New Jersey Transit abruptly shut down all rail service on Friday evening amid what officials said was a coordinated effort by the system’s engineers’ union to call in sick.
Engineers called in sick throughout the day at nearly three times the typical weekday rate, said Jim Smith, a spokesman for New Jersey Transit, in a statement. The result was a day of cancellations across the system, the nation’s largest statewide transit agency.
The canceled trips began in the morning and worsened into the evening, scrambling commutes in and out of Penn Station and frustrating riders at the beginning of a holiday weekend.
Penn Station was uncrowded Friday evening, normally a light travel day in the post-pandemic era, but commuters caught by surprise sprinted toward the stairways leading to the platforms. Schedule boards showed solid ranks of canceled trains into the night.
Anna Rodriguez, 28, had left work in Roslyn Heights, Long Island, to catch an 8 pm train to Paterson, NJ, when she discovered the shutdown.
“I was shocked when I came down and saw this,” she said, gesturing to the gates blocking off the waiting area. “I was already super tired, and now I have to think about what to do.”
Her options were limited: She could take a Lyft for $110; or a bus, but she did not know where to begin finding the right one; or she could cancel her plans altogether.
“I’m disappointed,” she said, explaining that she had planned to stay overnight in New Jersey before traveling to Pennsylvania to see her 9-year-old son. “I don’t get a lot of days off to see my son.”
“We were supposed to spend the weekend together and now I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she added.
Zubayda Muksinova, 68, who lives in Coney Island but travels to Linden, NJ, every Friday night to spend the weekends with her son, had to wait at Penn Station for about two hours for her son to drive in and pick her up.
“We found a way through a difficult situation,” she said, sighing heavily. “It’s not good, but what can you do?”
“But I hope this doesn’t go on,” she added, saying that she was already worried about getting back to the city on Monday. “I have no idea what I would do.”
Mr. Smith said the agency had been made aware on Thursday of a rumor that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a rail union, had planned what he called “an illegal job action.”
Of the 15 rail unions at New Jersey Transit, BLET is the only one that had not reached a contract agreement with the agency. Each of the other unions had recently agreed upon their contracts, which included Juneteenth as a paid holiday. But for workers under BLET, it is not. The holiday, which falls on Sunday this year, was observed on Friday in New Jersey.
A union official did not immediately respond to phone or email messages.
“We intend to explore all legal remedies in response to this illegal and irresponsible action,” Mr. Smith said. “We’ll be monitoring the situation and we’ll be alerting customers as to the resumption of service tomorrow.”
New Jersey Transit has suffered for years from scant funding, which has resulted in poor maintenance of its trains and regular shortages of engineers. Last year, the agency graduated to class of 17 engineers after a two-year training program, bringing the work force to 385 engineers, tantalizingly close to full strength of 390.
“Growing the ranks of our locomotive engineers is an integral part of our three-year effort to turn NJ Transit around, improve on-time performance and responsiveness, and restore the faith of NJ Transit’s customers,” Governor Phil Murphy said in a news release at the time.
On Friday evening, rail tickets were being honored by New Jersey Transit and private buses, light rail and PATH trains.
The shutdown also affected the Metro-North Railroad’s Pascack Valley and Port Jervis lines, which are operated by New Jersey Transit, west of the Hudson River, said Sean Butler, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman, in a statement.