Are NJ Transit train engineers getting the training and oversight needed to make sure their trains are operating in a safe manner?

Some observers doubt it, but we can’t be sure because the transportation agency declined multiple requests by New Jersey 101.5 to discuss how their engineers are trained and what ongoing programs, if any, they’re required to take.

On Thursday, after this article first ran on New Jersey 101.5's website, NJ Transit officials said they would be unable to provide someone to speak on this issue because of the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the Hoboken train crash

Over the past five years, NJ Transit trains have been involved in more than 150 crashes that caused close to $5 million in damage to equipment and tracks, according to federal data.

And that’s not counting last week’s fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal, in which a city mother died and more than 100 passengers were injured.

On Wednesday, NJ Transit implemented a new rule requiring a second conductor on board every front cab of trains entering stations in Hoboken and Atlantic City in order to provide a second set of eyes and ears.

According to Brigham McCown, chairman of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, and a former U.S. Department of Transportation senior official, there is an initial certification program that’s required for all locomotive engineers. But after that, the picture gets a bit murky.

He noted all engineers must first pass an exam, submit to a background check, take a physical exam and go through drug and alcohol testing to be certified. But follow up testing varies widely.

“Each railroads program has to include criteria and procedures that are outlined by federal regulations but they’re just topical,” he said.

McCown said this “tends to give railroads and commuter lines a lot of flexibility in determining how to train their engineers.”

He explained locomotive engineers are given at least one announced operational monitoring observation a year.

“That means somebody else comes in and watches you during a shift,” he said. “And engineers are also given a written test by someone who’s qualified to be a supervisor of engineers each year.”

He said the test typically includes general knowledge questions of the railroads operating rules. “So there is sort of this annual re-certification, but a lot of that discretion is left to each rail operator.”

McCown said it’s unfortunate NJ Transit will not discuss how their engineers are trained.

“We’ve all heard the saying, 'That’s no way to run a railroad.' I would say a lack of transparency is not conducive to a culture of safety,” he said. “We would hope that all railroads would be very forthcoming with the information and very clear about how they operate their trains, how they train their engineers.”

He noted human factors play a role in less than a third of all train accidents across the country, but “based on NJ Transit statistics, it appears that number is much higher, maybe as high as 60 percent. That says to me something isn’t right with the safety culture and the training qualification process at NJ Transit.”

He added: “When you have a culture of safety then you have nothing to hide.”

Contact reporter David Matthau at