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After sexual misconduct allegations, reformed N.J. chamber train rolls on

Some of the 1,000 lobbyists, business owners and politicians gather on a platform at the Trenton train station waiting to board a train to Washington, D.C., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 in Trenton, N.J. The state Chamber of Commerce's 80th annual trip — nicknamed the

Some of the 1,000 lobbyists, business owners and politicians gather on a platform at the Trenton train station waiting to board a train to Washington, D.C., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 in Trenton, N.J. The state Chamber of Commerce's 80th annual trip — nicknamed the "Walk to Washington" because rail riders generally pace the train's corridors schmoozing and handing out business cards — comes after a national election that hinged in part on repudiating insiders and establishment politics. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Each year the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce rents out an entire Amtrak train, fills it with the state’s political and business elite, and sets off on a booze-filled networking junket to the nation’s capital.

This year things will be different.

After NJ Advance Media published a comprehensive story on sexual assault and misconduct in state politics in December, which included allegations of impropriety on the chamber train, the business group made changes to prevent sexual harassment on the trip and give victims a way to report bad behavior.

“We saw, from the original [Newark] Star-Ledger [newspaper] article, a problem. We were sort of sideswiped by the magnitude of the problem,” said Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “So we decided to take what was an adverse hit at our train trip and turn it into an opportunity.”

Hard liquor will be banned on this year’s trip, which Bracken said was a positive step but acknowledged that it does not solve the problem of sexual harassment. The chamber also published a new code of conduct, increased security on the train, and set up a hotline for riders to report misconduct. Bracken said the steps were necessary even though the organization has not had reports of sexual misconduct on the trip in the past.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who has been outspoken against sexual harassment and assault in New Jersey politics, applauded the chamber for taking steps to make the 83-year-old “Walk to Washington” ride safer.

But some critics said the chamber’s recent actions did little to change what they called an outdated political tradition that has been unwelcoming to women for years.

“They’re cosmetic changes. They’re token changes,” said Patricia Campos Medina, a New Jersey political activist.

“That is just not challenging the fundamental problem of New Jersey politics, which is the systematic control of the levers of power by men,” she added.

Bracken said attendance is down for this year’s trip but that he was hoping the chamber’s swift response to criticism over the annual event would start a new, more inclusive chapter for the organization.

“Obviously the root cause of this is human behavior, and people will be people. But we’re trying to deter any kind of action that some of those people might take,” he said.

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