Emails tracked NJ Transit's plan for rail fleet during Superstorm Sandy
The day before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, more than a dozen NJ Transit workers — from yardmasters to the top executive — shared emails describing where and how the agency’s rail fleet was being moved to shelter it from the storm. In one of the most questionable decisions made during the storm, many locomotives and passenger cars were parked in low-lying areas in Hoboken and Kearny — a key move that caused more than $120 million in damage after the storm surge flooded the rail yards with brackish water
How this occurred remains a mystery, particularly as damage was minimal to the operations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority across the Hudson River in New York State, which faced the same devastating storm but managed to move its fleet to higher ground.
This week, at a meeting with The Record’s editorial board, Governor Christie said the decision at NJ Transit was made by one employee who didn’t follow the agency’s plan and didn’t inform his supervisors about his actions. NJ Transit officials declined to elaborate on that remark Friday, leaving open the question of how a single low-level manager could be responsible for a decision that led to so much destruction.
But a review of emails obtained through a public records request shows that in contrast to Christie’s remarks, at least 15 agency executives and managers, were aware of fleet movements into low-lying areas in the days leading up to Sandy.
Included in at least one email, was NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein — whom Christie has held blameless for the damage and whom the governor praised enthusiastically during the editorial board meeting.
Unknown is whether other directives went out that were not recorded in emails and that contributed to the decision to park the rail stock in Hoboken and Kearny. But the email chains establish that information on rail fleet movements was shared widely by top decision makers at the agency.
“A person made a stupid decision that he was supposed to vet up the chain and he didn’t,” Christie told The Record’s editorial board on Thursday, when asked whether he had any confidence in Weinstein, given the damage to the rail equipment. “It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain.”
Christie, however, was decisive in targeting a single individual, and then said the agency could not fire him because of restricted civil service regulations. In fact, the agency is not governed by civil service regulations, but a spokesman for the governor, Michael Drewniak, said Friday that NJ Transit disciplined the employee “within the procedures provided for at NJT. The discipline was related to his particular failure amid the overall losses caused by the unprecedented impact of Sandy.”
In one email — sent Oct. 28, roughly 24 hours before Sandy’s fierce winds struck the state — Kevin O’Connor, the vice president of rail, forwarded an update of rail equipment movement to Weinstein.
“FYI,” O’Connor wrote at 5:12 p.m., “equipment being moved as planned.”
It showed that as of 5:30 p.m., train sets were moving across the system, including dozens of cars sent to the low-lying Meadows Maintenance Complex where hundreds of pieces of equipment wound up getting flooded in Sandy’s surge. “Got it,” Weinstein replied 10 minutes later.
In another email sent the same day by William Lawson, a superintendent of equipment management, numerous people were alerted about the movements of the last passenger trains in the shutdown. Following the storm, Lawson was moved to a project planning position at a salary of $100,000, down from the $110,797 salary he made as a superintendent.
Lawson, a 25-year employee who worked his way up through the ranks, has not returned several phone calls, and agency officials declined to comment on whether he was the employee penalized for the decision or what his specific role was during the storm.
Weinstein has yet to comment on Christie’s most recent statements about what occurred.
But for the past year, Weinstein has told a different story, often passionately, about what he has said was a deliberate decision to leave millions in assets in the Meadows maintenance yard — a sprawling facility in the middle of the swampy Meadowlands, and in Hoboken, a site that has been known to flood during severe storms.
Immediately after Sandy, Weinstein said the agency based the decision on the best weather models available and that those models predicted an 80 to 90 percent chance there would be no flooding. He has also said that the yards had never flooded before in NJ Transit’s 30-year history, so officials never could have known the equipment was at risk. Yet, four months earlier, the agency had received a $46,000 climate change report it had commissioned that warned the region where the two yards sit were flood prone. Weinstein in December admitted to legislators he didn’t read the report.
Weinstein had also said the agency had a plan to protect assets during the storm. When The Record requested it, the agency refused to release it. The 3½ page plan was obtained only after The Record sued NJ Transit and showed the agency had a procedure for moving railcars and locomotives to higher ground
. Nowhere did the plan recommend what NJ Transit ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of railcars and engines to a low-lying yard near water.
The governor made it clear on Thursday, however, that he doesn’t blame Weinstein for the damage.
“Jim Weinstein doesn’t have ESP. He doesn’t know that this guy is gonna not do what is written down on paper that they’re told to do,”
Christie said, calling Weinstein “a stand-up guy” who took responsibility.”
“I have great confidence in him and I think he’s done an extraordinary job,” the governor said.
Jeff Tittel, president of New Jersey’s Sierra Club, said he doesn’t believe it is possible one person could act in isolation, particularly because Christie was “hands on with Sandy.”
“I think it sounds like, ‘The dog ate my plan and the sun was in my eye,’ ” Tittel said.
Phil Craig, a member of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers noted that O’Connor has said publicly that it takes at least 12 hours to move rail equipment to safety, making it difficult to know how one person could orchestrate the movement of several train sets to the yards without his bosses catching on.
Christie said Weinstein never knew what the employee was doing with the equipment and could only demote him.
“Jim Weinstein didn’t know about it until after it happened,” he said. “Everyone else at NJ Transit executed that plan except for one guy.”