Letters: Commuter Hell

April 18, 2010

The following letter was sent to the Executive Director of NJ Transit via email on April 17, 2010.

April 17, 2010

NJ Transit Corporation

One Penn Plaza East

Newark NJ 07105

Attn: James Weinstein, Executive Director

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

I hope this letter finds you and your colleagues well. Let me begin by saying that I am a long time passenger of NJ Transit. I grew up in Summit and my family often used the trains into Manhattan to explore the city. Currently I live in Bloomfield and have used NJ Transit, specifically the Montclair rail line for the past five years to commute into and out of midtown Manhattan. I find the service comfortable and generally convenient and am pleased to continue to use it.

I am writing about a specific series of incidents that happened on April 15th in order to highlight more systemic issues and the ongoing erosion of service.

On April 15th I left my office to start my commute home at 4:30 pm. I had an appointment at 6:45 and needed to stop at my house before the appointment, so I left plenty of time. I arrived at Penn Station, New York and got on the scheduled 4:52 train to Montclair. Up until that point everything was normal.

At approximately 4:50 the train conductor came over the public address system (PA) and told us that there was an issue with the Amtrak signals and no one was moving in or out of New York Penn Station. He did not have information on how long service would be delayed. A few minutes later he came over the PA again to inform us that NJ transit would be cross honoring with buses and PATH. Next I received an email alert on my blackberry that said that service was delayed in and out of Penn Station. The communications, while incomplete at this point were very clear.

At 5:12 pm the conductor came over the PA and told us that the issue was not affecting Hoboken and that we may want to consider taking the PATH to Hoboken and traveling out of that station. Now I was potentially late for my appointment and so I left the train and headed over to the PATH station. Much to my chagrin there was a tremendous crush of people heading both into and out of Penn Station at the same time at the Seventh Avenue entrance; creating tremendous confusion and a potentially dangerous situation. It would have been very helpful to have an NJ Transit employee stationed at the top of the stairs leading into Penn Station announcing the issue, or alternately an electronic sign should be posted at the top of the same stairs. That step would have improved the trip for thousands of riders.

I reached the PATH station and traveled to Hoboken along with hundreds of other displaced commuters. The Port Authority was ill prepared for the volume of commuters who were spilling over from NJ Transit.  The turn-styles were a disaster. I chose to pay an additional fare rather than deal with the bottle neck that was created for people who were cross honoring tickets.

Once I arrived in Hoboken I boarded next available train to Newark Broad Street. The Montclair train I had hoped to take had already left and I was hoping that if service was restored I might be able to grab another train.

I arrived at Newark Broad Street at 6:05pm. I still had an opportunity to make my 6:45 appointment. At Newark Broad street the digital displays that show the trains coming in and out of the station showed everything as if it were on time. The entire display was wrong. The automated announcements that were coming on were announcing the wrong trains arriving and departing. There was a woman with an NJ Transit coat and clipboard, who appeared to be there to help clarify things, but she was to busy on her cell phone to bother to tell anyone what was going on. To top it off none of the conductors on the arriving and departing trains were making announcements about their trains because they figured the automated announcements were working.

At 6:15 an announcement came over the PA that the next Montclair line train, which had been scheduled for 6:08 was operating 72 minutes late! One hour and twelve minutes delayed. At this point I had no choice to cancel my appointment. I was frustrated, and tired and angry that the system had failed again. I raised the white flag, called my wife and asked her to pick me up at Newark Broad Street.

I share this horror story of a commute with you because it highlights a number of issues that occur every day on NJ Transit. My experience on NJ Transit on April 15th could have been improved a number of ways.

Maintenance issues. It seems that every week, if not every day there are considerable maintenance issues that impact the daily commute. While I recognize that NJ Transit is a huge complicated system involving thousands of pieces of equipment and systems there must be ways to reduce the impact of breakdowns and catastrophic failures that cripple the whole system. As with anything I expect it costs money to make all the necessary repairs, but I also think there must be ways to improve maintenance without huge costs. This has been a systemic issue for years. I don’t claim to fully understand the options available, but I would suggest an overhaul of the maintenance process to identify key failure points and proactive solutions to avoid future issues.

Partner issues. I understand that NJ Transit rides on Amtrak lines as you cross over into New York City. I also recognize that your services do not control how Amtrak manages their equipment. As a customer of NJ Transit I honestly do not care. I pay your corporation a fee to get me from point A to point B and to manage whatever partnerships are required to get there. All to often I hear train conductors come over and tell the passengers that there is a ‘Amtrak problem’ with the tunnel, or a piece of equipment. If Amtrak has a problem that impacts your ability to provide service I expect you, NJ Transit, to step up to the plate and find solutions. Don’t make excuses, take responsibility and fix the problems.

Communication issues. While the train crew on my first train of the evening did an exemplary job of keeping all of us informed that was the exception, not the rule. Staff and crews need to be better informed as to what is happening and have a clearer system on how to communicate with customers. If NJ Transit staff are stationed at key locations to assist riders they need to really know what is going on. Electronic communications in Newark Broad Street and Penn Station need to be improved and coordinated. These systems while great in normal service fail miserably during service interruptions or delays and the crowds quickly devolve into chaos. This creates frustrating, frightening and often unsafe conditions. Similarly conductors should expect that announcements need to be made at every stop.

Outreach and ongoing improvement. I am a subscriber to the NJ Transit alerts on my blackberry. They are generally a great thing and have assisted my commute many times. That system was not helpful on April 15th as I had already started my commute and was therefore in the system. It would be very helpful to consider the primary approaches to all major stations and provide signage and updates at key entry points. By expanding the information outward away from the track entries you will allow riders to divert prior to even entering the station, both improving flow in the station and saving time on everyone’s commute.

NJ Transit like all Mass Transit systems is a complicated and requires constant attention. As a customer of that system I expect a safe, comfortable ride and when issues arise I expect effective communications and reasonable alternatives. For the most part NJ Transit has been effective in achieving those goals, but events like the ones that transpired on April 15th highlight places where the system falls down. I hope that you find these suggestions helpful and will share them with your colleagues.

While it is ironic that these happened on the same day fare hikes were announced, I believe this is an opportunity. As more money flows into the system, I am hopeful that you will divert to address these issues. I am available if you or any of your colleagues would like to discuss any of these points further. I am also sharing this letter publically on blog idesert.wordpress.com and I would be happy to share any response I receive from NJ Transit there as well.

Thank you for your ongoing diligence.

Sincerely,

Ralph Walker

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