- Published: 04 April 2017
- Written by John Bobsin
Service returned to near-normal on Friday, April 7 after four days of disrupted service on all three rail carriers using New York's Penn Station. The chaos started around 9 a.m. on Monday, April 3, when an NJ Transit inbound train derailed while entering the station. Later in the week, Amtrak determined that the cause was "misaligned rails" at a critical switching point, and blamed the defect on deteriorated crosstie timbers beneath the rails. Amtrak, which owns and maintains the station complex, said it had been aware of the deterioration, but hadn't appreciated how serious the problem had become; Amtrak vowed to re-inspect all of its Penn Station trackage. Amtrak's analysis was reported (April 7) by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Nick Corasaniti in the New York Times; they said the deteriorated timbers allowd the rails to spread and the train's wheels to drop between the rails. Amtrak had hoped to complete repairs in time for the morning rush hour on Friday, but work continued for several hours, causing delays and cancelation of 14 trains on the Long Island Rail Road Friday morning. By the evening rush on Friday, apparently all tracks were opened and service was close to normal. As a hedge against possible continuing problems, NJ Transit announced that cross-honoring of tickets with PATH and ferries would continue through 3 a.m. on Saturday, April 8.
The incident was an eerie reprise of the Amtrak derailment on March 24 (see story below). In the April 3 incident, inbound NJ Transit peak-hour Northeast Corridor train 3926 derailed at low speed while negotiating its entry into Track 9 at New York's Penn Station. Three cars of the train derailed around 9 a.m., and at least five of the 1200 riders were injured, although reportedly none of the injuries were serious. The train, one of the fastest runs on the railroad, runs nonstop from Princeton Junction to Newark. The two events in less than two weeks were bound to raise speculation that the rail infrastructure was becoming unreliable. By Thursday, both New York's MTA and NJ Gov. Christie were criticizing Amtrak for poor track maintenance, with Christie issuing a letter to Amtrak suspending NJ Transit's payments to Amtrak for use of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks, and even asking his attorney general to claw back NJT's past payments, pending a "thorough and independent examination of track, signals, switches and other equipment maintained by Amtrak." But New Jersey commuters were reportedly blaming Christie's cutbacks in NJT's funding and his general lack of attention to transit issues for what they see as an increasingly rickety system, whether or not Amtrak bears responsibility for the chaos the week of April 3.
To cope with the reduced station capacity, for four days NJ Transit ran its Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line trains on a "enhanced holiday" schedule, with far fewer trains in peak hours. Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton line "Midtown Direct" trains were diverted to the railroad's Hoboken terminal, where acute crowding resulted, aggravated by restricted access corridors owing to ongoing repairs after a September 29 crash of an inbound train that closed the principal walkway to the connecting PATH rapid transit system. A bystander in the station died in that incident. Long Island Rail Road canceled peak hour trains all week, and Amtrak modified its Northeast Corridor, Keystone, and Empire Service schedules.
Reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (April 5) said that by Tuesday, a "relatively minor mishap" had "casdaded into a transportation crisis, snarling travel up and down the East Coast, upending the lives of thousands of people, and vividly illustrating the fragile state of infrastructure in the nation's busiest transit corridor." The derailment occurred at a critical switching point, taking eight of the station's 21 tracks out of service; equipment was damaged that would apparently take at least several days to repair. Amtrak, responsible for the track, said it could not predict when repairs would be complete. According to the Times article, "Hoboken Terminal . . . became an extraordinary scene of gridlock as passengers leaving NJT trains struggled to make their way to PATH trains, buses, and ferries bound for Manhattan." Police even had to barricade the stairs leading to PATH to control the mob. Commuters reported increased travel times; one rider from South Orange said it took two hours to reach her job at NYU. Some riders to Trenton on the Northeast Corridor even paid the $60 Amtrak fare to get home.