The head of NJ Transit says surprise train cancellations are often unavoidable and there’s no quick fix for the problem.

Kevin Corbett, the president and CEO of NJ Transit, pointed out that there's a shortage of engineers that he transit agency is trying to address by adding and training more employees.

NJ Transit has about 335 train engineers, which is enough to cover operations, but when people call out sick, the agency does not have “a bench” of engineers in reserve, so they have to rely on individuals who volunteer to work overtime, and during the summer that is harder than at other times of the year.

But he pointed out that even if there are engineers who have put themselves on the overtime list, “there’s a federal limit, just like with pilots, they can only work so many hours within a certain number of days for the FRA, the federal railway administration.”

He said it takes about 20 months of training to become an NJ Transit engineer, and new engineer training classes will be graduating in October, November and January, so the situation will improve in the coming months.

Corbett said that when an engineer calls out sick, it’s usually unpredictable and at the last minute, so the agency must immediately try to find a back up to avoid having a train cancelled.

“We certainly don’t have an indication until the night before, and then in the morning you see who, if anybody, else called out unexpectedly.”

He pointed out engineers will make a minimum of four trips during a regular shift, so if NJ Transit can’t find a replacement for a sick engineer, four train cancellations may result.

So if there is such an engineer squeeze right now, why not just cancel a certain number of trains in advance, to allow travelers to be forewarned, until more engineers are available?

Corbett said in order to cancel even a single train from the NJ Transit schedule for any length of time, public hearings must be held and the rail worker unions would also have to agree in advance.

“You have to be careful, line by line, particularly the heavy traveled lines," he said. "If you cancel one train, what that tends to do is drive people to the next train, then you have overcrowding.”

He said what will happen is “you’re going to have 2,000 people trying to get on the next train that holds 1,200, and you know what that looks like. So we have to make sure we provide the basic service.”

Corbett said if an engineer calls out sick and they can’t find a replacement, they have a morning meeting to decide which trains to cut to "have the least impact."

Planners will look at how many trains would follow a cancelled train at which times, and then review adding local stops to minimize the impact of the cancellation.

He said the goal is to get 383 rail engineers into the system, which should be reached in the next year or two.

Corbett added with most Jersey roads so jam-packed, even with the ongoing cancelled train challenge, “our ridership is up 3% (from this same time last year) and I’d like to say it’s because we’re providing phenomenal service. We know we’re not yet and we’re working hard to get to that stage in the coming months."

“People may get annoyed with us and say no more NJ Transit and they drive for three days and they come back.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com