With the committed support of Governor Murphy and the legislature, millions of dollars now are being invested to improve the infrastructure of NJ TRANSIT, including the hiring of hundreds of bus drivers and engineers and investments in new rail and bus equipment. Once again, NJ TRANSIT is being run like a very large business — which is exactly what it is.
Too often, the operational challenges faced by the agency tend to dominate the headlines, with little recognition of what has been done in a very short time. While NJ TRANSIT will continue to face challenges in its efforts to improve the rider experience and update equipment, it’s clear that a concerted effort already is well under way. Upon taking the reins just last year, NJ TRANSIT President and CEO Kevin Corbett and his team established a game plan and marked out priorities and milestones on which to measure success. And, as would any management team at a private corporation, they’ve delivered on those goals and reported their progress to the shareholders — in this case, the ridership and taxpayers.
Keep in mind that last December, new management at the agency completed the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) 2018 year-end milestone for Positive Train Control (PTC) in less than a year — a federal deadline that some experts predicted might be missed. This included installation of equipment on locomotives and cab control cars, and installation of 326 miles of wayside equipment including radios, transponders and poles, as well as initiating PTC testing and employee training.
Further, upon identifying engineer shortages as a primary contributor to train cancellations, new management took the steps necessary to address that operational concern. Prior to 2018, only one or two engineer training classes graduated each year. The new management team immediately ramped up the number of locomotive engineer training classes, which includes six classes running concurrently, and four classes graduating between June 2019 and January 2020. And it shows — this month, the number of train cancellations has been steadily going down.
Unfortunately, naysayers seem unaware of what it takes to turn around a challenged corporation. And NJ TRANSIT is acting like a corporation, in order to continue its steady progress. This means developing a priority plan and keeping an eye on the big picture, investing both human capital and technology for its future, and not allowing itself to be bogged down by every criticism.
Transporting 900,000 daily travelers is a massive undertaking — much like moving a mountain every day. Mr. Corbett, a seasoned veteran of business and industry, is sensibly taking the long view toward making every rider’s experience better. In fact, taking steps to behave in a more corporate-like fashion was recommended in the much-publicized independent audit of NJ TRANSIT’s operations. They’re doing exactly what the experts advised them to do.
History shows us people like to take potshots at struggling businesses, especially when they’re on the ropes. In 1997, Apple was weeks from bankruptcy, and the punchline of every boardroom joke. Marvel had filed bankruptcy the year before. Starbucks was forced to close 1,000 stores at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. And just look at the value of these brands today. NJ TRANSIT was once the envy of transportation agencies throughout the country. That storied past can and will be revived and our transit system can once again provide us with a quality commuting experience.
I say “our transit system” because it is ours. We own it. As New Jersey residents and taxpayers, we all hold a stake in the state-owned agency’s successes, as well as its shortcomings. Rather than rolling our eyes and pretending we understand the complexity of the situation, let’s advocate strongly for NJ TRANSIT’s turnaround and take pride in every incremental improvement.
Of course, we’ll have to put up with a few headaches along the way. If we must assign blame for these inconveniences, it belongs to those who previously neglected to keep NJ TRANSIT a priority. However, I believe that we should look forward, not backward. We should focus on the positives — the improvements that are being made. We should look to the measurable strides that the nation’s largest statewide transit system has taken as well as the Murphy Administration's focused commitment, which includes the appointment of industry veterans like Mr. Corbett.
The agency is making progress, but as with any business, a massive reversal will not happen overnight. It will take time. But NJ TRANSIT — with a renewed focus on running the agency like a major business and committed long-term uninterrupted funding by the Legislature — is up to the task of turning this enormous ship around.