The head of New Jersey Transit’s rail operations is stepping down, continuing a shake-up at the top of the agency as it tackles financial challenges and rider dissatisfaction over delays.
Robert Lavell notified colleagues he will step down on March 1, according to a person familiar with the announcement. The person wasn’t authorized to speak about it publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Lavell has headed rail operations since 2014. He was previously the rail division’s acting vice president and general manager, and deputy general manager of equipment. He has more than 40 years’ experience in the transportation industry.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has named a new executive director to replace current head Steve Santoro as well as a new state transportation commissioner.
At a news conference in December to announce the selection of Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti to head the state Department of Transportation, which oversees NJ Transit, Murphy called NJ Transit a one-time national model that has turned into a “national disgrace.”
NJ Transit is the nation’s largest statewide public transportation system with more than 200 million passenger trips annually on its trains, buses and light rail. It has faced mounting criticism in recent years over delays and overcrowding, issues caused by aging infrastructure owned by Amtrak and NJ Transit’s own aging stock.
At a legislative hearing in Trenton last month, Lavell told lawmakers that aging parts fail more frequently and take longer to replace because vendors no longer carry them.
In December, NJ Transit approved the purchase of 17 new locomotives to replace ones that were originally manufactured beginning in the late 1960s, but it will be a few years before those are put into service.
The rail division also has faced criticism over its safety record. After a September 2016 train crash in Hoboken that killed a woman and injured more than 100 people, an Associated Press report found NJ Transit had more accidents and paid more in fines for safety violations than any other commuter railroad in the country over the previous five years.
In a report released Tuesday about the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted NJ Transit for not following its guidelines on sleep apnea testing for train engineers. The crash engineer suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea and was screened, but he wasn’t referred for a sleep study despite displaying some of the indicators of the disorder, the board found.