Should Chris Christie be held responsible for New Jersey Transit’s failure to move its equipment to higher ground before Superstorm Sandy? The inaction by the Transit Authority left damage that will cost tens of millions of dollars, as one-third of its locomotives and a quarter of its passenger cars were wrecked by the storm.
Even though forecasters predicted that the railyards involved would be creamed by the storm, the folks in charge left the railway equipment where they were. The low-lying main rail yard in Kearny and the Hoboken terminal and rail yard were smashed, leading to nine dual-powered locomotive engines and 84 multi-level rail cars that had cost $385 million being damaged.
David Schanoes, a railroad consultant and former deputy chief of field operations for Metro North Railroad, a sister railway serving New York State, said, “If there’s a predicted 13-foot or 10-foot storm surge, you don’t leave your equipment in a low-lying area.It’s just basic railroading. You don’t leave your equipment where it can be damaged.”
Almost three weeks after the storm, only 37 of the 63 trains that normally run from New Jersey into New York Penn Station were working.
The area where damage could most significantly been avoided was NJ Transit’s Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, the primary maintenance center for the agency’s locomotives and rail cars. Although the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had detailed maps before the storm warning that both the rail hub in Hoboken and the Meadows complex in Kearny would flood, the trains were not moved.
When James Weinstein, NJ Transit’s executive director, was asked if NJ Transit executives saw the maps and considered their information, he said, “Our experience and all of the information we had led us to conclude that our equipment was in the safest possible place. There was no reason for us to think that the kind of flooding that we actually experienced would happen there.” Kevin O’Connor, vice president and general manager of rail operations, said the Meadows complex had never flooded before.
But Alain Kornhauser, director of the Transportation Research Center at Princeton University, argued that given the value of the equipment stored at the Meadows yard during the storm, he couldn’t understand why the equipment hadn’t been moved.
Christie ordered four reservoir systems in northern New Jersey to be drawn down three days before the storm hit, and joked at a press conference:
I feel like the disaster governor. For better or worse, we can speak about this in shorthand now. We’ve gone through this stuff before. It doesn’t mean we’re going to get everything right, but what it means is we think we’re anticipating all the right things.
So did Christie do enough to protect New Jersey’s transit system?