HOBOKEN, N.J. — Months before a fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal, federal inspectors found a series of safety problems at NJ Transit, including railroad workers using personal cell phones while on duty, failure to equip trains with proper emergency equipment, and train crew members failing to perform required brake tests on trains. Those problems were revealed for the first time Friday during a joint legislative hearing into safety and leadership problems at NJ Transit.
Steven Santoro, the recently-appointed executive director of NJ Transit, also detailed other problems at the agency, including a failure to re-fill important positions in rail operations after longtime experts quit or retired. Those vacancies include the chief of NJ Transit's Office of System Safety.
"Key personnel have either retired or left for other opportunities," Santoro said. "And backfilling these vacancies is particularly challenging when we are looking at highly technical or specialized positions."
Santoro also revealed changes at the top of the agency. Michael Drewniak, a longtime aide and spokesman to Governor Christie, was hired at NJ Transit in April 2015 to coordinate projects across the agency's rail, bus and light rail departments, reporting directly to the executive director.
Earlier this year, he was promoted to serve as interim chief of staff, the agency's second most powerful office. Now Drewniak has been demoted, Santoro said, despite the fact that he remains the third highest-paid official at the agency, receiving a salary of $147,000.
Drewniak is not the only recent NJ Transit hire with close ties to Christie, Assemblyman John McKeon, D - Morris. In response to the legislative committee's inquiry, NJ Transit revealed that ten of the agency's current staff members served as aides to Christie. Those 10 receive salaries and benefits worth about $2 million annually, McKeon said.