Conductors on the Atlantic City Rail Line have continued earning tens of thousands of dollars in overtime since the line was temporarily closed in September despite never being reassigned to other NJ Transit routes, documents show.
The agency confirmed that the line’s 18 conductors and assistant conductors were consistently assigned to the Philadelphia-Atlantic City service from September until this month. They worked long hours at stations along the rail line’s route as ambassadors to passengers, the transit agency said. The Atlantic City Line is scheduled to resume service on Sunday.
In the process, conductors and assistant conductors racked up $164,138 in overtime from September to January, according to NJ Transit records. Overtime pay from the months after January was not available. The average overtime pay per staffer in December was $1,957, roughly equivalent to the amount when trains were running in December 2017. Typically the largest single-month overtime payment per conductor or assistant conductor was in the $3,000 range, though one conductor earned $5,044 in January. Some staffers earned less than $1,000 in overtime in a month.
NJ Transit has said the workers were needed to assist passengers unfamiliar with the bus service that replaced trains during the suspension. One rail advocate, though, called it money wasted.
“Clearly you don’t need people to work overtime to tell at best a couple people they have to get on the bus,” said Nick Pittman, who has been a vocal critic of NJ Transit’s handling of the Atlantic City Line’s suspension.
The transit agency shut down the 60-mile route last year during its rush to install a train safety system, Positive Train Control, to meet an end-of-2018 federal deadline. A congressional mandate required PTC, which can automatically control the speed of a train to prevent accidents, throughout New Jersey’s rail system, but the Atlantic City Line was one of the few where service was halted during the installation. Before the line’s suspension, it served fewer than 2,000 people a day and was one of NJ Transit’s least-busy lines.
Employee shifts on train lines are typically longer than eight hours. Conductors — responsible for patrolling the trains and performing tasks like collecting tickets — consider overtime as built in to their salaries. Since the line was suspended, conductors and assistants have continued to work their normal shifts and hours at the Atlantic City Line’s stops, said Nancy Snyder, a NJ Transit spokesperson, even as the route’s engineers were reassigned to work on trains in the northern part of the state.
The conductors and assistant conductors were needed for long hours each day at the stations to assist passengers, Snyder said.
“Transportation is not a 9-to-5 endeavor," she said, "and we needed the personnel out there to help with our customer service and help our customers navigate around the temporary suspension of the Atlantic City Rail Line.”
She said the conductors and assistant conductors told people how to read timetables, how to manage transfers from PATCO to bus service, and where to meet buses. While the line has its share of regular riders, she said, the staff was assigned throughout the nearly nine-month shutdown to help new riders likely unfamiliar with the system.
“There are tourists, casual riders,” she said. “It can’t be predicted when those people are going to be on our system.”
On Tuesday morning, no conductors appeared to be working at the Cherry Hill or Lindenwold stops along the Atlantic City Line.
The Princeton Branch “Dinky,” a 2.7-mile line that connects Princeton to Princeton Junction, also was shut down for PTC installation, but there, signs directing people in how to use the bus were considered sufficient, Pittman said. Substituting bus service for trains on the Dinky was less confusing for riders than on the Atlantic City Line, Snyder said.
During the shutdown, Pittman visited the Atlantic City Line stop in Cherry Hill, he said, and was stunned to see conductors there to cater to a handful of customers. He didn’t begrudge the conductors the money, he said, and understood they would want to keep their level of pay during a shutdown they had no control over, but questioned whether assigning them to stations was the best use of professional personnel.
“You don’t need a qualified conductor to guide somebody to a bus,” he said. “It was just a complete waste of money.”
NJ Transit said the Atlantic City workers were not needed on other lines elsewhere in the system.
“They’re best suited to serve in this reassigned position,” Snyder said. “They know very well the route and the alternate service.”