A new report from the state auditor tore into New Jersey Transit over its skyrocketing costs for positive train control installment, questioned whether the system will be fully operational by the Dec. 31 deadline, and highlighted a chronic increase of delays over the past two years.
Should NJ Transit not fully implement the emergency braking system by the end of the year and have it installed, tested and certified, the trains would either need to completely stop, or the Federal Railway Administration would hit NJ Transit with a nearly $28,000 a day fine for every day they keep the trains running.
“NJT is behind schedule on its federally required safety system installation of Positive Train Control, and it is debatable whether NJT will meet the full implementation deadline of Dec. 31, 2020,” State Auditor Stephen Eells wrote in the report released Jan. 30.
Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s chief executive officer, said in an eight-page letter to the auditor that the agency received approval from the Federal Railway Administration for an “alternative schedule for PTC implementation,” because of delays stemming from software problems last year.
But, he assured the deadline for the end of the year will be met.
NJ Transit initially planned for the full implementation of positive train control to cost $225 million, but those costs quickly rose to $500 million as of September, according to the report.
Of that amount, $41.4 million went to a consultant who received six change orders to do work, $47.4 million went to another consultant to finish them by Dec. 31, 2019, $210 million went to a contractor to design, construct and test the PTC system, and $201 million went to “other costs.”
The agency had $9.1 million in “liquidated damages” from a contractor who did not meet certain PTC project milestones, but the agency had yet to collect those funds as of October. Corbett wrote NJ Transit had only “assessed” those damages, but had not gone forward with collecting the funds.
Out of NJ Transit’s 679 railroad bridges, 174 of them have components that were in “poor or bad” conditions—and 47 of those bridges were not included in the agency’s repair plan, which could lead to “more costly structural damage.”
Corbett maintained that “all NJ Transit-owned bridges are prioritized correctly” and asserted that the auditor’s assessment was “not accurate.”
“Conditions that require immediate attention do not appear on NJ Transit’s priority repair or replacement list because the conditions are resolved as soon as possible,” he wrote. “A bridge having a condition rating of poor on one of its components may have no impact on the bridge’s ability to safely carry railway, automobile, or pedestrian traffic.”
Between January 2017 and May 31, 2019, riders experienced 18,102 train delays which the agency could have prevented, many of them due to staffing and equipment shortages, as well as railway mechanical errors, according to the audit.
During that same time period, NJ Transit also failed to meet its own goals for average on-time arrivals, which is 94.7 percent. The threshold for a delay is when a train arrives at least six minutes after the arrival time. The on-time arrival rate was 91 percent most of the day but scored even lower during the morning and evening commutes at 87 percent.
Corbett, like Gov. Phil Murphy, has attributed much of the record to a “lack of strategic planning and underfunding by prior NJ Transit management,” and highlighted the hundreds of conductors and locomotive engineers that the agency has hired since Murphy took office.
Murphy reiterated as recently as his State of the State address earlier this month that he would fix NJ Transit “even if it kills” him. But he has been faced with criticism from legislative leadership and transportation advocates, as well as riders who frequently post commuting woes on social media.
The governor’s chief political opponent, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, put together his own legislative committee to scrutinize many of the agency’s repeated “failures.”
“The soaring cost of the Positive Train Control program, the clear lack of adequate oversight on that contract, and the fact that we may very well be the only railroad in the region to fail to meet the Dec. 31, 2020, federal deadline is a devastating indictment of where we are,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, a frequent critic of the agency and ranking committee member, said Thursday.