Towns unite to find solution for NJ Transit

South Orange Train Station

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Nearly a month after South Orange and Maplewood sent a joint letter and the results of a survey about NJ Transit to Gov. Phil Murphy asking for improvements to the rail organization, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and South Orange President Sheena Collum were joined by 16 mayors, including West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, from other towns along the Morris & Essex lines, who united to tell the governor that the commuter lines need to be improved.

The letter described the “intolerable conditions” that commuters in the community have been dealing with all summer amid train cancellations. Including signatures from the mayors of Morristown, Summit, Netcong, Madison, Bernards Township, Hoboken, Chatham, Orange, Hackettstown, Berkeley Heights, Millburn, Denville, New Providence, Long Hill Township and Dover, the letter provides suggestions for how to better NJ Transit.

“We are in a state of emergency which requires swift and fundamental, not incremental, change at NJ Transit,” the letter read. “Understanding the complexity of these challenges, we offer measures for consideration that can, and should, be taken immediately to make the commute for 150,000 riders more tolerable during this time of transition and improvement.”

In a press conference on Aug. 9, Murphy said train cancellations are due to a lack of trained engineers and some engineers unexpectedly calling out of work, along with the installation of positive train control technology mandated by the federal government. The deadline to install the technology is Dec. 31.

In the survey conducted by Maplewood and South Orange, many residents said the biggest challenge they face while commuting is the lack of communication. Trains have been delayed or canceled with little to no notice, complicating commuters’ schedules.

The survey had 960 respondents from South Orange and Maplewood, which are home to three train stations. 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. The remaining respondents were either dissatisfied, satisfied or had no opinion.

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.

The recent letter sent to Murphy by 18 area mayors acknowledged recent improvements while still asking for more progress.

“Transparency in the moment means passengers receive delay or cancellation notices while they’re at the station, leaving them little to no room to make alternative plans. This starts a cascade with vast negative impacts on business dealings and family responsibilities — most notably, child care,” the letter read. “The problems are compounded then as the feverish rush to find an alternative route creates a public safety risk for riders as they desperately move to board the next train, which is often overcrowded.”

In a phone interview on Friday, Aug. 31, DeLuca said that including the mayors from the other towns on the Morris & Essex lines was important to make a bigger impact at the state government level.

“The more mayors we have, the more clout we have with NJ Transit,” DeLuca said. “Some immediately signed on; it wasn’t hard to convince them. Everyone was feeling the pressure and was dissatisfied.”

DeLuca hopes Murphy can work with the local governments to improve NJ Transit, echoing one of the requests made in the letter.

“As elected officials, we are uniquely positioned as community conduits to disseminate accurate information and assist our communities when there are disruptions in service; but we need to know what’s going on,” the letter reads, also asking for NJ Transit to answer questions that they cannot. “At this critical juncture, it would be wise for NJ Transit employees, who serve as government relations liaisons to our communities, to begin coordinating public meetings so that our commuters can hear directly from the source and be able to ask questions — ones local officials are not equipped to answer at this time.”

In an email on Thursday, Aug. 30, Parisi said that even though West Orange does not have a train station in town, many residents rely on NJ Transit every day.

“Though West Orange does not have a train station, regional public transportation is as important to this community as it is to any community and it is important that we speak collectively with all our neighbors that rely on reliable service,” he said. “Many residents in our community commute to NYC and count on NJ Transit. Any issues, recurring or temporary, have a big impact on people’s ability to get to work and get home again. It is our responsibility to make sure NJ Transit understands how their service impacts lives and what can be done to improve service.”

Collum, who spearheaded the survey and joint letter process, did not return a request for comment.

Since the letter was sent to Murphy, DeLuca said that the towns have received confirmation that the governor’s office received both the first letter and survey results and the more recent joint letter.

“We hope to have a meeting with them in September,” he said. “There’s been a lack of communication from NJ Transit. They have to be more customer friendly and work at the local level. We understand how important the trains are because people move here because they can rely on them. When that breaks down, there are consequences on our desirability. We need to get it back to the level that it was at at one time.”