With the recent June 2019 graduating class and six more classes of locomotive engineering trainees graduating through December 2020, NJ TRANSIT will have graduated seven classes in two years (2019 – 2020). That’s the same number of classes that graduated in the previous five years combined (2014 – 2018.)
Agency officials attribute the significant increase in engineer training activities to the hyper-focused efforts of the Murphy Administration and NJ TRANSIT President and CEO Kevin Corbett to improve reliability and the customer experience.
Corbett has compared the intensive, 20-month program to the training required to become an airline pilot. Trainees participate in 24 weeks of formal classroom instruction and must pass extensive testing, including a final exam of nearly 800 questions, before they complete an exhaustive training program in the field.
Some ask why NJ TRANSIT can’t simply bring in engineers from other railroads across the country as a short-term solution. The most significant differences among railroads that prevent locomotive engineers from being universally qualified are the unique physical characteristics on individual railroads, and the different types of equipment and signal systems in use on the various railroads. Locomotive engineers from other railroads would still have to undergo the extensive training required to become certified to operate on NJ TRANSIT’s rail network.
NJ TRANSIT has increased the number of training classes to up to seven running concurrently, the most in its 40-year history, and is averaging three to four graduating classes a year — two to four times as many as average during the previous six years (2013 – 2018.) Three of those years only had one graduating class in the entire year, and no year saw more than two graduating classes. This sustained lack of attention to engineer recruiting resulted in a continued decline in the number of active engineers over that same time period.
NJ TRANSIT is similarly committed to putting more buses on the roads, and has recruited and trained more than 500 bus drivers since January 2018. Agency officials say that this will equate to about 1,900 additional passenger trips every weekday, or nearly 500,000 per year.
NJ TRANSIT is the state’s largest bus operator, with 3,700 buses and paratransit vehicles servicing more than 16,000 bus stops in 386 New Jersey municipalities, including Access Link paratransit service.
The agency has faced criticisms for cancellations, some of which it claims are the result of a shortage of engineers and years of previous neglect. NJ TRANSIT says that it needs at least 293 engineers to manage its daily run of nearly 700 weekday trains, but this does not include the number of additional engineers needed to cover vacation time, sick days, and emergencies. The agency currently employs 335 active engineers and is budgeted for 383. Even with the depleted bench of engineers, the agency is boasting a staggering 60% reduction in cancellations when comparing August 2019 to August 2018. Overall in 2019, cancellations are down 34% when comparing January – August 2019 to the same time period last year.
In defiance of misconceptions that modern trains are run by computers, the job of a locomotive engineer is a demanding one, requiring not only mechanical expertise but keen eyes and a cool head. Engineers perform daily pre-trip inspections and continuously monitor track conditions during a run, adjusting the locomotive’s throttles and brakes while staying alert for obstructions. NJ TRANSIT has ten different engine types; engineers must understand the technical nuances of each, down to the minutiae of the correct, distinct temperatures for oil and water.
“We had one airline pilot who decided because of lifestyle reasons he wanted to become an engineer,” said Corbett. “He did and said it was as tough as becoming a commercial airline pilot.”
Corbett added that NJ TRANSIT is committed to continuing its present turnaround, and that the expansion of its engineering corps is one of numerous improvement initiatives currently under way. NJ TRANSIT has also announced planned upgrades to its locomotives, train cars, and buses, and currently has more than $1 billion of capital programs in the pipeline. The agency’s management team made headlines last year when they met the interim milestone by the federally required December 2018 deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) safety installations. The initiative involved installation of new equipment in 282 locomotives and cab control cars, and along 326 miles of track. The agency will continue systemwide PTC testing over the next 14 months to meet the federal deadline to have all trains operating with PTC fully operational in revenue service by December 31, 2020.
While challenges still lie ahead, Corbett has expressed confidence that 2020 will be the real transformational year for the agency, resulting in more significant tangible improvements to the customer experience.