Legislation championed by the SMART Transportation Division that toughens penalties on passengers who do harm to transportation workers has passed both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature and has been sent to Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) desk for his signature.
Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Dist. 14) and state Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Dist. 18) were the driving forces behind the versions of the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act that ran concurrently in rapid fashion through both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature.
“Transportation workers are far too often subjected to vicious attacks by irate passengers for simply doing their jobs,” said Benson, who serves as chairperson of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee. “Our bus and rail employees must be protected as they fulfill their critical duties on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of commuters in our state.”
On the Republican side, State Sen. Robert R. Singer (R-Dist. 30) also championed the bill in the Senate.
“Unfortunately, there have been many instances where bus and train operators are assaulted by unruly passengers. People who engage in such abhorrent behavior are not only putting the lives of the operators at risk, but also the lives of all the passengers,” he said. “This legislation will significantly increase the penalty for such assaults, and act as a deterrent for future altercations.”
The legislation was crafted in response to incidents when two New Jersey Transit (NJT) employees were assaulted this past year. The Senate version, S-4071, passed unanimously Dec. 20 on a 39-0 vote. The Assembly version, A-6013, passed unanimously with a 76-0 vote on the same day.
While testifying as a proponent of the bills in both chambers, N.J. State Legislative Director Ron Sabol made it clear that it’s past time to toughen enforcement, especially after the on-the-job assaults by passengers on NJT employees.
“We thank legislators for their overwhelming support of this legislation,” Sabol said. “They’ve seen those heinous attacks on our members doing their jobs, stepped up and have done the right thing to protect transportation workers and the public.”
The bill upgrades the penalty for all assaults on a motorbus or autobus operator, the operator’s supervisor and a rail passenger employee. It also empowers NJT, motorbus companies and all rail passenger service providers to ban riders from their transportation services for up to one year if the person commits an assault on a motorbus operator, the operator’s supervisor or a rail passenger employee.
If a deadly weapon was used during the assault, the rider may be banned for life.
“It’s a great bill and could be a blueprint for other states,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “Congratulations to SLD Sabol and the New Jersey State Legislative Board for their outstanding work.”
Legislation championed by SMART Transportation Division New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol to protect transportation workers passed unanimously through a state Senate committee Nov. 8.
The bill (S-4071) or the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act, was introduced by state Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) in response to recent incidents in which two NJ Transit (NJT) employees were assaulted for trying to enforce a federal coronavirus mask mandate.
In testimony before the committee, Sabol made it clear to senators that it was past time to toughen enforcement after a pair of violent events aboard NJT trains.
The legislation “is critical to all transit workers, as well as the public,” Sabol said. “I’m sure all of you have seen in the news assaults of public transportation workers are on the rise at an alarming rate. This is out of control at this point. I think we really need to look at addressing it in some way here in New Jersey.”
In October, an NJT rail passenger pulled a knife on a conductor who asked him to wear a mask in Bergen County, according to NJ.com. The passenger was arrested and charged with assault.
Two months earlier, a rail passenger was jailed after he launched into a racist tirade then got into a physical confrontation with an NJT conductor aboard a Hoboken-bound train, NJ.com reported.
S-4071 upgrades the penalty for all assaults on a motorbus or autobus operator, the operator’s supervisor, and a rail passenger employee. It also empowers NJT, motorbus companies and all rail passenger service providers to ban riders from their transportation services for up to one year if the person commits assault on a motorbus operator, the operator’s supervisor, or a rail passenger employee.
If a deadly weapon was used during the assault, the rider may be banned for life.
The legislation also requires NJT and motorbus companies to:
Equip each bus and rail and light rail vehicle with a communication system that allows the operator to alert the company or NJ TRANSIT and appropriate law enforcement agencies when the operator is in distress.
Coordinate with law enforcement and transit police to help protect bus operators and rail employees on potentially problematic routes.
Establish an employee assistance program for bus operators and rail employees that have been assaulted.
Provide periodic violence and mental health training to bus operators and rail employees.
The measures are designed to reduce acts of violence against transit employees and to provide transit workers with techniques for deescalating potentially violent situations.
Diegnan, chair of the N.J. Senate Transportation Committee, said the bill was crafted with labor and carrier’s safety concerns in mind.
“We all have the same purpose,” Diegnan said during the committee meeting. “We want to protect these folks and at the same time not unintentionally harm the carriers.”
The bill moves on to the full state Senate for consideration.
As President Joe Biden appeared Oct. 25 at the New Jersey Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, N.J., it was SMART Transportation Division New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams (GCA-770), a New Jersey Transit engineer, who set the stage for the president’s speech.
SMART-TD New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams introduces President Joe Biden at the NJT Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny on Oct. 25.
Williams, the legislative representative of Local 800, a member of our union since February 2017 and a fourth-generation railroader, is a native of New Jersey with three children. His 25-year rail career began as a diesel mechanic in the 1990s, and he became an engineer in 1999. He’s also risen to become vice chairperson of his GCA.
In his introduction of Biden, Williams thanked N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy and N.J. Transit’s Kevin Corbett for their work in helping NJT improve service as well as U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski for his work on Congressional infrastructure efforts in the U.S. House.
“I personally believe that the current infrastructure bill is important to New Jersey Transit rail operations, the residents of New Jersey and our neighboring states,” Williams said. “The funding would rebuild and modernize our aging transportation network. The rehabilitation of our system will help to preserve and create new railroad jobs.”
Improvements to stations funded by the infrastructure effort also would remove impediments to access for N.J. Transit users, while the Gateway Project expansion would smooth out regional network challenges, Williams said.
“Our bridge and tunnel system into and out of New York is antiquated and unreliable,” Williams said. “Our general riding public that depends on this system to get to and from work deserves better.”
In his remarks, Biden, touring New Jersey as the bipartisan infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better agenda work through Congress, paid particular attention to the middle-class jobs created and the need for improvement in the nation’s roads, rails and bridges.
“We invested in ourselves and in our people, our families,” President Biden said. “Somewhere along the way, we took our eyes off the ball. Our infrastructure used to be the best in the world.”
Now, he said, 12 other nations are considered to have better infrastructure thanks to years of implementation of failed “trickle-down” strategies and at least a decade without a transformative bill to address deterioration has not helped.
One example familiar to the president’s audience at the speech is the New Jersey Portal Bridge, which is being targeted for replacement. Once considered “state of the art,” Biden said it’s an impediment, even as it continues to be what he described as “the busiest rail span in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s also prone to having the tracks misaligned with a sledgehammer needing to be used to set things to rights, he said.
The Portal project is just one item in an agenda that Biden promised would reinvigorate the nation’s railroad system and create 8,000 union jobs.
“I’m a train guy,” Biden said. “Because it’s also the single most significant way we can deal with air pollution and the single most significant way we can deal with global warming.
“With my infrastructure bill, we are going to make sure that projects like this are only the beginning … We are going to make the largest investment in public transportation in the history of America, replacing transit vehicles that are past their useful life and make the most-significant investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.
In protest of what he said was gross misrepresentation by New Jersey Transit (NJT) of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, SMART Transportation Division General Chairperson Jerome Johnson has resigned from NJT’s coronavirus safety task force.
Johnson, also president of Local 60 (Newark, N.J.), sent a letter April 6 to the carrier, saying that NJT had been unresponsive to concerns about the cleanliness of trains and that they were not being cleaned as frequently as NJT stated they would.
“I provided NJ Transit with pictures and train numbers, especially on weekends, train cleanings are just not being done properly,” Johnson told NJ.com reporter Larry Higgs. “Protocols are not being followed. Equipment being clean every 24 hour is false. I have pictures, videos and complaints.”
Johnson also said that the carrier did not provide personal protective equipment (PPE) in a timely manner and that the carrier’s coronavirus safety task force did not convene for a two-week period with labor representatives present.
“I’m not a union official who doesn’t want NJ Transit to succeed. When they succeed, we succeed,” Johnson told Higgs. “The protocols in place aren’t being followed. My resignation should speak volumes.”
Since late March, SMART-TD continues to field hundreds of reports from the labor workforce in all sectors it represents of carriers not following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
Joseph Hansen, a conductor out of Local 60 (Newark, N.J.) who worked for New Jersey Transit (NJT), passed away recently to become the first reported active SMART Transportation Division member to succumb to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Joseph Hansen, a 20-year SMART Transportation Division member out of Local 60 (Newark, N.J.), passed away from COVID-19. Photo via New Jersey Transit/the Hansen family.
Hansen was 62 years old and had been a SMART-TD member since November 1999. He worked out of NJT’s Raritan Yard.
“Brother Hansen’s 20 years of service was exemplary. He was the consummate professional, a loving husband, father and grandfather,” said General Chairperson Jerome Johnson (GCA-610), who is president of Local 60. “He will be greatly missed.”
Brother Hansen is survived by his wife, Denise; a son, Brian, who is a mechanic at Raritan Yard; and his grandchildren.
SMART-TD offers sincere condolences to Brother Hansen’s family and friends and to his brothers and sisters of Local 60, who continue to put their safety on the line as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Jersey Transit (NJT) is expanding its de-escalation training for front-line employees to include curriculum from Rutgers’ National Transit Institute (NTI), the carrier said in a press release on Monday.
NTI presented a “Train the Trainers” program on conflict de-escalation techniques for bus and rail operations and New Jersey Transit police recently.
“These highly effective techniques will be incorporated into existing internal NJT de-escalation training programs to create a set of best practices for use in real-world situations,” NJT said in its release.
“This new de-escalation training demonstrates our commitment to our front-line employees and to their safety,” said NJT President & CEO Kevin Corbett.
“One of our main missions as a police department is promoting the safety of our customers and crews, and this expansion of our de-escalation training fits squarely in that space,” said NJT Police Chief Christopher Trucillo. “It is always preferable to have situations managed before it rises to the level of police involvement.”
“The best way to help employees at risk of on-the-job assaults is to help them prevent the assault in the first place,” said NJT Employee Court Advocate Michael Rubin. “With this expanded training program our bus operators, conductors, police, and other customer-facing employees will have additional tools at hand to de-escalate situations and protect themselves and their customers from possible assaults.”
All of NJT’s employees who work with the public on buses, trains or as police officers receive training on how to manage difficult situations to minimize the possibility of violence. With the assistance of NTI, the trainings will be more robust and help to reduce assaults on bus operators, conductors, police, and other personnel.
“SMART TD Local 60 applauds N.J. Transit’s efforts in protecting our front-line employees from assaults. NTI’s de-escalation training is a great step in the right direction,” said Jerome C. Johnson, president and alternate delegate of the local and general chairperson of GO-610 (New Jersey Transit). “We look forward to collaborating further with N.J. Transit to reduce assaults and provide training for our brothers and sisters in conflict avoidance.”
NJT is the nation’s largest statewide public transportation system providing more than 925,000 weekday trips on 251 bus routes, three light rail lines, 12 commuter rail lines, and through Access Link paratransit service. It is the third largest transit system in the country with 166 rail stations, 62 light rail stations, and more than 18,000 bus stops linking major points in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia.
In an interview with Trains Magazine’s Ralph Spielman, New Jersey Transit (NJT) President and CEO Kevin Corbett said that the passenger carrier has much progress to make in its implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) in order to meet the deadline for full implementation.
The carrier is currently in the testing phase of its system, especially the software, Corbett said, but the deadline isn’t far away.
“As it gets closer to the deadline, it’s a little bit like the Y2K scare. On Jan. 1, 2021, what’s going to happen? Will it impact scheduling? Will there be less flexibility? You won’t be able necessarily have someone run from the back to the front air brake for a quick mechanical fix. The software will be dependable and will mold the schedule, but with it, you cannot cut corners inappropriately. A lot of the veterans would say they would know how to respond safely [but] the thing is now it all has to be reset; It’s all in the software,” Corbett told Spielman.
All U.S. carriers are required to achieve full PTC function by Dec. 31, 2020.
Corbett also discussed recent equipment acquisitions by the carrier and the status of the North Portal Bridge project.
In a press release issued Wednesday, July 10, New Jersey Transit (NJT) announced that attorney Michael Rubin would be the carrier’s first employee court advocate to support operational employees who are victims of on-the-job assaults. The position was created in support of the New Jersey State Legislature’s added protections for front-line transportation workers to the state criminal assault statute.
Rubin has 15 years of experience with the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety and “will help employees who are victims of assault navigate the criminal justice system at no cost to the employee, and work with prosecutors to see that assailants face the full sentences allowable by law,” NJT said in the release.
“The creation of the Employee Court Advocate position confirms NJ Transit’s unwavering commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of our employees,” said NJT President and CEO Kevin Corbett. “I am confident Michael Rubin will make a real difference in the lives of our front-line employees who are forced to navigate an unfamiliar legal system and ensure that assailants are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Rubin’s role includes meeting with NJT conductors and bus operators who have been assaulted to review their cases and help them understand their legal rights. When an employee is required to appear in court, he will accompany them to court to ensure that their rights are protected and prosecutors pursue appropriate charges and sentencing, NJT said.
According to an analysis done by northjersey.com, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit (NJT) and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2013.
Before the companies’ lawyers negotiated for lower fines, Metro-North had been assessed more than $1 million in penalties and NJT more than $700,000. After the fines had been negotiated down, Metro-North paid $859,375; NJT paid $576,175 and LIRR paid $131,725.
Fines were assessed for safety violations involving track, signals, locomotives, equipment and train crews; as well as for alcohol and drug testing, employee hours of service, and railroad operating practices.
Northjersey.com notes that alcohol and drug testing violations — of which Metro-North had the most infractions — does not necessarily mean that crew members are reporting to work under the influence.
David Rasmussen, legislative representative for SMART Transportation Division Local 60 (Newark, N.J.), has been nominated as the rail labor representative on the New Jersey Transit (NJT) board by Gov. Phil Murphy.
“A strong NJ TRANSIT Board is critical to ensuring a leadership team whose sole focus is on restoring safety, reliability, and accountability to commuters,” Murphy said in a March 21 news release. “I thank the Legislature, the Labor community, and our colleagues in transportation for their input, and I look forward to working with the new board members.”
Rasmussen has been Local 60’s legislative rep. since late 2015. Prior officer positions the 53-year-old from Woodbridge has held include vice chairperson of GCA-610 and vice local chairperson of LCA-610. He is among seven new nominees to the board who still must be confirmed by the state’s Senate.
“I feel I will be an asset to the board as I will bring my nearly 30 years’ experience as a conductor at NJT. Through my career I’ve worked at nearly every terminal and at yard facilities within NJT. I have also worked all types of services that govern our responsibilities,” Rasmussen said. “I feel this will serve the board well, as the other members can lean on me and my experience to identify best possible solutions to resolve any problem, issues or changes the board may be considering.”
The addition of the new board members was part of a restructuring of the transit agency, which is dealing with financial pressures and a shortage of engineers that happened late last year. Murphy’s signing of the overhaul in late December was a win for the N.J. State Legislative Board.
“This piece of legislation adds the largest rail union (SMART TD) to the Board of Directors at NJT. We advocated for this for two years,” New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol said at the time of the signing. “This was a huge undertaking by our office, and it has paid off.”
Among the changes brought about by the bill:
Five new positions are created on the transit agency’s board, bringing the board from eight to 13 members.
Board composition will go from four to eight public members and increases the number of labor representatives to two — one to be appointed from the labor organization that represents a plurality of bus operations workers and one to represent the labor organization that represents a plurality of rail operations workers, which is SMART TD.
A chief ethics officer will be employed to address whistleblower complaints and a customer advocate would compose reports about on-time performance and other customer-centered activities.
The board will have to hold at least 10 public meetings annually with many at times so commuters can attend.
A residency requirement is waived for certain employees.
New Jersey Transit (NJT) is claiming sovereign immunity after a victory in the case Karns v. Shanahan 18 months ago, which upheld NJT’s argument that it is a part of the state of New Jersey, not an independent agency, and as such is not responsible for employee injuries.
In a second, unrelated case in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, an $824,000 ruling in favor of an injured NJT worker was overturned using that argument in late January. As a result, the state’s attorney general has requested that many workers’ injury lawsuits against the carrier be dismissed.
Representatives from SMART Transportation Division Designated Legal Counsel, including Rail Safety Coordinator Larry Mann, say that these rulings create a dangerous precedent and effectively nullify federal protections that all other railroad workers fall under.
NJT argues that it falls under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has sovereign immunity, meaning that its workers are entitled to the state’s workers’ compensation program.
However, Mann told the Courier Post that this is not the case, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1917 where it was determined that railroad workers have no protections under state workers’ compensation laws because the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) preempts state laws.
“We’re not asking for anything new or novel,” SMART TD Designated Legal Counsel Robert Myers said in a hearing of the state’s Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee last week. “It’s the same thing as every other railroad in the country, and it’s all about safety.”
Assemblyman Dan Benson, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, has sponsored a bill (A4689) that would waive NJT’s claim to sovereign immunity. The bill is still in committee, but co-sponsors told NJTV News that they plan to fast-track it.
“It’s our responsibility here on the Transportation Committee and as public servants to make sure that we’re not leaving our workers in an unsafe environment without protections, and for things that extend to the general public,” Benson said in a committee hearing.
“It is vitally important that this legislation be enacted. Otherwise, there will be a crisis impacting all railroad employees injured or killed in this state,” SMART TD N.J. State Legislative Director Ron Sabol said at the hearing.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that two commuter railroad terminal accidents in the New York area were caused by engineer fatigue resulting from undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea.
The Sept. 29, 2016, accident on the New Jersey Transit railroad at Hoboken, New Jersey, killed one person, injured 110, and resulted in major damage to the station. The Jan. 4, 2017, accident on the Long Island Rail Road at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, New York, injured 108 people. Both accidents involved trains that struck end-of-track bumping posts and crashed into stations.
The NTSB found the two accidents had “almost identical” probable causes and safety issues. The board also determined that these safety issues were not unique to these two properties, but exist throughout the country at many intercity passenger and commuter passenger train terminals.
When operating a train into a terminating track, the engineer’s actions, or lack thereof, solely determine whether the train stops before the end of the track. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there are currently no mechanisms installed in the U.S. that will automatically stop a train at the end of the track if the engineer is incapacitated, inattentive or disengaged. Some railroads have overspeed capabilities, including New Jersey Transit and the LIRR. However, as shown in these two accidents, once the engineer slowed the train to the prescribed speed, the system did not stop the trains before they reached the end of the track.
In addition to recommending safety-sensitive personnel be screened for obstructive sleep apnea, the board recommended the use of technology, such as positive train control (PTC), in terminal stations and improving the effectiveness of system safety program plans to improve terminal operations. The NTSB made two recommendations to New Jersey Transit, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the parent company of the Long Island Rail Road) and two to the FRA.
“Today’s new recommendations, if acted upon, have the potential to eliminate end-of-track collisions,’’ Sumwalt said. “That translates to protection for passengers on trains, and for people standing on terminal platforms.”
The complete accident report will be available in several weeks. The findings, probable cause, safety recommendations, Chairman Sumwalt’s prepared remarks and PowerPoint presentations used in a board meeting are all available at https://go.usa.gov/xnscj.
The New Jersey Transit Hoboken accident docket, containing more than 1,100 pages of supporting factual material, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xnAGJ.
The Long Island Rail Road Brooklyn accident docket, containing more than 1,400 pages of supporting factual material, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xnAGe.
New Jersey Transit train #1614 after crashing into the NJT Hoboken Terminal, Sept. 29, 2016. (NTSB photo taken by Chris O’Neil)