NJ Transit: Transforming Customer Experience for Third-Largest US Transit Provider

As NJ Transit’s first Customer Advocate & Chief Customer Experience Officer, I have received appreciation from my colleagues for leading high-profile, customer-centric operations, research, and sustainability initiatives. I have enhanced the customer experience throughout the 5,300-square mile area served by the nation’s third-largest transit agency.

1. Led COVID-19 Task Force.

I led the design and installation of 2,500 Safe NJ signs throughout the statewide transit system. I developed a social media campaign highlighting new practices to help customers protect themselves and their fellow riders while using transit.

2. Migrated NJ Transit’s three light rail systems to contactless fare payment.

Buy, Tap & Ride: Transforming Digital Fare Payment on Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, Newark Light Rail, and River Line.,

I led contactless fare payment transformation of NJ Transit’s three light rail systems by gathering customer and employee input, and assembling a “can do” team of colleagues that implemented the enhancement in seven weeks, start to finish, even as COVID-19 imposed new challenges on NJ Transit.

3. Expanded online customer engagement.

For pandemic-preparedness and ongoing, inclusive customer engagement, I developed recommendations for online town halls, public meetings, and chats with customers. As a result, the broad diversity of NJ Transit’s customer base has expanded options for community engagement.

4. Prioritized onboard customer engagement.

Pre-pandemic, I scheduled regular opportunities to discuss service with customers, listen to their ideas and suggestions, get their input on enhancements I’m developing, and help them become better informed advocates for public investment.

5. Observed customer experience on all 12 rail lines.

I enjoy talking with customers on trains and buses to hear their thoughts as I help shape new policy.

Within four months of joining NJ Transit, I had crisscrossed the state, from the Atlantic City Line in South Jersey to the Main-Bergen Lines, Montclair-Boonton Lines, Morris & Essex Lines, Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast Line, Pascack Valley Line, Port Jervis Line, Raritan Valley Line, and Morris & Essex supplemental bus service in South Orange and Maplewood.

6. Traveled with customers on 24 bus routes throughout the system.

Joined NJ Transit’s demographically-diverse customers, listening to thoughts and ideas on service and their customer experience on bus routes that serve communities throughout a three-state service area.

7. Paid close attention to light rail customers.

Stewart Mader talks with customers at Pennsauken Transit Center near Philadelphia

I rode with customers on all three of NJ Transit’s light rail systems, one of which ranks as the third-busiest rail or light rail line in the state. I guided customers using substitute shuttle bus service during a light rail service suspension for a major right-of-way construction project.

8. Prepared customers for major scheduled service changes.

When Amtrak scheduled its overhaul of tracks that NJ Transit uses at New York Penn Station, I prepared customers by customers by riding every early morning, rush-hour, evening, and reverse-commute train that would be impacted. I talked with customers, answered their questions about the imminent work, and helped them plan for changed schedules.

9. Used video to help guide customers.

To help customers navigate the rerouting of New York trains to Hoboken during the Amtrak Summer 2019 work (see above), I created a video with tips on transferring between trains, buses, ferries, light rail, and PATH.

10. Thanked customers when rerouted trains returned to regular service.

To thank customers for adjusting their travel patterns during the Amtrak infrastructure work at New York Penn Station (see above) I distributed Dunkin gift cards to customers on the three impacted rail lines.

11. Welcomed customers to enhanced rail service.

When off-peak one-seat rides returned to the Raritan Valley Line, I rode with customers, and listened to their thoughts on customer experience and potential future service enhancements.

12. Prioritized customer experience in South Jersey.

Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, NJ, Pennsauken Transit Center, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, and Trenton Transit Center have been central to my attention to bus, rail, and light rail customers in South Jersey and in Philadelphia. I evaluated customer experience, and prepared recommendations to improve safety, comfort, and amenities for bus and light rail customers.

13. Opted to become rail-safety certified.

When I joined NJ Transit, I took the initiative to complete right-of-way protection and safety training courses. These are required courses for all rail employees and contractors, typically not taken by headquarters staff. By contrast, I opted to take the courses so that I could be certified to join work crews as they prepare trains for service, complete track maintenance, and make emergency repairs.

14. Completed crisis management certification.

Senior management selected me to participate in a weeklong crisis incident management training and certification program at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension (TEEX) training center. That experience strengthened my relationships with NJ Transit Police, as well as police, fire, and EMS staff from throughout New Jersey. During the incident simulation, I performed the role of the public information officer, leading simulated press conferences. Enhancing my public speaking skills at TEEX tracked with my experience as Customer Advocate, where I have frequently gone on camera to provide context to customers regarding service delays, as well as service improvements.

15. Produced on-the-scene videos with work crews.

I joined weekend work crews to get an up-close video explaining infrastructure upgrades on the Pascack Valley Line, including replacement of multiple grade crossings in New York and New Jersey. I also took customers to Roseville Junction in Newark, where a work crew completed emergency repairs after a downed tree snarled service. In producing these videos, I ensure that behind-the-scenes profiles of operations represent the diversity of staff who contribute to running the largest statewide transit system in the nation.

16. Chronicled a day in the life of conductors.

Safety-certified to work on active rail right-of-way, I accompanied a train crew, from pre-dawn preparation to customer engagement on multiple runs along the line, and the return to the yard at the end of the day.

17. Showed customers early-morning train setup.

Starting before sunrise in Dover Yard, 40 miles west of New York, I accompanied a crew as they prepared for service, tested their train’s safety systems, and carried customers to New York.

18. Explained major service disruption directly to customers.

“I want you to hear directly from me,” I said to NJ Transit customers in the nation’s largest media market, embodying industry best practices for communications. My video drove immediate media coverage. It also pivoted the discussion from inconvenience to investment. Sorry for Monday’s Massive Delays; Now Get Us New Hudson Tunnel is one example.

19. Reached 15,000-20,000 customers with videos on social media.

Improved social media engagement rates from below 1% into double digits. A tweet on winter weather preparations before an ice storm reached an impressive 17.7% engagement rate.

20. Took customers behind-the-scenes within world’s busiest bus terminal.

I profiled frontline staff at the Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal who keep more than 1,200 bus departures moving every evening.

21. Favored public transit for travel to public meetings.

To attend public meetings, I use public transit rather than a company car. For example, I rode with bus customers from Newark to Jersey City for a hearing on proposed bus service expansion. Also, for a community forum convened by a key legislator and proponent of customer service, I used one of the legislator’s constituents’ key bus routes to gain real-time insights.

22. Engaged with customers on the busiest bus route in New Jersey.

Frequently traveled with customers on New Jersey’s busiest bus route, subject to bus bunching, tight headways, and bus terminal congestion. I used the challenges of this route as a test bed for service enhancements throughout NJ Transit’s 251-route network.

23. Encouraged customers to use George Washington Bridge Bus Station.

To relieve pressure on the busy Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, I created a video encouraging North Jersey bus customers to speed their trips by using the George Washington Bridge Bus Station for easy subway connections to Manhattan, the Bronx, and beyond.

24. Worked with agency counterparts to streamline customer experience.

Used my five years experience leading PATH Riders Council, and my resulting strong working relationships with all three New York metro area transit agencies to achieve strong interagency collaboration and information dissemination that benefits the three agencies’ shared customers. For example, I worked with Metro-North align the design of its countdown clocks at stations in New York State served by NJ Transit trains.

25. Rode unannounced for unfiltered views of the customer experience.

Stewart Mader rides transit undercover to observe customer experience firsthand, and identify enhancements.
I regularly take unannounced trips on the transit system. The insights and questions customers share with me, as well as my own observation and analysis, help inform the customer experience enhancements I’ve delivered for riders.

26. Laid groundwork for customer advisory board.

Based on my experience establishing and leading the Port Authority’s PATH Riders Council, I set the template for a similar board at NJ Transit.

27. Highlighted real-time winter storm preparation.

As soon as an unexpected snowstorm emerged, I was out on the scene before snow accumulated to show customers how frontline crews safeguard them against disruptions. I also urged customers to ask their public officials to clear snow from municipally-maintained bus stops.

28. Redesigned graphics for customer communication.

I established new standards for rail line brands by tying together colors and symbols to strengthen visibility and ease of use for a diverse audience. I implemented the new standards across all customer-facing digital platforms: website, app, and social media.

29. Introduced new branding for Access Link, Bus, and Light Rail.

As a follow-on to new graphics for rail lines the I added branding for paratransit, bus, and light rail. I worked with in-house graphic design colleagues to select easily recognized icons for NJ Transit’s light rail lines.

  • Hudson-Bergen Light Rail – The iconic copper clock tower at HBLR’s Hoboken Terminal.
  • Newark Light Rail – Pink cherry blossom from Newark’s Olmsted-designed Branch Brook Park.
  • River Line – Deep green color of the route’s original railroad, the Camden & Amboy.

30. Redesigned station customer advisory notices.

I made sure that, when customers need to know about service changes or other information, they now have customer advisories that I redesigned to be consistent with the new refreshed branding.

31. Redesigned the NJ Transit website.

To streamline customer experience, simplify trip planning, and share real-time bus and train arrivals, I led the redesign of NJ Transit’s website. I worked with colleagues to upgrade the website to a new content management system. We implemented progressive web-app technology that ensures a seamless, responsive experience on all devices.

32. Put real-time train/bus status information front-and-center.

On the website, and all social media platforms, I repositioned train and bus information for maximum visibility. That way customers have an easier way to plan their travel.

33. Increased public access to Board meetings.

Working with the Board Office, I made it easier for for customers to find Board member biographies, get meeting agendas, and sign up to speak. I started promoting these events on social media ahead of time, with reminders on the day and hour of meetings. Now the public can livestream board meetings and public hearings on YouTube and Livestream.com, and view on-demand replays of previous meetings.

34. Significantly increased the popularity of the NJ Transit app.

To ensure a seamless digital customer experience, I redesigned the NJ Transit app in conjunction with the website redesign. Customers approved, rating the new app 4.6 out of 5 stars on the iOS App Store, up from 1.7 out of 5 stars.

35. Launched NJ Transit performance dashboard.

Responding to a gubernatorial initiative, I used my private-sector background in visualizing data to guide development of a public, interactive performance dashboard. The dashboard illustrates on-time performance and equipment reliability metrics for bus, rail, light rail, and Access Link.

36. Briefed Board members each month.

I redesigned the monthly operations & customer service report to use consistent visuals to illustrate on-time performance, equipment reliability, and social media metrics. I present this report to the five-member Customer Service Committee of NJ Transit’s gubernatorially-appointed board, and members of the public. I field board members’ questions during these monthly meetings.

37. Promoted customer satisfaction surveys.

I helped the market research team prominently feature customer satisfaction surveys on the redesigned website, app, and social media, to maximize visibility and ensure customers have a robust channel for evaluating service.

38. Provided 150% more bus arrival information.

I led the initiative to add 15 minutes to the standard window for bus arrivals on the website and app. Now, customers have a full 45 minutes in which to plan their bus trips.

39. Helped evaluate Newark bus network redesign proposals.

Helped lay the groundwork for a proposed redesign of the bus network in New Jersey’s largest city by reviewing bidders’ competitive proposals.

40. Added key context to social media.

I developed and put into action a new approach to social media that focused on major investments and improvements throughout the statewide transit system. Also, social media updates now share context and explanations for occurrences about which customers raise questions, for example, arcing on overhead wires caused by ice buildup.

41. Provided easy-to-use, line-by-line information.

Instead of a “one account fits all” approach, each transit line now has a dedicated account for service updates and line-specific customer information. New customers can go directly to the information they need.

42. Expanded Twitter engagement to paratransit customers.

I put paratransit customers on par with bus, light rail, and rail customers by expanding NJ Transit’s Twitter accounts to include an Access Link account.

43. Helped my direct reports engage with customers.

To provide customers consistent, clear information, I created a guide to commonly asked questions. The social media team, which collectively answers questions 96 hours per week, now has a standard way to explain service disruptions, planned work, and other matters. When customers inquire about onboard issues and questions, the customer response guide provides a template for detailed, context-rich responses.

44. Equipped social media team with better workflow management.

To coordinate social media responses across various work shifts, I introduced a workflow management platform that ensures consistent, efficient follow-through by multiple team members. A co-benefit: 30% reduction in the annual, recurring licensing fee.

45. Supported diversity and inclusion.

As part of developing a high-functioning staff, I have been particularly attentive to diversity and inclusion. For example, right after the murder of George Floyd, rather than pursuing our typical team meeting agenda, I opened the floor for all of my team members, a very diverse group, to reflect on what they were feeling. They learned new things about each other, and one of my team members, having heard the life experiences of colleagues, was in tears.