Commuters across the tri-state have heard all sorts of excuses for delays -- track work, power problems, derailments -- but New Jersey Transit riders now have a new one: manpower shortage.
According to NJ Transit's official and by-line Twitter accounts, two dozen trains have been canceled over the last two days, some during rush hour, because there weren't enough workers to operate them.
The trains were canceled due to "crew shortage" or "manpower shortage," according to the tweets. An NJ Transit spokeswoman said Tuesday just five trains were canceled Monday and one Tuesday, but a search of the agency's Twitter account tells a different story. (Scroll to the bottom for the full list.) The reason for the disparity between the official statement and the tweets on the number of canceled trains wasn't immediately clear.
In a statement Tuesday, NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said the problem isn't a work stoppage or strike, but union-related scheduling. Snyder says senior locomotive engineers choose their own schedules; when a senior picks a schedule, the junior engineer has 48 hours to assume another assignment, according to union rules. The juniors aren't moving as quickly as they could to assume their new assignments during the summer repair work at Penn Station.
"So pretty much people are not coming into work because they're unhappy about the scheduling and changing trains?" griped commuter Megan Uzzell of Bridge Church. "So you're going to affect thousands of people because you're unhappy with your little schedule? That's unacceptable."
NJ Transit says it's implored engineers to put the customer first and come to work, and not take the two-day option they are entitled to. But a handful of engineers have done it anyway, and some customers say they don't blame them.
"It's inconvenient but I think that we can't take it out on the crews," said Becky Fisher of Maplewood. "I think there's a higher power at play that is messing with people's lives. I mean it's a first-world problem. We can get where we need to go, it just takes a long time."
News 4 has reached out to the union for comment.
The shortage has led to extra crowded trips, with trains forced to go local on the way home.
One rider fumed on The Delayed on New Jersey Transit Support Group on Facebook, "For the second time this month, I've seen trains canceled because of lack of manpower. Until now, I had never in all my years commuting, seen this as an excuse to cancel a train."
Another rider said that in his years of commuting he's never seen this kind of crew shortage problem.
"Something is not right here," he said.
The engineers' union, and NJ Transit's other unions, worked without a contract for about five years before reaching an agreement in March 2016, about a day before a strike deadline.
Track and signal repairs began at Penn Station last week and are forcing schedule cutbacks through the end of August.
Amtrak, which owns and operates the station, had been performing the repairs on nights and weekends, but accelerated that schedule to include weekdays after two derailments in the station this spring caused widespread delays.