TRENTON, N.J. – Federal regulators have found numerous safety violations on New Jersey's troubled commuter system, including the lack of on-board emergency tools and working fire extinguishers, trains stopping too close to each other and workers using cellphones when they shouldn't have.
NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro disclosed the findings on Friday to a panel of state lawmakers that's investigating the agency in the wake of a fatal train crash in Hoboken in September.
Santoro said the Federal Railroad Administration's review also found train engineers sometimes failed to blow horns at grade crossings, as required by law, and didn't always perform required brake checks.
Santoro said the findings are unacceptable. He said NJ Transit has implemented stricter rules for employee conduct and longer suspensions for safety violations, but conceded more needs to be done.
A dozen positions in NJ Transit's system safety office, formed two years ago, have gone unfilled. The agency has seen its maintenance staffing and spending drop while trains are breaking down at higher rates than other commuter rail systems, and it's been slow to replace managers who've retired or moved to better paying jobs elsewhere.
"New Jersey Transit is at a critical juncture, and we have issues to address," Santoro testified. "First and foremost is the safety of our customers and employees. There's no substitute for it, no alternative to it and no way around it. It is the priority."
Santoro apologized for skipping last month's oversight hearing on short notice to meet with federal regulators, telling upset lawmakers he didn't mean it "as a sign of disrespect or disinterest."
Santoro said NJ Transit has adequate funding to cover escalating labor costs and fees to operate on the Northeast Corridor. The agency is paying Amtrak $64 million this year to operate on the tracks from Trenton to New York City. That'll increase to $73 million for next year and $104 million in five years, Santoro said.
A project to install the sophisticated safety technology known as positive-train control is fully funded and on schedule to meet a December 2018 installation deadline, with testing slated for next year.
But other major capital expenditures loom, including new railcars to replace aging models and increase capacity, and the replacement of the 106-year-old Portal Bridge, a chokepoint on the Northeast Corridor near Secaucus.
Still, Santoro pledged NJ Transit wouldn't hike fares for at least year.
The 16-year NJ Transit veteran was appointed to run the agency after the Sept. 29 Hoboken crash. One woman was killed more than 100 people were injured when a packed train going twice the 10 mph speed limit slammed into a bumping post at Hoboken Terminal.
Santoro said the agency would look into whether positive-train control technology should be installed at Hoboken Terminal or if other technology could be used to automatically stop trains at the end of the tracks. Federal regulators have granted the agency a positive-train control exception for the station.
After the crash, NJ Transit lowered the speed limit to 5 mph and ordered conductors to stand with engineers and act as a second set of eyes.
According to federal data, NJ Transit trains break down about every 85,000 miles, compared to more than 200,000 miles for the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad that serve suburban New York City commuters.
An Associated Press analysis of federal safety data from January 2011 through July 2016 found 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.
Richard Hammer, the chairman of NJ Transit's board of directors, quibbled at an earlier hearing that NJ Transit has gotten more scrutiny from regulators than other railroads because it counts all incidents and accidents and not just those that guidelines require the agency to report.
All of the incidents reviewed by the AP appeared to meet federal reporting criteria. Santoro said Friday "there's no questioning the data" used in the AP's analysis.
"New Jersey Transit has not fallen asleep at the switch, so to speak," he said. "We've been proactive. We've been focused. But the statistics are what they are."