Keep the People in Transit 

 

We are more than half-way through what was billed as the “summer of hell” for New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters who have had to go to Hoboken, rather than directly to Penn Station, so that repairs could be made to the tracks that feed the rail nexus.  As a monthly ticket holder, riding from Morristown to Hoboken five days a week, I feel compelled to commend the dozens of NJ Transit and PATH workers who have been present for every morning and evening rush–sometimes with a free bottle of cold water, but always with a smile.   

It’s not heaven, but it sure has been more humane than the several months of commuting leading up to Amtrak’s asking for down-time to make the long-deferred repairs.  So often, when the op-ed writers discuss the need to upgrade our mass transit, their discourse fixates on capital and technology but that misses the “boots on the ground.” 

Between my discounting monthly train fare and the PATH system into Manhattan cross-honoring my monthly NJ Transit ticket, my commutation costs have been reduced by more than half.  At this rate, I wouldn’t mind if it took them until Christmas to get the work done.  In fact, I really want Amtrak to double-check their work.  Don’t rush it on my account.  

Prior to the re-direction of Midtown-Direct trains to Hoboken this summer, service had so deteriorated that delays could run hours; and several times, service was suspended entirely.  In those instances, the lack of NJ Transit people on the ground created unnecessary stress and high anxiety.  Commuters were either getting no information or contradictory information.  

For me, the level of incoherence reached science-fiction levels during one morning rush-hour in the spring.  My Penn Station-bound train had made it into the Hudson River tunnel, but then came to a screeching halt in the tunnel.  We sat for a while and then, ever so slowly, went backward through the Jersey Meadowlands to the Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station. 

Once in the station, we were released to fend for ourselves.  Up on the digital display board, the automated timetable did not reflect the reality on the rails, and the public-address messages were contradicting themselves.  The vaunted smartphone apps were also of little use.  And there was just no one from NJ Transit on the ground, where thousands of passengers were milling about clueless.  

This is the scenario in which every commuter must have a bit of the survivalist in them. You need a sense of geography and the ability to orient yourself in the natural world.  If your objective was to throw in the towel on getting to your job and finish the day working from home, your best bet was to get on any train heading west out of the Meadowlands. 

In this regard, I had a distinct advantage, thanks to my stint as a crew caller back in the 1970s– on what was then called the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad–while I was a student at Ramapo College.  From midnight to 8 a.m., it was my job to hand out crew assignments in Hoboken for both the freight and passenger trains–over much of the same rail lines on which NJ Transit runs today. 

There were a lot of moving parts to the job.  You had to know who was qualified to do what and what their seniority was.  Since this was during the oil crisis, and nobody wanted to have to use their car, you also had to know what train they could catch, so they could get to where their assignment originated.  

Back then, as best as I could tell–unlike today’s NJ Transit–you didn’t have former political operatives from the Governor’s Office finding sanctuary running the railroad.  On the other hand, it was a totally male bastion with more than a heavy dollop of nepotism.   

I should know. I got my job because my Dad was, at that time, a clerk to the train dispatcher on the “third trick” (or overnights) in Hoboken. My Dad and I weren’t on great terms, but we would ride the train into work every night.  I was really impressed when–with just a flash of his flashlight at the Ramsey Station–he could stop a dead-head train on the Erie Line coming back down from Suffern, New York, that for anybody else would have just thundered by. 

The railroad was run on military time and with a similar precision. There was a facial hair and grooming code for conductors and brakemen.  If you were running freight, beards weren’t so much a problem.  But if you were in passenger service, the trainmaster could use a ruler to measure the length of your sideburns and your mustache. 

There was also a whole lot of workplace racism, as I found out when I placed an African-American brakeman–because he was next in seniority and was entitled to the job–on a passenger train with the wrong white conductor, who burst into my office and berated me with a barrage of expletives.  I can still picture his stars-and-bars belt buckle to this day.  

There were a handful of women around. One of them worked with me overnight, assigning the engineers and “firemen”–a second sentient being that was present in the engine, which harkened back to the steam-engine era.  Not long after I left the railroad, the fireman job was eliminated, because management said the advance in technology had made the position unnecessary.  

We have internalized the notion that if it is feasible to eliminate a job with technology, it must be done because it reduces head count. cuts costs and generates higher profits.   

But who sees the windfall?  Who benefits?  Since the 1970s, American workers stopped seeing their wages grow at a pace with their increasing productivity, which came with the new technology.  Last year the Economic Policy Institute reported that, from 1973 until 2015, while productivity was increasing more than 73%, hourly pay for workers went up only 11%.  In other words, productivity grew by more than six times the rise in wages earned by the workers.  There’s that concentration of income and wealth that has squeezed middle-class Americans. 

When a decision is made to zero-out a job–like having a second person (the fireman) in a running locomotive– the bean-counters discount the additional risks that come with that decision.   

For a few years now, the news has been filled with one train crash after another, in which there was just one person present driving the engine.  In September 2016, an engineer with un-diagnosed sleep apnea lost consciousness and crashed into the Hoboken Terminal, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 people.  It took several months, and $18 million, to make the repairs–which aren’t expected to be entirely completed until 2019. 

In 2013, a Metro-North train crash killed 4 and injured 60.  Investigators flagged the engineer in that case as also having undiagnosed sleep apnea. 

There’s no better example of where the rail industry’s lopsided pursuit of cost-cutting has skewed the labor-capital balance with reckless consequences than in long-distance freight operations, where one-person crews are something the industry wants to make standard. 

Perhaps the best example of a worst-case scenario was the July 2013 oil-train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, a village in Quebec, that killed 47 of its residents and incinerated its downtown.  According to Canada’s Transportation Safety Board’s official report, the sole crew member–per railroad instruction–left “the loaded train to be parked on a significant grade,” several miles away upgrade from the village, which made the train harder to secure “but saves fuel in getting the train moving again.” 

The report continues: “In addition to applying air brakes,” the solo crew member “had to dismount from the train and go car-to-car to manually engage hand-brakes on several cars of the train—a task that a conductor on a two-man crew would have done.” The railroad dispatcher directed the solo operator to “take rest while the train awaited another crew” and “made the decision to allow the loaded oil train to sit unattended.” 

Once unattended, one of the locomotives caught fire and the local fire department turned off the idling locomotives and put the fire out. “With all the locomotives shut down, the air compressor no longer supplied air to the air brake system.  As air leaked from the brake system, the main air reservoirs were slowly depleted, gradually reducing the effectiveness of the locomotive air brakes.” 

The official narrative continues: “Just before 1 a.m., the air pressure had dropped to a point at which the combination of locomotive air brakes and hand brakes could no longer hold the train, and it began to roll downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, just over seven miles away.  As it moved down the grade, the train picked up speed, reaching a top speed of 65 mph.  It derailed near the centre of the town at about 1:15 a.m.” 

Gravity was its only driver.

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