MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — It was only 7 a.m., but for the commuters stewing inside a Spartan train station in this bedroom community, the day was already off to a predictably bad start.
Their train, New Jersey Coast Line 2606, which is supposed to depart at 7:06 a.m., had been canceled. Again.
This time — the 18th cancellation of the year — the official explanation was “equipment availability resulting from a mechanical issue.” But these aggrieved riders in Middletown did not seem to care. They had heard all the excuses the railroad had to offer. All that really mattered was that they were not getting to work on time. Again.
This is the plight of the hundreds of people who depend on what just may be the worst commuter train in America. The railroad they ride, New Jersey Transit, has been plagued for the last two years by a rash of cancellations.
While a few other trains New Jersey Transit operates were canceled more often during the first six months of the year, they were either evening trains or morning trains on busier lines. Those riders had better alternatives.
The regulars on the 2606 had no such luck.
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The next train making the same trip would reach Hoboken Terminal almost an hour later, an eternity in the grinding, daily race to work. By then, it would be 9:17 a.m., at best, and all hope of making the morning meeting or being ready when the financial markets opened would be lost.
Instead, many of them would catch the first train that came and transfer somewhere — maybe in two places — to get close to their destinations as early as possible.
Nick Giovine knows that drill. He lives in Middletown and dreams of being a regular on the 2606 to get to his job. But he lost faith many months ago.
After New Jersey Transit started canceling trains with frustrating frequency last year, Mr. Giovine persuaded his boss to let him skip the commute one day a week — and quit giving $317 to the railroad 12 times a year.
“I’ve stopped buying a monthly pass because the service is so unreliable,” Mr. Giovine, 31, said. “Luckily, my boss is allowing me to work from home once a week to help with the stress of commuting.”
Another rider from Middletown, Kelly Farmer, said this week that she had abandoned the 2606 for a later train, in part because it had been so unreliable. Her new train, which leaves an hour later, has “definitely been more reliable Ms. Farmer said. “Though, I hope I didn’t just jinx it.”
Reliability is supposed to be the hallmark of commuter railroads. They may not offer the comforts of an Amtrak cross-country excursion, but they are expected to perform the prosaic duty of transporting people to work and home again.
For a couple years now, New Jersey Transit has consistently failed in that mission. It has been plagued by cancellations and suspensions of service, most of which its executives blamed on a rush to install safety equipment and a shortage of engineers to drive trains.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy has promised to fix the railroad since before he was elected in 2017. But in the first six months of 2019, New Jersey Transit canceled more than 1,300 trains — more than 50 a week — according to a New York Times analysis of the agency’s reports on social media.
The disruption has been spread across the railroad’s 12 lines, but it has not been spread evenly. The Times’s analysis found that six different trains were canceled at least 15 times from January through June.
Other major commuter railroads did not approach such a level of futility. Neither Metro-North Railroad, which serves the suburbs north of New York, or the Long Island Rail Road canceled a train more than eight times during the first six months of the year, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Metra, another large commuter railroad that serves Chicago, had only one train canceled as many as five times in the same period, said Michael Gillis, a spokesman for Metra. And most cancellations there are caused by winter weather, he said.
Mr. Giovine, 31, and his fellow travelers on the 2606 arguably have suffered the most. The 2606 was only the third most-canceled on the Coast Line, which runs along the New Jersey Shore. But the top two, Trains 3513 and 3514, are evening trains.
As most regular commuters would testify, having your evening train canceled — particularly if it departs from busy Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan as the 3513 does — is not comparable to having your morning train canceled.
When New Jersey Transit cancels the 3513, which is scheduled to depart Penn Station at 5:25 p.m., it often directs passengers to a train leaving just eight minutes later. The delay is less of a headache than the crowding of two trainfuls of passengers onto one.
Middletown, a coastal suburb about a 45-mile drive from New York City, has thousands of residents who commute to Manhattan and North Jersey, many of whom work in finance and other white-collar industries.
George Dugan, who has lived in Middletown, N.J., for 20 years, pays $450 a month to commute to his finance job in Manhattan. But he has no expectation of reliable service.
“My sense is that New Jersey Transit is doing the best that they can,” Mr. Dugan said, one evening in August as he ate a slice of plain pizza at Don Pepi’s in Penn Station while he waited for his train home. “I’m kind of resigned to it.”
Mr. Dugan said he was not usually in any hurry to get home. He usually eats dinner (Penn Station pizza) and breakfast (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) on the trains.
Amanda DeWan does not have that sort of leeway. She has to pick her children up by 6 p.m. or pay a caretaker penalty of $1 per minute, she said.
“I would look way more stressed than this if my train was canceled on the way home,” Ms. DeWan said as she coped with the cancellation of the 2606 she had intended to ride to a 9:15 a.m. meeting in Lower Manhattan.
Instead, she boarded the next train at 7:27 a.m. and rode it as far as Secaucus, where she had to cross over to another platform to catch a train to Hoboken. From there, she planned to hop on a ferry to reach her destination near the World Trade Center.
By then, it almost surely would be past the scheduled start of her meeting.
New Jersey Transit officials admit that the railroad’s reliability dropped off in May after appearing to be on the rise for a few months. But they said it had improved markedly from last year, when the system was plagued by cancellations even after service was cut back and, in some places, suspended altogether.
The railroad had 28 percent fewer cancellations from January to July of this year than in the same period last year, said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit. She added that nearly 92 percent of its trains ran on time in August, up from about 90 percent in August 2018.
“We recognize the impact that canceling just one train has on our customers when it happens to be your train,” Ms. Snyder said. “When we have to make the difficult decision to cancel a train for any reason, we strategically select a train that will have the least impact to customers and provides the customer with the best alternative.”
New Jersey Transit’s executive director, Kevin Corbett, has repeatedly joined Mr. Murphy in promising that the railroad’s performance will improve dramatically starting in 2020. By then, several classes will have completed training to become engineers, alleviating the shortage of train operators that has caused many of the cancellations, Mr. Corbett said.
But what transit officials say they intend to do is of no help to riders dealing with another morning with no 2606 to ride.
One of them, a commuter for 20 years who declined to give his name, was still steaming about two recent cancellations of his usual train home when he got to Middletown to find there would be no 2606 that day.
“If this was running right, I would get in at a quarter to 9,” he said. “Now I get in at 9:30.”
Mr. Giovine has been chronicling the cancellations of Train 2606 since last year on Twitter.
Mr. Giovine said he had thought the cancellations would abate after New Jersey Transit officials announced that they had met a Dec. 31 deadline to install equipment for an automatic-braking system, known as Positive Train Control, on all of the trains.
But the new year started off even worse.
By his count, the 2606 was canceled on the first three workdays of 2019. Then, after reappearing on Monday, Jan. 7, it was canceled every other day that week.
By then, Mr. Giovine said, he was checking the New Jersey Transit app on his phone before getting out of bed at 6:10 a.m. Early notice of a cancellation would allow him to consider his options: dashing for an earlier train or preparing for a late arrival at work in Jersey City.
“My boss understands the train issues” and is lenient about arrival time, Mr. Giovine said. “She gets it.”
Mr. Giovine said he had received no responses from New Jersey Transit to his tweets, but that the service improved and the 2606 ran regularly for a few months.
Then, as summer approached, cancellations came more frequently and perceptions of progress at the railroad crumbled.
“It’s actually gotten worse,” Mr. Giovine said of the railroad’s performance since Mr. Murphy took office. He had advice for anybody considering a long train commute aboard New Jersey Transit.
“I’d really think about that long and hard,” he said. Then, he added, “I’d move somewhere closer.”
Nefertari Elshiekh and Bella Virgilio contributed reporting.