LETTER – A Year After Hoboken Crash: Are We Safer?

It is the one-year anniversary of the NJ Transit train crashed in Hoboken, while the agency has seen multiple major derailments. The Hoboken disaster killed one person and injured more than a hundred people during the morning rush hour. There have been multiple other derailments since. All of these incidents may be the result of the Christie Administration systemically cutting funding for public transit. Instead of fixing our aging transportation system, funding has been slashed by 90 percent in the past 11 years. As a result, NJ Transit has 12 times more equipment failures than any other commuter train in the nation. While the Christie Administration slashed funding, they used federal funding that was supposed to go towards Positive Train Control braking systems for operations and maintenance. We also still need money to install important safety features on our rails. Instead the Governor has failed to address trains being derailed like what happened in Hoboken because there is no money for Positive Train Control.

 

“A year ago, there was a serious accident and a tragedy that claimed the life of a commuter. On this anniversary, we are looking to see what NJ Transit has done to make us safer. Unfortunately, other than some minor improvements in some areas, things have gotten worse. What used to be once the best transit systems in the country is now breaking down and delayed every day. As the days go by, the more things are falling apart. NJ Transit hasn’t installed Positive Train Control, there is a cement falling off a wall in Summit, and they are spending $185 million to move trains in case of a storm to a flood prone area. The only thing we are getting more of this year is not service, it is mismanagement,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “A year later, commuters are still gambling whether the train will arrive on time or whether they can get to work on time. People are actually surprised when NJ Transit is on time because delays and break downs is the new norm. There is an old saying: ‘Is this any way to run a railroad?’ No.”

 

While ridership has gone up 20 percent, capital spending has gone down 19 percent. We even received $8 billion in federal funding for capital improvements, but that money went to operations and maintenance because NJ Transit is broke. The NJ Transit train crash into the Hoboken station killed at least one person and injured more than 100 people. The incident occurred because the train was going too fast as it pulled into the station. At other terminals including Penn Station, if the engineer is speeding, but fails to press a button, an automated system immediately applies emergency brakes. However, no such automatic braking system exists on any NJ Transit locomotives nor have employees received the training. The National Transportation Safety Board estimates braking systems like Positive Train Control could have prevented 145 accidents since 1969 which killed 296 people and injured 6,700.

“While NJ Transit fares have been raised nine times and service has been cut, they are still lagging behind in safety. We are concerned that the derailments at Hoboken and Penn Station were the result of not updating our safety controls because the Christie Administration have played games with funding. At the same time, we have seen more equipment breakdowns because NJ Transit has failed to update our aging rail system. Instead of installing breaking equipment and improving our rails, the Christie Administration have cut public transit funding and put people at risk,” said Jeff Tittel. “We need to replace these antiquated braking systems and monitor our rail lines to prevent future disasters, but we cannot do so if they keep taking the funding. All along the Christie Administration has cut transit funding, but there are serious consequences. We still don’t know if Hoboken was one of those consequences.” 

NJ Transit receives smaller portions of their operating budgets from state and local governments or other funding like advertising—which means our N.J. commuters are forced to pay more. Since 1988, the gas tax hasn’t been raised, but the fares for NJ Transit have been raised 9 times. All along, the Christie Administration has continuously balanced the NJ Transit budget by stealing money from clean energy. As a result of the Christie Administration’s method of pay-as-you-go financing for capital, the state borrowed a total 97.4 percent of all transportation capital costs during his first four years in office.

 

“Our mass transit system is crumbling because the Christie Administration has no funding for operations and maintenance. Instead they have stolen $8 billion in federal funding for operations, which was supposed to go to things like automatic braking to make our trains safer. They have even taking $80 million from the Clean Energy Fund to keep the lights on, but our trains are going off the tracks and the wheels are still coming off the bus,” said Jeff Tittel. “While there have been runaway trains and malfunctions happening along NJ Transit lines, the federal government even mandated NJ Transit to upgrade their system with an automatic braking system, but they have failed to do. This is because they keep cutting funding to make commuters safer.”

 

New Jersey has the worst smog in the nation from car and truck pollution. We should be promoting public transportation as a way to reduce our impact on climate change.  The failure to have good and reliable public transit is bad for the environment because it will out more people in cars and increase pollution.

 

“The Christie Administration’s failure to invest in transportation have ruined one of the best transit systems in the country. By delaying the installation of Positive Train Control, NJ Transit have really played Russian Roulette on our rails. At the same time, the state has no money for operations and maintenance at NJ Transit, but they want to build unnecessary sprawl projects in Sussex County. Given what’s happened in Hoboken and New York City, we need to ensure we have proper scrutiny on our transit rail lines,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Raising fares and cutting services has caused more commuters to be aggravated. Governor Christie’s transit policies have caused hikes in fares, getting rid of off peak pricing, cuts to maintenance all resulting in a drop-in customer satisfaction. This has added to traffic, pollution, and sprawl, that hurts the environment, but also harms the economy.”

Toni Granato
New Jersey Sierra Club