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NJ Transit chief expects staffing woes to end in late 2020

New Jersey Transit Chief Executive Officer Kevin Corbett predicts the agency will hire enough engineers to operate all its trains, reducing cancellations of trains in 2020. The rail operator currently employs 350 engineers but must hire another 50 to be fully staffed at a total of 400 engineers. Corbett said NJT will hit that number by late 2020, noting that the training course is so strenuous that many candidates either flunk out or quit.

New Jersey Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

New Jersey Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett. – AARON HOUSTON

“It is a moving target only because the graduation rate varies,” he said. “It is a very tough course. They get out into the classroom, get out doing the actual riding, and doing the on-the-job training.”

NJ Transit is also installing positive train control, a system of computers, sensors, and other technological infrastructure that prevents trains from crashing. A federal mandate requires all rail agencies to install the system. NJT finished installing positive train control in December 2018 and is now testing the software system in advance of a December 2020 deadline to get it fully functioning.

Some riders have been inconvenienced by unplanned cancellations of trains. To get a sense of what that’s like Corbett rides NJ Transit to reach his office in Newark. “If you look at the total number of people we are moving, and I do not like to believe the propaganda, I hear there are always going to be some people who on social media or who no matter what you do [will be upset],” Corbett said. “You find the cure for cancer and they will blame you for not making it affordable.”

Cancellations of Transit trains were down by 55 percent for 2019 through November as compared to the first 11 months of 2018.

“I think the number of angry riders is fewer significantly,” Corbett said. “Our on-time performance is still a challenge and PTC is not helping in that regard. I am hearing from customers on improving our on-time performances.”

Gov. Phil Murphy announces construction will begin at four New Jersey train stations as a result of a renewed partnership between New Jersey Transit and Amtrak at the New Brunswick Train Station on Oct. 15, 2019.

Gov. Phil Murphy announces construction will begin at four New Jersey train stations as a result of a renewed partnership between New Jersey Transit and Amtrak at the New Brunswick Train Station on Oct. 15, 2019. – EDWIN J. TORRES/GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, is proposing a new, dedicated source of funding for NJ Transit. In general, lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration are grappling with how to finance the mass transit agency without having to raise ticket prices.

“I will give you an exclusive scoop: sometime in the next 10 years we will raise fares,” Corbett said. “If you look at fare increases, if you look at the last 20 years, fare increases average about 3 percent per year. I think most riders would rather have periodic smaller increases than going five years or 10 years without an increase and then being hit with a big one.”

NJT generates about 50 percent of its revenue from fares; the rest comes from the state and federal governments, real estate, advertising and parking fees.

“Whatever the ingredients [legislators] want to put in, as long as we get the funding, I leave the legislators to make the sausage,” Corbett said. “One difficulty in Trenton is we are the nation’s third largest Transit system. Trenton is not used to hearing billions of dollars in price tags.”

The operator is borrowing $500 million through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and to finance the acquisition of 600 new buses and 17 locomotives. That process is underway. “We are already taking delivery on the buses and will start taking delivery of the locomotives in early 2020,” Corbett said.

Rail snacking

On a lighter note, NJ Transit trains do not have snack cars although Corbett is open to serving food. “We want to make transportation enjoyable,” he said. “We are open to all sorts of things. We have to walk before we run but certainly I am interested in that.”

Gov. Phil Murphy announces a Memorandum of Understanding providing for the design and construction of a train station at the North Brunswick Transit Village along the Northeast Corridor in North Brunswick on Oct. 30, 2019.

Gov. Phil Murphy announces a Memorandum of Understanding providing for the design and construction of a train station at the North Brunswick Transit Village along the Northeast Corridor in North Brunswick on Oct. 30, 2019. – EDWIN J. TORRES/GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

NJ Transit used to offer food on the North Jersey Coast Line but it did not generate enough revenue and was discontinued. “We are the backbone of the economy and I think that would be great,” Corbett said.

Some behind-the-scenes challenges center on upgrading information technology and working with labor unions who represent NJ Transit employees. NJ Transit is also working with scanners to use fare collection and maximize the mobile app.

“We are looking to use Alexa,” Corbett said. “Look at the software that we had when we came in here: 46 percent of our software was outdated and could not be supported by the software company.”

“We had to overhaul our IT department,” Corbett said.

NJ Transit does not get the same sort of attention as systems in New York City, Chicago and Boston where major corporations, hospitals and civic organizations support public transit. And Corbett welcomes critics to NJ Transit public meetings, noting they may effect change by lobbying New Jersey legislators in Trenton.

“They hold us accountable when we miss the mark, which is fine,” Corbett said of critics of NJ Transit. But [they] are also out there helping us to compete in healthcare and education to get the funding in Trenton that we discussed.”

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: dhutter@njbiz.com.

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