NEWARK (CBSNewYork)Gov. Phil Murphy recognized the most recent graduating class of NJ TRANSIT engineers in Newark Monday.

The class is coming at a helpful time for NJ TRANSIT as they recover from a staff shortage.

Officials warn boosting the staff might not completely smooth out your summer commute.

Twelve new engineers received their diploma from Murphy. These new recruits will be on the rails in the coming months to help make up for a shortage of engineers.

Last summer, riders were plagued by endless last-minute cancellations. One of the main causes was a shortage of engineers, along with workers taking their earned vacation times.

“I hyperventilated, blood pressure went up,” one rider told CBS2’s Meg Baker. “Late for work, almost got fired.”

So how’s this summer looking?

“It’s going to be bad, but not as bad as in the past couple of summers,” Murphy said.

NJ TRANSIT officials say the new recruits will be out on the rails in the coming months to help manage the busy summer vacation schedule that often causes cancellations.

“As far as the engineer shortage, no one is more happy that me to have a dozen going out for a check ride. Engineers do four, six, even eight trips a day. If we’re ten engineers short, that could be 40 cancelled trains a day, so this is significant,” said NJ TRANSIT Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

After last summer’s headaches, NJ TRANSIT ramped up engineering classes. They expect 100 more trainees to graduate by the end of the year. But what will keep them in New Jersey?

“Governor, a problem in the past has been that engineers have been trained here at NJ TRANSIT and left to go to higher paying railroad jobs. Have these new recruits signed contracts to stay here? If not, why not and how will you keep them here?” Baker asked.

“I’m not familiar with contracts they signed,” Murphy said.

“There’s sort of urban myth, although particularly people refer basically to the MTA. The actual number of engineers who left us to go to the MTA for higher paying [jobs] in fact is very small.  We are comparable to SEPTA,” said Corbett. “The real fault was we just stopped training engineers as people retired. The other thing is, as far as contract, we’re part of the collecting bargaining. We have a very good, really improved and worked hard our labor relations this last year as represented by some of our good friends out here. And so, again, there might be an incident, cases of somebody not doing their job properly. By and large, they’re just below the critical mass. We have a good collective bargaining agreement. We honor that agreement and have a good working relationship, so it’s just a matter of getting the numbers back up.”

“Have you raised the salary to be competitive?” Baker asked.

“We are competitive, in a range. In every collective bargaining agreement, you go back and forth,” Corbett said.

Last August, union leader Stephen Burkert told Baker many left because other railroads like Metro North pay $10 more an hour than NJ TRANSIT.

“Another hallmark of the old NJ TRANSIT was they had bad relations with other organizations, including labor. And I would say labor relations… are very strong at the moment,” Murphy said.

The chairman for the union tells CBS2 the new engineers could leave tomorrow if they wanted, and they have good reason to: NJ TRANSIT pays $10 less per hour than other railroads. Twelve NJ TRANSIT engineers left for the MTA in the past five years.

Union negotiations to increase salaries begin in the fall.


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