Why is N.J. transit so delay-prone?
October 12, 2012 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Why is N.J. transit rail so bad, so delay-prone?

Last week, I spent an hour and a half on a stalled New Jersey transit train from New York City at 9:30 pm on a Thursday night.

The weather was fine, but the rail line blamed signal problems. I don't ride the train every day, but someone said this happens every three weeks. It seems to happen to me every 20 trips or so.

Does anyone know the cause of these delays and who should be held responsible for them? They seem manageable. It's not like weather caused unexpected problems.

Indeed, when weather causes a delay for the airlines, they don't apologize and refund fares. But they do when its their fault due to technical issues. The airlines should hardly be a model for customer service though.

Some people blamed the unions. Are they the reason?

I know N.J. Transit is one of the most frequently used rail systems in the U.S., and service is better than a lot of places in the U.S. and the world. But the rail system also services the economic capital of the U.S., New York City.

When I was stuck on that stalled train, I did a quick calculation on the massive loss of productivity due to the signal problems. 100 people in a car, 8 cars, times 90 minutes. That's 1200 hours lost, or 150 days, or 30 weeks. That's more than a half-year's worth of work for one person.

I also know that N.J. transit wrestles with Amtrak over priority on the rail lines going into New York, and that many passenger trains across the country suffer delays because the freight companies own the lines, so passenger trains get delayed. But I'm mainly interested in N.J. Transit functions.

Any insights from rail enthusiasts? Thanks!
posted by Borborygmus to Travel & Transportation around New Jersey (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
NJ Transit's biggest problem is that there are only two commuter rail tunnels under the Hudson, one in each direction. When one goes down, it cuts capacity by more than 50 percent (as bidrectional traffic requires greater separation between trains.)
posted by Jahaza at 11:31 AM on October 12, 2012

I have been told that part of the track into NYC is not controlled by NJT. I suspect that is why the trains often wait while Amtrak trains get priority.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:31 AM on October 12, 2012

I don't think "the unions" caused your train delay, but you might consider blaming Chris Christie, who killed the tunnel project that was to vastly improve the rail infrastructure going between the city and New Jersey.

From my perspective, having grown up riding the Port Jervis line (Metro-North/NJ Transit) and the Hudson Line (Metro-North) frequently since the early 1990s - both systems are in far better shape now than they were twenty years ago.
posted by gyusan at 11:31 AM on October 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

And the proposed third tunnel was halted by Chris Christie.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:32 AM on October 12, 2012

Though it appears that last week's problems were not related to the tunnels.
posted by Jahaza at 11:35 AM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks. I'm aware of the arc tunnel issue, but I don't think that's it. I was stuck a ways south of Newark.

Lest anyone think I'm quick to blame the unions, I think the N.J. Transit conductors are pretty great. (Much better than their bus drivers!) I laughed to myself when the guy who suggested the unions were to blame praised the rail service in Europe in the same breath. I've been stuck on trains in Germany and France too, but those were long distance trains, not commuters. And we all know European rail isn't exactly driven by a free-market ideology.

I just want to know what the dysfunction is. As much as I dislike aspects of Chris Christie, I don't think he's to blame either. These delays have been going on before he was in office.
posted by Borborygmus at 11:38 AM on October 12, 2012

Main issue is that there is one set of tracks and a lot of trains on them. They run lots of trains because there is a lot of demand. But that doesn't give much room for error. When things go wrong, it causes longer delays. If NJ Transit ran hourly trains, there would be less snowballing when problems came up.
posted by smackfu at 11:43 AM on October 12, 2012

It is not just the tunnels, the signaling systems have all been dramatically underinvested in, and I believe that NJT also suffers from obsolescent rolling stock. The capital investment plans for all of the NYC commuter rails have been abysmal for the last 40 years. The LIRR's rolling stock was so poorly planned out that literally the entire fleet came to its end of life at the same time. The NY commuter trains (MNRR and LIRR) have refreshed their rolling stock over the last ten years (though still have issues) I think NJT has lagged behind.
posted by JPD at 11:43 AM on October 12, 2012

As I understand it, Amtrak owns the tracks and associated equipment (other than the trains) on the NE Corridor line. NJ Transit leases their use. Amtrak can't afford to maintain them in peak condition. When things break, NJT has to wait for Amtrak to fix it. Then any delayed Amtrak trains get priority over delayed NJT trains.

The commuter rail system, at least this one, is an example of what I believe they call 'decaying infrastructure.' Awhile ago I heard a NJT conductor explain that in many places along the line the trains can't run at full speed because the tracks are too old (and actually some sections have been replaced relatively recently).
posted by Devoidoid at 11:44 AM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, I'm trying to think of a metropolitan commuter rail that ISN'T bad and delay-prone. I think it's a universal constant.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on October 12, 2012

As Jahaza pointed out, the cause was last Thursday was a signal failure. The train drivers were simply following protocol. Would you have preferred running into another train rather than be two hours late?

I commuted on NJT for many years, and found it was far preferable than the alternatives, which were driving or taking the bus. The problem with rail is that a single failure tends to ripple through the system in a big way. Still, one long delay every few weeks or months was way better than sitting in traffic every. single. day.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 11:52 AM on October 12, 2012

FTR, I've found the rate-of-delay to be smaller than yours. I'm on the Gladstone line.

Generally, whenever anything "goes wrong" ahead of one of the two "Midtown Direct" trains on my line, we get sent to Hoboken instead. So, it's a delay of a different sort, I suppose. But, it's rare that we're ever totally at a standstill for more than 2-5 minutes at a time.
posted by Citrus at 12:12 PM on October 12, 2012

collapsing infrastructure. everyday lines are closed in spots here and there for repairs. and in a system like that, each closed area has a ripple effect.

it is an over-used system, in dire need of a major over-haul - and instead, it gets band-aid repair jobs.
posted by Flood at 12:29 PM on October 12, 2012

Here's an article from the New York times talking a bit about this. The summary is infrastructure, both in quantity and quality. (Like... until just now I had assumed that no one actually commutes from beyond where the LIRR goes to a single track. But apparently they do. I want to say there's some technical issue as to why they can't put in a second track (not being able to get the land), but it's fairly absurd.)

I believe the northeast is the one bit of the country where Amtrak owns the track they use, which is why they're drastically more reliable there. Most other places, you're liable to have to sit and wait for a freight train to move because Union Pacific or whoever owns the track.

Actually, I'm trying to think of a metropolitan commuter rail that ISN'T bad and delay-prone. I think it's a universal constant.

Metra in Chicago is pretty good, in my experience. (With the exception of midday trains in the summer when they're working on the tracks. They just announce everything will be 15 minutes late, rather than attempt to publish a temporary schedule.)
posted by hoyland at 1:24 PM on October 12, 2012

Some numbers: The NJT Northeast corridor trains were on-time 91% of the time in 2011, where on-time is not more than 5 minutes late to the destination. Same time period, LIRR is 93.7%, Metro North was 96.9%. So yeah, NJT is worse.
posted by smackfu at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2012

Infrastructure problems are the usual issue (confirmed for Amtrak at least in this report), as is well explained above. However, it's worth noting that other things can cause train delays. Some of the NJ transit lines experience occasional flooding problems after heavy rain. A few months ago a drunken college kid decided to tap his hand against the side of the engine and train cars as it pulled up to the station, putting himself in danger and enraging/frightening the train's engineer, who then kept the train standing at the platform without the doors opening for the time it took the conductors to find the kid and explain to him he would not be permitted to board the train.

Every once in a while, not often, but often enough that it happens to almost every regular commuter, a delay is due to someone jumping in front of the train. As mentioned above, because of the ripple effect this can mess up all the trains for the day. Always struck me as a singularly inconsiderate way to go.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:36 PM on October 12, 2012

I think the basic problems are aging/decaying infrastructure and cuts to transit spending. This article seems pretty reasonable to me (ignore comments unless you enjoy depression).

P.S., hah, I was on one of those trains - my original ETA was 6:45 and I got home around 10:30. Awesome.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:28 PM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: So, the rail lines in NYC are scarce and the whole systems is underfunded, and Chris Christie didn't make things any better by pulling away from the third tunnel.

Thanks for the article, efdp. It was very helpful.

So, who's to blame? Who do we lobby? Who gets fired? Surely rail riders are enough of a constituency.
posted by Borborygmus at 5:58 PM on October 13, 2012

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