NJ Transit customers are being told to expect delays to service in and out of New York's Penn Station indefinitely; as a minimum, trains might be delayed 15 minutes on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends. The predicted delays are to allow Amtrak to make repairs to tracks leading to the station; defects and deferred maintenance in the tracks have been blamed for several recent incidents in which trains derailed. And it may get worse, according to reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Patric McGeehan for the New York Times (April 26): Amtrak says it's time to "bite the bullet" and take tracks out of service for days or weeks to fix the underlying problems. The story is also reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and appears in the Star-Ledger (April 26). What this would mean for commuters is still unclear; details would have to be worked out between Amtrak and NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, the other "tenant" at the busy station. But any reduction in track capacity has usually resulted in train cancellations and, for NJ Transit, usually diversion of Midtown Direct service to NJT's Hoboken terminal, itself still under repair after a train crashed in September.
On April 27, Amtrak started to flesh out its repair plans for a "series of major track and switch renewal projects," which might require taking up to four station tracks out of service at a time. The story was reported by multiple sources, including in the New York Times (April 28)by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Patrick McGeehan, and by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (and published in the Star-Leger on April 28), as well as by the Gannett papers. Amtrak said the repairs, costing tens of millions of dollars, would come by reducing "funds earmarked for technological upgrades," raising fears that Amtrak might be fixing one set of problems and making others worse. And Amtrak made it clear that some of the repair work would have to be done on weekdays, impacting the ability of trains to use the station, particularly in peak commuting hours. Amtrak pledged to coordinate its plans with the major users of the station, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.
While Amtrak inspects its track and identifies candidates for repair, it has reduced the train speed limit within the station area to 10 mph, down from the usual 15 mph. This has contributed to delays experienced by riders.
And these delays are due to what can be predicted, not to unusual events, which are becoming almost constant. Tuesday, April 25 brought delays in the morning and evening rush hours -- from separate events. A stuck Amtrak train caused delays in the morning; in the evening, Amtrak power problems between Penn Station and Queens caused serious problems for both NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, with thousands of riders clogging the station. A visit by this reporter at about 6 pm found only one NJT train boarding, and all others posted as "Delayed." Crowding in the NJT concourses was intense, and the escalators to and from the Long Island Rail Road levels were jammed; one report said that LIRR had to restrict access to its part of the station to control the crowds. By late evening things were back to more or less normal. On April 27, operations seemed more or less normal, at least for NJ Transit; this reporter rode an NJT train from Montclair due in New York Penn about nine a.m.; while the train moved slowly through the tunnels and was halted for a few minutes, it was only a few minutes late in arrival, nothing like the 15 minutes NJT said riders could expect.
Years ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed a project to add two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, saying New Jersey taxpayers would be stuck with any cost overruns. Now, a series of train derailments and delays have caused new concern with the existing tunnels, which might have to be shut down for maintenance; a shutdown in peak hours would cripple capacity and cause what some have called "transit Armageddon." A frequent refrain is that "We'd almost have the new tunnels now, if Christie hadn't killed them." Transportation advocates at the time applauded Christie's move, saying the proposed Access to the Region's Core, or ARC project was hopelessly flawed. They expected a better project to start up, but that hasn't happened yet. Reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (and published in the Star-Ledger, April 24) suggests that Christie did indeed make the right move in canceling ARC. For one thing, the ARC proposal would not have connected to Penn Station, but instead to a second station, deep beneath 34 Street in Manhattan. Once ARC was done, it would have provided some additional capacity to lessen the impact of a shutdown in the existing century-old tunnels. Former Long Island Rail Road planning director and transportation advocate (and Lackawanna Coalition member) Joseph Clift said the ARC project would have drained capital and made the current situation even worse; "There would be less state of good repair work/funding because of the focus on the new railroad," he said. New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers President Len Resto agreed, saying "The issues at Penn Station, (overhead wire) put in during the 1930s, switches that are old, tunnels in need of rehabilitation; that wouldn't have been paid for by ARC." Martin Robbins, director emeritus of the Voorhees Transportation Institute at Rutgers, said that ARC wouldn't have been in place to solve today's problems: "In 2017, it would not have solved NJ Transit's current problems." But, Robbins said, now the current mess will continue for at least six to seven years.
In anticipation of new tunnels, NJT purchased a fleet of dual-mode locomotives (photo). But these expensive units are only really useful for through service from nonelectrified lines to Penn Station; without enough tunnel capacity, few such trains have been added and the new locomotives mainly are used in place of cheaper diesels and electric engines.
Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Wick Moorman says things will only get worse, not better, in the wake of recent service interruptions in the New York area, some of which were attributed to Amtrak infrastructure deficiencies. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Moorman said "We don't see a catastrophic failure; we just see continued . . . deterioration." The Bloomberg report was widely distributed and appeared on the front page of the Star-Ledger on April 21. Asked what the solution is, Moorman said the only solution is the $23 billion Gateway infrastructure improvement project championed by Amtrak, which would take many years to implement. "The fundamental problem is: What is plan B?" Moorman said. "I don't know." A new tunnel under the Hudson, a key component of Gateway, would be in service in 2025 at the earliest, even if funding cuts proposed by the White House are restored. Moorman said that the White House proposals, which included ending support for Amtrak's long distance train services -- supposedly so Amtrak could concentrate more on its Northeast Corridor and state-supported regional trains -- were ill-advised and unlikely to be realized, citing false economic expectations and Amtrak's good relationship with Congress, which in many states rests on its long-distance services. Moorman said overall reductions would probably be "only a nick" at most.
On Friday, April 14, hundreds of commuters delayed at New York Penn Station panicked, abandoned their belongings, and stampeded to the exits (see story below). The stampede apparently started when travelers mistakenly believed that shots had been fired, possibly triggered when Amtrak police used a Taser to subdue an agitated traveler. A report on WNYC FM by Stephen Nessen (April 21) highlights the apparently chaotic security situation at the sprawling terminal. Amtrak's police department has the lead role in security for the Amtrak and NJ Transit areas of the station, although not for Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit areas at New York Penn. The little-known Amtrak police department has to police hundreds of stations, trains, and rail lines across the country with a total force of only 500 officers. Only about five officers are normally on duty at Penn Station. The radio report characterized the Amtrak police presence as "understaffed, underequipped, and undertrained," and cited limited budget and archaic operating methods. Amtrak police, according to the report, do not have access to the latest communications radios and other gear, and in an emergency are unable to communicate directly with other law enforcement agencies, instead having to rely on cell phones and land lines. A modern system is in the planning stage, but not yet implemented. In recognition of the difficulty that might result from a terrorist attack, an Emergency Management and Corporate Security Department was established in 2012, but that has only served to diminish available funding for the Amtrak police department itself.
US Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held a press conference on Wednesday, April 19, at Newark's Penn Station to demand government action on new tunnels under the Hudson River. The event was reported by Claude Brodesser-Akner for NJ Advance Media and printed in the Star-Ledger (April 20). The politicians challenged President Trump to send his Secretary of Transportation to inspect the 100-year-old existing tunnels, which were damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy more than four years ago, and have been described as "decrepit." Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, has warned that they will have to be shut down, one track at a time; if new tunnels are not built before this becomes necessary, restricting travel to one tunnel at a time would cripple peak hour commuter rail service, which requires both of the existing tunnels to function. The tunnels carry about 85,000 riders a day; some studies have warned that loss of one tunnel would reduce capacity by about 75%. "We have reached a point of unacceptability for New Jersey, (for) America," said Booker. "We must have a firm commitment to replace these tunnels. . . . We are teetering every day on the brink of a traffic Armageddon." For his part, Gov. Christie said that "I've already spoken to the President about this. The President is well aware of my point of view on this project, and I will absolutely continue to speak my mind on this, both publicly and privately." Christie said he was confident that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao would visit the tunnels. Despite the apparent dedication of both politicians to the project, reporters were quick to point out that Gov. Christie cancelled a previous tunnel proposal, the ARC project, years ago, and that if he had not, the ARC tunnels might have been available as early as next year.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that Gov. Christie was right to cancel the ARC project, which we believe had fatal flaws; but the lack of progress since is unforgivable. The Coalition believes that the main focus should be on at least one new tunnel, and that construction should begin immediately, in hopes to avoid a transportation disaster. The much bigger project being currently proposed, called "Gateway," goes far beyond new tunnels to include expansion of New York Penn Station and other features; while these might be desirable in the long term, the larger project is probably unaffordable in the current political climate, and focusing on it tends to obscure the need for new tunnels, now.
Since an NJ Transit inbound train crashed through the bumper block on Track 5 at the Hoboken Terminal on September 29, several tracks have been out of service; but more importantly for commuters, damage from the crash, which injured several and killed a bystander in the station, has blocked a vital passageway through which most riders reach the PATH rapid transit station and an adjacent bus terminal. The blockage becomes especially significant when disruptions occur miles away at New York's Penn Station; in such an event, the Midtown Direct trains running to New York are diverted to Hoboken, and crowds swell as riders use PATH to travel between Hoboken and New York. Without a direct passageway between the rail terminal and the PATH station, riders have been forced to detour through the main Hoboken concourse and through doors not built for the flood of humanity.
The original passageway will reopen in June, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media. One track, presumably Track 5, will remain out of service. Full repairs will take another two years, partly owing to the historic nature of the terminal and the need for full cosmetic restoration. The crash severely damaged structural components of the concourse and adjacent ticket office, including electrical and mechanical facilities.
The April 14 stranding of more than a thousand NJ Transit passengers under the Hudson River was not due to infrastructure problems, according to Amtrak, which owns the track involved. Reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (and published in the Star-Ledger on April 18) quotes Amtrak spokesperson Mike Tolbert as saying "Amtrak has determined that the incident involving NJ Transit Train 3850 last Friday was not caused by Amtrak infrastructure, and that the preliminary cause appears to be a NJ Transit mechanical problem involving the train's pantograph (power collector)." Previously, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had blamed Amtrak for not maintaining its infrastructure, causing previous problems including a derailment of an NJT train; Gov. Christie threatened to withhold NJ Transit payments to Amtrak for the use of Amtrak's track and facilities. After Amtrak blamed NJT for the latest incident, Gov. Christie's spokesperson accused Amtrak of blaming NJT prematurely. State legislators called for an end to the two agencies blaming each other, saying both were underfunded. And State Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) went one step further, blaming Gov. Christie for the underfunding of NJT: "What we're seeing is the greatest legacy of Gov. Christie, the decline of NJ Transit."
A train crashes through the bumper in Hoboken, killing a bystander. A packed NJT commuter train sideswipes a derailed Amtrak streamliner, paralyzing New York Penn. An NJT train gets stuck under the Hudson River, stranding a thousand people for three hours without fresh air. Afterwards, a distraught passenger is Tasered by cops and hundreds of people panic, running for their lives and abandoning "a sea of luggage." All of this has happened in recent months, and in each case there was a serious disruption of transit service, affecting thousands of riders for hours. And in almost every case, nobody is happy with the response of the transit agencies responsible for the safe operation of a complex transportation system.
What should the response of those in authority be when things go wrong? We don't have any insight into how top officials act when faced with a crisis; we can only rely on published reports of what the public experiences and has to say about it. But it seems that there is a lack of direct management by top officials; a lack of information flow to confused and stranded customers; and an inability to anticipate consequences, such as the near-riot at New York Penn on Good Friday, April 14.
When people are stuck in a train for a long period, they need and deserve direct support from top management. They need to know what caused their dilemma, and what is being done about it. Almost always, this is lacking. It appears that the crew of a stranded train is often not informed of the "big picture," and so passengers remain in the dark -- figuratively at least, and sometimes literally if power has failed. On April 14, the riders stuck under the Hudson -- one rider said it was "just inside the tunnel entrance" -- were alternately told that they would be evacuated, then that the train would be towed out. There was only emergency lighting, and no fresh air; one passenger took the initiative to break out an escape window, and another fainted. This didn't happen in an instant: the train was stuck for almost three hours.
Is it too much to require that when a train becomes disabled a senior railroad official be dispatched to the scene, to join the hapless passengers and keep them informed as to what is being done? This may result in a more rapid resolution of the crisis, but even if it does not, it would do a lot to calm down the riders and reassure them. It also might give management some practical experience in the operation of their enterprise. If a train is stuck for twenty minutes, it would not be practical for management to reach the scene. But once an incident exceeds this time, it's overdue for someone to hit the road and take charge at the site.
Another type of crisis occurs at terminals when operations are disrupted. This was the aftermath on April 14 at New York Penn when thousands crowded the terminal areas, hoping to catch trains delayed by the one that was stuck in the tunnel. Any sort of crowd poses a dangerous situation, particularly in an underground location with limited exits. Whenever crowding gets intense, it's the responsibility of management to anticipate panic and have on-site personnel on duty before a tragedy occurs. In places like New York Penn, this is complicated by a balkanized management structure. Whose crowd is it? NJ Transit! Whose station is it? Amtrak! Who's responsible? Both of them! (Or maybe no one.) The problem of crowding is getting more and more frequent even when there is no service disruption; and now service disruptions are becoming regular events, too. And don't even ask about terrorism, or even the imagined terrorist threat. All of this can cause panic, and panic can cause massive injury and death.
The metropolitan area gets more crowded every year; passenger loads increase; the infrastructure, instead of being fortified, instead is crumbling. We need better emergency response now, before it's too late.
It started with an all-too-familiar incident: an NJ Transit train had become stuck; one passenger reported the train had just entered the trans-Hudson tunnel when there was a bump, a flash, and the train suddenly stopped. The train, reportedly #3850 from Trenton due into New York at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, remained motionless in the Hudson River tunnel and did not reach Penn Station until about 6 p.m. Aboard the train, with no power to provide fresh air, riders became increasingy concerned; reportedly one passenger fainted, and another broke out an emergency window. Riders complained that there was a lack of information: first they were told the train would be towed, then that they would be evacuated. Finally, the train sat as Amtrak had to inspect it before it could move. But as it turned out, the stuck riders were the lucky ones.
At Penn Station, delays multiplied as trains were rerouted around the stuck train; delays increased to an hour or so through the evening rush hour. The station became crowded as thousands of riders waited for their delayed trains. Riders seeking the Midtown Direct trains to the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines of NJ Transit were directed to Hoboken; they headed for PATH trains and ferries in the hope of getting home somehow. They too were lucky.
In the crowded station, an individual became unruly and Amtrak police used a Taser to subdue him; he protested, "I'm not resisting. This is only my mouth. I have freedom of speech." (Some reports say that the person subdued by the police was a passenger on the train that had been stuck.) Perhaps due to the noise of the Taser, and with everyone on the alert due to well-publicized terrorist attacks worldwide, the word spread: there was a shooter; shots had been fired. Multiple calls to 911 brought a heavy response from New York City police and National Guard personnel. No shots had been fired; there was no terrorist. But the crowd panicked, running for station exits, stumbling, falling, leaving possessions behind. Some recorded the panic on their cell phones, providing ample fodder for evening newscasts. These showed people running and stumbling through the station corridors, notably along the upper-level corrdidor that leads to the exit at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street. And on the NJ Transit 7th Avenue concourse, ropes and posts that had guided riders to the ticket windows lay on the ground, testimony to the flood of humanity that had apparently trampled them. One report said 16 people were injured in the stampede. Mayor de Blasio tweeted that "no shots were fired" and that Fire Department paramedics were treating the injured.
By 10 p.m. NJ Transit was still announcing delays of up to two hours as the system struggled to get back to normal. Out on the Gladstone branch, where the last train should arrive around 1:30 a.m., a westbound train was heard passing over an hour later, suggesting that delays continue until the close of business at NJ Transit.
The widely ballyhooed Gateway project to rebuild and expand New York's Penn Station is just a "Gateway to megadebt," according to an opinion piece by Paul Mulshine in the Star-Ledger (April 13). Mulshine took a walking tour of midtown Manhattan with retired Long Island Rail Road executive (and Lackawanna Coalition member) Joe Clift, and said he learned that the problem with Gateway, as well as its predecessor Access to the Region's Core (ARC) is pork -- political pork barrel, not the kind served at Brother Jimmy's BBQ, a Manhattan restaurant that is located on a Manhattan city block that would have to be razed -- all 64 real estate parcels -- if the full Gateway expansion were to happen. We need tunnels, but the tunnels are only a small part of the total expenditure for Gateway, $24 billion and likely to increase, say Mulshine and Clift, once the project attempts to acquire those parcels. What we need to do is to go back to the original 1995 tunnel plan before ARC got politicized and trimmed down to a deep-cavern station 180 feet deep near Macy's. And the original plan would have gone beyond Penn Station with tunnels to Grand Central Terminal, an underutilized facility on the East Side of Manhattan -- where many commuters want to go. Where will the money come from for Gateway? Recent developments in Washington show that the Feds are backing away from their commitment to all new transit projects, including Gateway; and as for New Jersey's half of the project, "we're broke," Mulshine writes. A third, single-track tunnel would only cost "a couple billion bucks," said Clift, and would provide an alternative for train traffic while the crumbling, hundred-year-old tunnels can be rehabbed. Later could come a fourth tunnel and maybe that connection to Grand Central. "Or," Mulshine writes, "we could just keep loading up the Gateway project with pork and hope The Donald sends a big check . . . that could happen . . . but pigs will fly before it does."
If you think New York's transit situation is bad, it will only get worse, if infrastructure continues to be neglected. That's the theme of an opinion piece in the New York Times (April 11) by the U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey. In the column, Sens. Booker, Gillibrand, Menendez, and Schumer warned that if we don't act "soon" to repair the aging and flood-damaged tunnels under the Hudson, the recent chaos due to a train derailment (see article below) will become "a permanent reality." They then go on to describe Amtrak's Gateway project, which would include two new tunnels along with many other improvements. The senators warn that key Federal funding sources needed to implement Gateway would be slashed in the budget that President Trump has proposed. Gateway is important, the senators added, but is only "an illustration of the country’s immense need for infrastructure investments." They contrasted the President's stated commitment to massive infrastructure investment, but lack of specifics and budget cuts instead, with what they said were Democrats' actual plans to invest in the country's infrastructure. If the budget proposals go forward, the senators warned of a "hair-raising transit apocalypse" to come.
The Lackawanna Coalition is dubious that funding can be secured for the very expensive Gateway project; the essential component is the tunnels, which can be built for a fraction of the total cost of Gateway; only one single-track tunnel would avoid the "apocalypse" the senators envision. Two tunnels, of course, would be better, if the money can be found.