Beckie Bintrim, who boarded the Northeast Corridor train after a soccer game in Secaucus, told NJ.com that she saw sparks and heard something loud hit the train a few rows behind her.
“At that point we were really scared,” she was quoted as saying. “We knew something was wrong and we were thinking the train was going to derail.”
Pictures on Twitter, showing the metal bracket poking at least three feet through the top of the car, suggest that only pure luck kept any of the approximately 1,100 aboard from being skewered.
NJ Transit officials said in a statement that the part of the overhead structure that connects the train to its electric power source came loose, causing the piece of metal to puncture the eighth car in the train. A few minutes later, a train headed in the opposite direction smacked into a metal object hanging from the electrical wiring, the agency said. Crews worked through the weekend to make repairs so that the Monday morning rush wasn’t a complete loss.
This wasn’t even close to being the worst train or subway incident lately, and not all the answers are in about what happened. But the incident was a not-so-subtle reminder that the nation’s infrastructure is falling to pieces in some places, particularly mass transit systems that were begun before the automobile age. Even newer ones, such as Washington's Metro, have failed to keep up with basic maintenance necessary for the safe and reliable transportation of millions of people. It's almost as if every day brings some new incident reminding people why they battle traffic in their daily commute or why hailing a Lyft or Uber is more reliable than the subway.
A recent report by the Eno Center for Transportation on the nation’s “maintenance crisis” urged transit agencies to better manage routine repair and upkeep. Among other things, the report says U.S. efforts in this area lag badly behind mass transit systems abroad and calls for the increasing use of technology to coordinate data from mechanical sensors and human inspectors.
The report cites shutdowns and major disruptions at transit systems in New York, Baltimore, San Francisco and Washington that have had an impact on those urban economies and depressed ridership — in both senses of the word. The way forward, the report says, is to start prioritizing basic maintenance of existing stuff over paying for shiny new assets and services.
“The challenge now is to the infrastructure we already have,” Eno President Robert Puentes said. “A lot of these systems are many, many decades old, built before the automobile era.”
The report — which draws on publicly available maintenance data and off-the-record interviews with transit officials around the country — also touches on an odd paradox: Transit systems continue to deteriorate even though public agencies in recent years have been pouring money into maintenance faster than the rate of inflation, faster than new miles of track are added, and faster than ridership growth. Such spending more than tripled from 1991 to 2016, from about $13 billion a year to more than $45 billion, the report says. But even that’s not enough to stop the rot, largely because of so many years of deferred maintenance.
What to do? Although the May 2018 report stops short of urging public mass transit systems to privatize maintenance (i.e., use nonunion, contractual labor) it does suggest that outside help may “create a different set of incentives and accountability.” Nearly two-thirds of the 82 mass transit systems surveyed use in-house help for most maintenance, the report says. About one quarter use private contractors for all maintenance.
The report also criticizes agencies that opt for expanding service — hello, Metro Silver Line — instead of maintaining existing infrastructure. Part of the reason is politics. It noted that in New York, sprucing up a passenger hall took precedence over fixing bad track, largely to please the governor. Many of the people who oversee the agencies are often political appointees, not experts from inside the industry.
What’s especially worrisome, Puentes said, is that transit agencies have not made a dent in the backlog of needed repairs and upgrades, despite the expansive economy and record-low interest rates in recent years that should have made it easier for state and local governments to make these capital investments.
On the other hand, results from recent voter referendums have shown that the public gets it, and not just for supporting big new projects, Puentes said. Some have focused on the less glamorous need-to-do repairs. San Francisco area voters said yes to $3.5 billion for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to conduct major track repairs, and Los Angeles voters agreed to an additional 0.5 percent sales tax to fund transportation overhaul. But the best might be yet to come: Colorado voters will be asked in November whether they want to back $3.5 billion in transportation bonds for several urgent projects. The name of the measure, as it’s popularly referred to, is Fix Our Damn Roads.