(Bloomberg) -- Commuters who ritually gripe about delays on New Jersey Transit trains may have a case this year.
Since January, the on-time performance rate of the state-run railroad has been below its goal of 94.7%, falling to a low of 88.9% in July. That was worse than in July of the previous year, when 92.6% of trains arrived on time. Service improved in August but was still below the target rate.
The delays came into focus last week when service was disrupted for about two hours due to a NJ Transit train derailment. And in May service was suspended for about two hours due to trespassers near the tracks the agency shares with Amtrak.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but it really does seem the last couple of weeks it’s been you think you’re gonna make it in and the train suddenly stops,” said Mary-Irene Marek, who commutes from the Bergen County suburb Ramsey into Manhattan three days a week.
A spokesperson for NJ Transit said the delays were largely attributable to issues on Northeast Corridor infrastructure, which is owned and maintained by Amtrak. When Amtrak and other unpreventable delays were removed from the calculations, the on-time rate was 94.1% in July and 95.8% in August, the agency said.
“We continue to work closely with our partner agencies to the greatest extent possible to mitigate delays and minimize impacts to customers,” said Jim Smith, a NJ Transit spokesman in an email. Smith said the disruptions were “isolated incidents” caused by factors outside of NJ Transit control.
A spokesperson from Amtrak declined to comment.
The rail structure that runs up and down the US East Coast comes to a choke point at the border of New York and New Jersey. Both NJ Transit and Amtrak trains have to pass through a single, century-old tunnel under the Hudson River to enter Manhattan.
One minor disruption to that narrow passage can ripple across both agencies and cause headaches for commuters. The long-delayed $16.1 billion Gateway Project is attempting to help ease such problems. The project will build a new rail tunnel and rehabilitate the existing one that links the two states.
Across the US, public transit agencies are coping with lower ridership numbers and budget crunches as workers have adapted to hybrid work policies. But now companies including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are calling workers back to the office, putting more pressure on transit operators to improve service.
Just over 50% of workers in the New York metro area went into the office in the week through Sept. 13, close to the highest level since the pandemic began, according to data from Kastle Systems. The peak level of 50.5% was reached in June.
Read more: US workers back to offices rose to 50.4% in past week
NJ Transit weekday rail ridership is hovering between 65% and 70% of pre-pandemic levels, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Corbett said at a recent board meeting. The agency is projecting a $119 million budget gap for fiscal year 2025, the last period when it will still have pandemic-relief aid, according to board documents. That’s projected to increase to a $917.8 million shortfall in 2026.
The agency is also in the midst of labor negotiations with its locomotive engineers, who voted to authorize a strike that could be months away as mediation plays out. If the workers were to walk off the job, it would severely disrupt service for commuters.
(Updates with additional context in NJ spokesperson statement in fifth paragraph.)
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