NJ Transit “Working Diligently” Toward PTC Deadline, but has Miles to Go

October 3, 2018

Three months from a statutory December 31 deadline, New Jersey Transit told the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing yesterday that it is “working diligently” to catch up on installation and qualify for an alternative schedule under the positive train control (PTC) law.

Amtrak also made news at the hearing, as Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek said Amtrak will continue running full rail service along the Southwest Chief line (as opposed to replacing one interstate segment with bus service), but would not blink on whether Amtrak would honor a previous commitment to match $3 million of a $16 million TIGER (now BUILD) grant awarded to three states for track improvements on that line.

NJ Transit “committed to doing everything possible”

Wednesday’s hearing was the first time Congress heard directly from Kevin Corbett, who became executive director of NJ Transit in February 2018. Mr. Corbett said the agency—which runs the nation’s largest state-wide public transportation system—is “working diligently” to qualify for an alternative schedule, which would give the agency up to two additional years to fully implement PTC along its required route-miles.

“We are fully and absolutely committed to doing everything possible to meet that deadline,” Mr. Corbett said.

Since Mr. Corbett took the reins, NJ Transit has shot up from 12 percent completion to over 70 percent completion toward meeting the requirements to qualify for an alternative schedule. That includes installing 82 percent of wayside equipment, equipping 160 locomotives and cab cars, and completing 99 percent of employee training.

“We’ve accomplished more in the last seven months than in the previous seven years,” Mr. Corbett said.

That progress has come at great cost, not only in dollars but also in rider satisfaction. Mr. Corbett said NJ Transit’s service disruptions—more are coming on Oct. 14—are “painful for our customers”  but necessary to get the trains outfitted with PTC hardware.

When asked by Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and others how NJ Transit had come to lag so far behind other railroads, Mr. Corbett said he was “fighting a legacy” of the agency not taking the PTC mandate as seriously as it should have. For example, until 2016 only four employees were assigned full-time to PTC, “not nearly enough to meet a mission-critical federal deadline.”

The agency has also had to deal with contract issues: NJ Transit entered into a contract in 2011 with a vendor to install PTC vehicle equipment by 2015, and by 2017 they were “nowhere near finished.”

While Mr. Corbett struck an optimistic tone on the agency’s ability to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), painted a more sobering picture. According to Ms. Fleming, NJ Transit has been equipping 30 railcars a month for the past few months but still have 2,200 to do by December. Those numbers do not add up.

“They deserve credit because they’ve had a fairly accelerated pace” since Mr. Corbett’s arrival, she said, but it’s “hard to say” whether they will ultimately fail to qualify for an alternative schedule.

Should NJ Transit—or any of the other eight “at risk” commuter railroads—fail to qualify, they will continue to operate but likely face heavy fines. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Ronald Batory said “there will not be any cessation of service unless that carrier elects to do it itself,” but “it’s hard for me to rationalize anything less than the maximum fine” of roughly $27,000 per day.

(Ed. Note: One of the Eno staff points out that $27,000 per day times 365 is only $9.855 million per year in maximum fines for PTC non-compliance. NJT’s annual operating budget is $2.1 billion and its annual capital budget is $1.5 billion, so $10 million a year in fines, while not quite pocket change, is easily payable if they fail to meet the deadline. If Amtrak were to follow through on its threat to ban NJT from the Hudson River Tunnel and other Northeast Corridor infrastructure after December 31 for PTC non-compliance, that would be a different story.)

Southwest Chief will remain whole, for now

With three senators from states serviced by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief—Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Jim Moran (R-KS), and Cory Gardner (R-CO)—at the hearing, the long-distance route was a frequently-raised subject. It started with good news for the senators, as Mr. Naparstek told Sen. Udall that Amtrak “plan[s] on running Southwest Chief as-is through FY19, and we await Congress’s dealing with the Southwest Chief issue during conference and in the final spending bill.”

The Senate-passed “mini-bus” appropriations bill including DOT funding contained a provision requiring Amtrak to continue providing rail service for all f the Southwest Chief line, after Amtrak previously announced its intention to replace one long segment with bus service.

Also at issue was a letter Amtrak sent to its partners informing them that it would not honor its previous commitment to match $3 million of a $16 million TIGER grant awarded to Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado for track repairs on the Southwest Chief line. That reversal came after Richard Anderson was confirmed as Amtrak president and told state officials they would not see the $3 million unless they could demonstrate the line’s financial viability.

Quizzed by all three senators on whether Amtrak would honor its commitment, Mr. Naparstek echoed Mr. Anderson’s statement that there is a “very real and serious financial issue that needs to be addressed” with the Southwest Chief line. But “what we’ve proposed isn’t ending the service, it’s service by different means,” he said.

It was clear the issue would remain a sticking point not to be resolved during this week’s hearing.

“I don’t think this is a fair outcome by Amtrak to have withdrawn its support,” Sen. Gardner said. “If Amtrak is going to be a national carrier, then it has to be a national carrier.”

Watch the hearing here.

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