Federal Investigation of New Jersey Transit Finds Numerous Safety Violations

TRENTON — A federal investigation of New Jersey Transit’s railroad this year revealed that workers used personal cellphones while on duty and train crews failed to properly test brakes or blow horns at crossings, among other problems, the agency’s executive director told state legislators at a hearing here on Friday.

After angering state lawmakers by not showing up to an investigative hearing last month, Steven Santoro, the new executive director, appeared before legislators and pledged to improve the troubled agency.

Mr. Santoro testified for four hours, apologizing at least three times for missing the earlier hearing. He had scheduled a meeting with the Federal Railroad Administration on the same day, he said, even though it could have been held another time.

After being on the job for only a few days, I felt that I needed to have a better understanding of the agency,” Mr. Santoro said.

Now three weeks into the job, Mr. Santoro took a conciliatory tone with lawmakers, explaining the steps the railroad was taking to improve safety and to fill vacant jobs. After listing the issues uncovered by the investigation, Mr. Santoro said, “These findings are unacceptable.”

In response, the agency was conducting unannounced inspections and had increased penalties for workers, including longer suspensions, among other measures, Mr. Santoro said.

The latest legislative hearing came about five weeks after a New Jersey Transit train slammed into a station in Hoboken, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 others. The crash drew attention to safety problems at the agency, and a report by The New York Times found broader concerns about its finances under Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, as well as growing delays and leadership problems.

Mr. Santoro was joined by several top officials from the agency, who together faced a barrage of questions from state lawmakers reviewing thousands of pages of documents that New Jersey Transit recently submitted about its operations and staffing. The agency has “critical vacancies” in its rail division and was now working to hire rail managers and other employees, Mr. Santoro said.

State Assemblyman John F. McKeon, a Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee, questioned New Jersey Transit’s hiring last year of Michael Drewniak, a former press secretary for Mr. Christie, who had no transportation experience. He noted that Mr. Drewniak, who until recently served as the agency’s chief of staff and remains at the agency, was one of its highest-paid leaders.

Mr. Santoro said he was not the executive director when Mr. Drewniak was hired and he now had a different chief of staff, Paul Wyckoff, who was seated next to him at the hearing. Mr. Drewniak returned to his previous job as policy and strategic planning director.

At the end of the hearing, Mr. McKeon said he believed officials were still “dancing a little bit” in evading questions about Mr. Drewniak. He said he had identified 10 people who worked for the agency and had ties to Mr. Christie but little transportation experience, though he declined to identify them.

“We’re going to stop New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority and other places as being dumping grounds for patronage,” Mr. McKeon said. “That has got to stop.”

Mr. McKeon said he was unimpressed with testimony at the first hearing from Richard Hammer, the state’s transportation commissioner, who said there were no real problems at the agency. Lawmakers are planning to hold several more hearings on New Jersey Transit in the months ahead.

After months without a public meeting, New Jersey Transit’s board met twice recently and approved its annual operating budget last week. The board also approved financing for the lease of radio spectrum needed to implement positive train control, which can automatically stop or slow a speeding train.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fatal crash in Hoboken and has not determined a cause. Investigators said they did not know yet whether the safety technology could have prevented the crash, but they have said it could have prevented other crashes, including an Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia last year that killed eight people.

New Jersey Transit intended to meet a federal deadline to install the safety technology by the end of 2018, Mr. Santoro told lawmakers. He also said he would suggest to the board that it convene every month from now on.

After complaints from commuters about recent fare increases amid worsening service, Mr. Santoro said there would be no fare increase this fiscal year. He also said he proposed to state officials that there be no fare increase in the fiscal year ending in 2018.

Mr. Santoro acknowledged that New Jersey Transit had more train accidents than other commuter railroads and that older trains were breaking down more often, arguing that plans to hire rail managers and buy new equipment would help address the problems.

Asked about the agency’s safety culture, Mr. Santoro said it needed to be improved.

“Clearly there needs to be a refocusing and rededication and new resources related to keeping the culture,” he said, “and improving the culture as well.”

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