TRENTON, N.J. – Lawmakers from the New York and New Jersey region and beyond want the federal government step in to help address safety concerns at New Jersey Transit in the wake of last month's deadly train crash in Hoboken.
New Jersey's congressional delegation sent a letter Friday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asking the government to fulfill the transit agency's $10 million request to help it install the GPS-based positive train control system. The transit agency said in a filing in June that it hasn't made any additional progress on installing the system while approaching a December 2018 deadline.
Foxx said at a news conference in New York that he wasn't ready to commit to the $10 million, but that the government believes very strongly in positive train control.
"We think it is a lifesaver," Foxx said. "But we have a process that we have to go through. I can't make that commitment right this second."
The crash and other safety concerns — including an Associated Press analysis this week showing NJ Transit had more accidents than any other commuter railroad in the country in the past five years — has raised criticism of the transit agency. State lawmakers in New Jersey are preparing to launch an investigation into safety and financial issues.
Three Democrats on the U.S. House transportation and infrastructure committee also sent a letter to Foxx on Friday raising concerns regarding the Hoboken crash and what it describes as "New Jersey's blatant neglect of New Jersey Transit infrastructure and trains."
The Democrats, including Rep. Albio Sires from New Jersey, requested details from an ongoing Federal Railroad Administration audit that has not been released publicly.
"At some point there is no excuse. And I find it inexcusable when there are 100,000 lives riding every day on New Jersey Transit lines, that we don't have the top safety record - the record at one time we did have - that's what we need to aspire to, not less," Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, said at the news conference.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and oversight committee chairman Sen. Bob Gordon said Friday at a news conference in Trenton that they will hold a series of hearings investigating safety and budget issues at NJ Transit.
The Democratic senators cast the Hoboken train crash as a catalyst to dive deeper into NJ Transit's woes. In particular, they say, they're concerned about underfunding of the agency's capital budget and the delay in implementing automatic train control technology. Democratic lawmakers in the New Jersey Assembly are also planning to move forward with an investigation.
Investigators say positive train control is one of the things they're looking at in their review of the Sept. 29 crash, in which a train was traveling more than double the speed limit before crashing into the station, killing a woman standing on the platform and injuring more than 100.
State Department of Transportation Chairman Richard Hammer, who chairs NJ Transit's board, on Thursday gave newly appointed executive Steven Santoro 30 days to issue a report on the agency's progress toward implementing the technology.
The engineer on the Hoboken train hit the emergency brake when the train hit 21 mph, seconds before crashing into and then over a bumping post. Investigators are looking into whether the alert system kicked in. It's unclear whether it would have slowed the train in time.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the throttle on the train went from idle to the fourth position, about half-power, 38 seconds before impact, and the speed increased to 21 mph. The throttle went back to idle and the engineer hit the emergency brake about a second before hitting the bumper.
A crash at Hoboken Terminal in 1985 with a train hitting the bumper at 10 mph caused considerably less damage than last month's, with images from the time showing a buckled concrete platform and a few toppled gates. That crash injured 54 people, but no one was killed.
The railroad industry has said installing positive-train control technology would be impractical and cumbersome, given the high volume of trains arriving and departing at what is normally a low speed and the multitude of signals and other infrastructure already in place.
"Although low-speed collisions do occasionally occur in these environments, the consequences are low; and the rate of occurrence is very low in relation to the exposure," the FRA stated in a 2010 regulatory filing on positive-train control.