Rockland Coaches President Says Firm "Dropped the Ball" During Blizzard, Promises Improvements
Company did not communicate with its riders, had one person answering phones
Pretend for a minute that you're one of the thousands of people who depend on a commuter bus company to get you from Bergen County to Manhattan every day.
Now let's say that a brutal blizzard has just walloped your town, burying cars under two feet of snow and crippling travel in an entire region.
You'd think that the bus company to which you pay thousands of dollars every year might give you the faintest hint of whether their buses are running on time. Or at all.
Think again if you're a Rockland Coachescustomer.
The president of the Westwood firm was blunt in his critique of his bus line Thursday, admitting that the company "dropped the ball" in customer communications during and after the storm.
Updates from the company were non-existent – literally.
The "service advisories" page on its website remained blank throughout the blizzard. And only one person – that's right, a single person – was on hand to answer phones.
"Our communication was very poor," President George Grieve said. "A perfect storm of things went wrong for us."
Grieve said many staff members were off for the holidays. Others could not make it to work.
"In the old days you could afford to live around here and work here," Grieve said. "Now most of our workforce comes from outside the area."
Even so, he said, the company's buses carried about 9,000 people on Tuesday – after service was suspended on Monday – just slightly below normal for this time of year.
He owed the ridership levels to many longtime customers knowing that if NJ Transit buses were running, Rockland Coaches would also be on the roads.
"What we usually do is if New Jersey declares a state of emergency, we don't run," he said. "Then we follow what New Jersey Transit does."
Grieve said that Rockland Coaches – owned by Coach USA but operated independently – is in the process of setting up email alerts and upgrading its website.
The issue for commuters was compounded Tuesday by NJ Transit being forced to operate on a "modified" weekend schedule because 80 percent of its rail cars weathered the storm outside, a spokesman said. The schedule meant that 40 percent fewer rail cars were on the tracks than would be during a normal weekday.
About 140 of those cars had to be dug out by hand and crews spent 36 hours digging out the fleet. Every car had to be inspected before being put into service, and more than 40 had to be repaired.
"We did not run a weekend schedule because we wanted to," Spokesman Dan Stessel said. "We ran one because we had to. … Eighty percent of our 1400 cars weathered [the blizzard] in outlying rail yards."
But with news of cars abandoned on area roads and still-dangerous driving conditions, many commuters who normally drive to New York flocked to the trains.
The result was rail cars so tightly packed that riders were apparently turned away at at least one station on the Pascack Valley line. The scene turned ugly at the Wood-Ridge station, one rider said, where some commuters threw cups of coffee at the train when told they could not board.
"We were down hundreds of cars from what we normally need to run," Stessel said.
The Pascack Valley line was one of several lines on which trains were bursting with riders on Tuesday, Stessel said.
But unlike Rockland Coaches, NJ Transit did a superb job in using its website to communicate with its riders. The site featured regular updates, line-by-line train delays and detailed information about bus schedules.
Rockland Coaches had one guy answering the phone.