SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange and Maplewood are known as transit-based towns but with problems plaguing NJ Transit this summer, travelers in both municipalities have grown frustrated while trying to reach their destinations. In a survey jointly circulated by the towns between Aug. 5 and 8, residents overwhelmingly stated that their lives have been negatively impacted by train delays and cancellations, leading South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca on Aug. 10 to send a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy with those results and suggestions for how to improve NJ Transit.
“We understand change takes time, but the current situation is just plain unacceptable,” the letter, a copy of which was sent to the News-Record by Collum, reads. “We know you agree based on your public comments, including yesterday’s press conference, during which it was clear you empathize with and share our deep frustrations and those of our commuting residents. We have some suggestions for how you can act on that sentiment immediately to make things better for commuters.”
Murphy held a press conference Aug. 9, in which he and NJ Transit officials explained issues currently facing the transit line and assured commuters that the administration is working to fix them.
“I don’t blame commuters one bit for their anger or cynicism,” Murphy said at the press conference. “If they’re angry I think they’re in good company. Let there be no doubt that as it relates to NJ Transit, the commuter is on the pedestal here and they have every right to be upset.”
There are three train stations in Maplewood and South Orange, and 960 residents took the survey. Of those residents, 69.27 percent said they always commute. When asked how satisfied they were with NJ Transit’s rail operations, 42.81 percent said that they were very dissatisfied, while only 1.56 percent said they were very satisfied.
Communication was one of the biggest issues raised in the survey, with 88.76 percent of respondents saying they arrived at the station before finding out their trains had been canceled. When asked if they received a clear explanation about why their trains were canceled, 43.3 percent said they never did and 40.21 percent said they seldom did.
“There is simply no excuse that the overwhelming majority of riders are finding out on a station platform that their trains are either cancelled or delayed,” the letter read. “A robust communications strategy, similar to 2017, needs to be put forth immediately. For the most part, NJ Transit riders understand that improvements and repairs are necessary, especially given the years of deferred maintenance and underfunding of this agency. However, all commuters deserve to have the highest level of predictability so that they may adjust their schedules accordingly.”
At the press conference, Murphy said train cancellations are due to a lack of trained engineers and some engineers unexpectedly calling out of work, along with installing the positive train control technology mandated by the federal government. The deadline to install the technology is Dec. 31.
“The overwhelming majority of the engineers and everybody who comes to work wearing the NJ Transit badge are doing everything you’d want them to,” Murphy said. “They’re working their tails off, they’re highly trained, they’re highly motivated, in some cases we’re running them ragged. Like everything else, there’s a small population who are spoiling it for the broader population.”
He said that installation of the positive train control technology is 58 percent complete and has occurred during the last six months, faster than in the last seven years.
Collum and DeLuca also urged Murphy to provide other options to commuters while the train delays and cancellations are ongoing. These options, they said, include additional buses and ferries.
“In order to better supplement service to riders, we urge you to consider putting resources towards alternatives means of transportation unrelated to rail operations,” the letter read. “The addition of bus and ferry options would likely not be impacted by the two main reasons provided to riders for delays.”
Collum and DeLuca also asked that the governor work with state municipalities to better communicate and keep commuters updated about NJ Transit occurrences. In the letter, they proposed a quarterly meeting with NJ Transit officials, and more frequent calls when there are more severe disruptions.
“Mayors and local officials are a great vehicle through which to distribute information to our communities, and we have opportunities locally to better assist/accommodate disruptions in service,” they said.
They also requested that Murphy fill the two seats on the NJ Transit board reserved for members of the public, which have not been filled since 2016.
“The voice of the public and NJ Transit customer experience must be represented at the table. We would gladly work with the administration and offer up names for consideration,” the letter read. “As you can likely see from the tremendous response from our resident commuters, our communities don’t suffer from lack of engagement or desire to be a part of solutions.”
Photo by Amanda Valentovic