In the Wake of Delays, NJT Promises Better Performance Measures

This morning, the Star Ledger released an extensive profile on NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein. The report gives a fairly positive review of Weinstein’s performance in a year of many challenges, from an employee fired for burning a copy of the Quran to the cancelation of the ARC Tunnel.

The report gives special attention to NJT’s delays over the past year. In the summer of 2010, NJT experienced a truly epic series of delays reportedly caused by an unusual mix of high temperatures, sagging over-head wires and deaths on the tracks.  This winter, NJT’s performance has gotten mixed reviews. The Star Ledger reported in February that the severe winter weather had caused NJT’s worst delays in six years.  And, yet, local blogs reported that NJT had weathered the storms surprisingly well, thanks to equipment preparations and smart changes to the schedule ahead of each storm. Indeed, NJT has not suffered from any of the debilitating schedule changes that Metro North has been forced to implement on the New Haven Line.

The mixed reviews this winter highlight an obvious reality for many commuter rail customers. The company line on delays often falls short of the pain experienced by riders. For some evidence, the Clever Commute service enables riders to share system delays as they happen with others customers on the same line – circumventing NJT’s service announcements. It is not unusual, for example, to see a delay on Clever Commute that is not posted on NJT’s website.

In the Star Ledger report, Weinstein has indicated that NJT is planning to overhaul its performance rating system. The agency will be creating a new “balanced scorecard,” looking at metrics like “on-time performance, employee safety, financial stability and customer service.”  According to Weinstein, the move to transparency is essential to serving tax-payers:

“Frankly, our warts are going to show with this,” Weinstein says. “Why do it? Because we’ve got a responsibility to our customers and a responsibility to the taxpayers. … I want to get to a position where our customers believe they’re getting value for the money that they’re paying for the ticket and believe that they’re getting value for the money they’re paying in taxes.”

The agency plans to release on-time performance monthly on the NJT website. The truth of the matter is, however, that transparency will not fix the precarious state of the existing rail infrastructure between NY and NJ. First, NJT does not have operational control over the existing trans-hudson tunnels. If Amtrak has a delay, NJ commuters will inevitably feel the pain. Second, the system has no redundancy. If one train gets stuck in the tunnel, all trains going in and out must share one tunnel.

So, while increased transparency is essential, the only thing that will surely improve NJT’s on-time performance is expanded trans-Hudson capacity.

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