NJ Transit officials are expected to take tough questioning from state and federal politicians on what steps were taken to protect their train fleet from the storm surge during Sandy.
Hearings on the storm's impact on transportation infrastructure - scheduled in the U.S. Senate on Thursday and in the New Jersey Assembly on Dec. 10 - will examine why more than 300 rail cars and locomotives went under water at two yards in North Jersey, suffering damage that included waterlogged electrical systems and passenger compartments.
The damaged cars, which represent more than a quarter of the transit agency's fleet, were moved to a yard in Hoboken and a maintenance facility near the Meadowlands the day before Sandy hit in hope of protecting them from flooding, transit officials said. But on Oct. 29, floodwaters from adjacent rivers came rushing across the facilities, reaching depths of nine feet and compounding the agency's losses, estimated in excess of $100 million.
"It doesn't seem to me there was a lot of thought put into this," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the committee. "I want to find out what do they do, and what have they done, to prepare for natural disasters. New Jersey is on the Atlantic Coast, and hurricane season is every year."
On Monday, NJ Transit executive director Jim Weinstein defended his agency's actions ahead of the storm, saying the facility near the Meadowlands "had never flooded in the history of NJ Transit," and projections from the National Weather Service at the time the system was shut down called for only a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of flooding at the yards.
"In light of the projections for tidal surge at the time, the decisions we made were sound decisions," Weinstein said. "You have limitations on what you can do with equipment. A lot of our railroad west of the Meadowlands complex is subject to falling trees and flooding."
During Hurricane Irene in 2011, NJ Transit trains that had been moved to a facility in Morrisville became stranded by flooding on the rails connecting them to the larger system.
That incident led officials to avoid that facility this time, instead moving cars to Hoboken and the Meadowlands, and yards across the state and in Pennsylvania and New York.
Wisniewski questioned the decision to move the cars to waterfront areas.
The maintenance yard near the Meadowlands is "right on the Passaic River, and if there's a tidal surge, you know it's going to come right up that river," he said.
So far, 13 of the more than 300 trains damaged in the storm have been returned to service but with the maintenance facility near the Meadowlands still not fully operational, NJ Transit has no estimate when all the cars will be running again.
Still, NJ Transit reports it is operating at 95 percent, with only Hoboken, where the rail system's electrical system still isn't functioning, running on limited service.
"You don't recover from the worst storm in anyone's memory in four weeks," Weinstein said. "This isn't a disaster television series."