- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2016

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Transit named an insider to head the agency Thursday as it handles the fallout from a recent fatal commuter rail crash and questions about its overall safety record.

The agency’s board unanimously approved Steven Santoro, the agency’s assistant executive director of capital planning and projects for the last nine years, as executive director.

Santoro replaces interim executive director Dennis Martin, who has led the agency since Veronique Hakim left last fall for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Former Amtrak executive William Crosbie accepted the job earlier this year then backed out in April.

The unsettled management situation, along with an uptick in reports of safety violations, prompted the Federal Railroad Administration to begin a safety audit this year that is ongoing.

Separately, according to an analysis by The Associated Press, New Jersey Transit - the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad - had 157 accidents between January 2011 and July 2016. That’s more than any other railroad in the country and three times as many as the largest railroad, New York’s Long Island Rail Road.

The most recent, a Sept. 29 crash at the Hoboken terminal, killed one woman and injured more than 100 others when a train sped up to double the allowable speed seconds before smashing through a barrier at the end of the track and knocking over part of an overhead canopy.

The crash revived questions about positive train control, a GPS-based system designed to automatically slow or stop trains that are going too fast. Like many railroads, NJ Transit’s trains don’t currently possess the technology; the government extended a deadline for railroads to install it from the end of 2015 to the end of 2018.

State Department of Transportation Chairman Richard Hammer, who chairs NJ Transit’s board, on Thursday gave Santoro 30 days to issue a report on the agency’s progress toward implementing the technology.

“There are certainly challenges we need to face going forward,” Santoro said during a brief question-and-answer session after the meeting. “I’ve been given priorities. We have to gather all of the resources that we have, and focus on those needs, primarily on the safety of our product.”

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