly on-time statistics.
"It doesn't surprise me. You get used to it being constantly late. You almost ignore the schedule," said Pasquale Cirullo of Middletown, interviewed after he got off the train Wednesday in Red Bank. "I'm used to it not getting to New York when the schedule says."
The Press analysis found:
The busy Northeast Corridor Line, which is shared with Amtrak, turned in a rush-hour performance of 85.09 percent on time in 2008, the worst of any of NJ Transit's rail lines. It is also the busiest, hauling the most passengers of all the agency's rail lines.
The Shore's North Jersey Coast Line, which joins the Northeast Corridor in Rahway, placed second worst with an 87.6 percent on-time record in the morning and evening peak period in 2008.
The Morris & Essex Lines were on time 90.7 percent of the time in peak periods last year, making those two branches the best performers with direct service to New York.
Trains are considered on time when they are within six minutes of their scheduled arrival.
"The Northeast Corridor is jam packed with train traffic. We can't fit another train on it," said Richard Sarles, NJ Transit executive director. "When there is the slightest hiccup, there is a cascading effect that we can't recover easily from in the peak period."
Coast Line and Morris & Essex MidTown Direct feed into the Northeast Corridor. Riders on other lines transfer onto Corridor trains to go to and from New York.
In mid-2008, speeds were reduced for all trains on the Northeast Corridor after Amtrak determined that recently installed concrete ties, to which the rails are attached, were wearing out prematurely. Those ties are being replaced.
"They got concrete ties that were supposed to last 50 years, and they last four. It's an unseen maintenance problem," said David Peter Alan, chairman of the Lackawanna Commuter Coalition. "Am I surprised? Not really, but I expected better (on-time) numbers."
Rail advocates also said they and NJ Transit officials have warned state officials that the rail system needs to grow and have stable funding to handle increasing demand.
"The handwriting has been on the wall for 20 years. By 1989, it was clear NJ Transit was growing. Highway congestion made transit more attractive," said Douglas Bowen, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers. "NJ Transit is right to be concerned about Corridor capacity, and people are right to realize the quality of service is slipping."
Other Amtrak problems listed by NJ Transit as causing delays include signal failures, track issues, power failures and mishaps with the overhead wires that power electric trains. Delays on lines other than the Northeast Corridor were blamed on equipment failures, downed trees, slippery rail conditions in the fall because of leaves, and bad weather, according to NJ Transit documents.
Rail advocates said that Amtrak and NJ Transit officials need to work together.
"Amtrak isn't the major problem," Bowen said. "Amtrak ownership is a dividend for the NJ Transit rider, not a minus."
NJ Transit spends about $35 million to $45 million annually in a joint Corridor maintenance program to replace tracks, switches and signals, Sarles said.
"The state of good repair is something we continue to work on," he said, adding that the work is ongoing and never to the point that officials can say it's done. "The weather wears things down. Trains wear things down."
NJ Transit officials are also looking at changing the agency's approach to locomotive and rail-car maintenance to detect problems earlier, Sarles said.
"You never have a day without equipment breakdowns, which is why we're moving to a condition-based maintenance of rolling stock," Sarles said.
That means putting locomotives and rail cars on diagnostic equipment, similar to what a mechanic does to a car to find problems, he said.
Equipment failure caused delays of up to an hour on March 3, when three trains broke down on the Corridor, including one inside one of the two Hudson River rail tunnels.
Sarles said the breakdowns were due to fine snow melting inside the electric traction motors, which power electric commuter trains, shorting them out.
"It's an age-old problem with traction motors. It doesn't hit the day of the snow, it (snow) works through the motors days after," he said. "We are looking at what we can do on physical modifications."
Other solutions include two massive infrastructure projects: the $8.7 billion Hudson River rail tunnel project and the replacement of the 100-year-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, which became stuck in its open position on March 4.
All Northeast Corridor, Coast Line and Midtown Direct trains traveling into or out of New York cross over the bridge, and those trains had to be suspended for an hour until the drawbridge was closed that day.
The new tunnel will create more capacity, Sarles said. NJ Transit will build a second set of tracks through the Jersey Meadows to the tunnel.
Plans call for the Portal Bridge to be replaced with two spans, one of which will be high enough to allow boats to pass under it unimpeded, Sarles said.
Funding for Amtrak
Another positive sign is additional federal money budgeted for Amtrak to make badly-needed repairs, Sarles said. Amtrak has been struggling with reduced federal aid for decades, prompting NJ Transit to allocate funds for maintenance and repair on the Northeast Corridor tracks in New Jersey.
"They blame Amtrak for everything, and typically it's the same stuff, whether you're talking about this (Coast) line, Metro North or the Long Island Rail Road" said commuter Wayne Senatore of Freehold, who added he rode the LIRR for 15 years.
Sarles said NJ Transit is having its staffers work next to Amtrak dispatchers in New York's Penn Station.
"When there's an issue, we're right next to them and make sure full attention gets paid to NJ Transit operations, and Amtrak is cooperating," he said.
Worst performing NJ Transit lines during peak hours in 2008:
Northeast Corridor Line: 85.09 percent on time.
North Jersey Coast Line: 87.6 percent on time.
Morris & Essex Lines: 90.79 percent on time.
Raritan Valley Line: 93.66 percent on time.
SOURCE: Asbury Park Press analysis of NJ Transit statistics