TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Transit's top officials skipped a state oversight hearing Friday to meet with federal regulators, upsetting lawmakers eager to question them about their agency's poor safety record and slow deployment of sophisticated technology that could have prevented a deadly crash last month.
Legislators saw the absence, communicated to them in a text message Thursday night, as a sign of disrespect and a signal the state-owned NJ Transit wasn't sincere about improving its beleaguered commuter rail operation. Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon threatened to issue subpoenas if the officials don't testify at a hearing next month. An NJ Transit spokeswoman said later that they would.
Federal regulators said NJ Transit's new executive director, Steve Santoro, and other key leaders could have avoided the drama simply by asking to move the meeting. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said regulators would have "gladly rescheduled," but the officials never spoke up and said they were needed at the hearing.
That left NJ Transit board chairman Richard Hammer as the agency's only witness.
He came bearing news of looming milestones for the installation of modern train control technology and, in turn, the brunt of criticism from people upset by what they said was a lack of communication after the Sept. 29 Hoboken Terminal crash. One woman died and more than 100 people were injured in the crash, in which when a packed train going double the 10 mph speed limit slammed into a bumping post.
Passenger Sheldon Kest, who's suing NJ Transit after losing part of a finger as a result of the crash, said no one from the agency has contacted him.
Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, who represents Hoboken, said residents who came to the aid of crash victims and had their lives disrupted also have been out of the loop. The city racked up $79,000 in police overtime related to the crash, she said.
"Our town was left to handle your mess," Chaparro told Hammer.
Hammer, who's also the state's transportation commissioner, dismissed concerns that NJ Transit was underfunded and said there was full state funding for a $250 million project to install the GPS-based safety technology known as positive train control.
He vowed that NJ Transit would meet a December 2018 installation deadline, with testing scheduled for next year on a 6-mile stretch of the Morris and Essex Line.
He said NJ Transit would look into whether the technology should be installed at Hoboken Terminal. Federal regulators had given the agency an exception for the station. Even so, experts say on-board computers tied to the PTC system would still be able to keep trains from speeding.
After the crash, NJ Transit lowered the speed limit at Hoboken Terminal to 5 mph and ordered conductors to stand in the front of the train and act as a second set of eyes for engineers when entering the station.
An Associated Press analysis of federal safety data from January 2011 through July 2016 found that NJ Transit trains have been involved in 157 accidents since the start of 2011, three times as many as the largest commuter railroad, the Long Island Rail Road.
Hammer said that NJ Transit has gotten more scrutiny from federal regulators than other railroads because it counts all incidents and accidents and not just those required to be reported by federal guidelines.
All of the incidents reviewed by the AP appeared to meet federal reporting criteria. Hammer left the hearing without answering questions from reporters.
Hammer said he also is looking into whether the agency double-counts trains affected by mechanical issues. According to federal data, NJ Transit trains break down about every 85,000 miles, compared with more than 200,000 miles for the LIRR and the Metro-North Railroad.
Hammer said he's been told the agency sometimes counts the broken-down train along with trains that follow in the schedule.
"Part of the problem could simply be that we're counting too much," Hammer said.
Associated Press writer Michael Catalini contributed to this report.