June 14, 2024

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Why is Amtrak responsible for a hellish night for New Jersey commuters?

Why is Amtrak responsible for a hellish night for New Jersey commuters?

At 5:05 p.m. Wednesday, as the evening rush hour steamed, an overhead wire carrying traffic signals fell and struck a cable providing electrical power to trains on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor in Kearney, New Jersey, a few miles west of the city of Kearney. New York City.

This contact caused an “explosion” that halted service on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains in both directions between Penn Station in Manhattan and Newark. With no trains moving to and from New York across the Hudson River, the disruption extended down the line to Philadelphia and beyond, leaving passengers stranded along tracks and stations filled with disgruntled travelers.

With delays lasting more than four hours, many passengers abandoned rail lines and paid exorbitant fares to Uber and other ride-hailing services to get home. Service was not restored until after 10 p.m., and remaining traces were transferred to the Thursday morning flight.

Amtrak officials had no explanation Thursday for why the wire was down. But the collapse appears to be unrelated to a problem Tuesday morning with wiring in a tunnel under the Hudson River, which led to a delay of up to 60 minutes. Separately, New Jersey Transit on Thursday warned of delays of up to an hour due to signal problems at Amtrak's Dock Bridge in Newark.

Thomas K. said: “This is really the result of decades of underinvestment in the system,” said Wright, CEO of the Regional Plan Association, who was among the passengers left in the lurch on Wednesday. (Standed in Newark on his way to Princeton, he found two strangers willing to share an Uber with him. Fare: $116. Tip: $50.)

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For too long, Amtrak has not had enough federal funding to maintain the tracks and equipment it has, said Wright, whose organization conducts research on transportation and infrastructure in the New York metropolitan area. In recent years, with an infusion of money from the Biden administration, Amtrak has been trying to catch up with improvements along the corridor, which is narrowing to just two tracks between Newark and Manhattan.

Anthony R. said: “Overcoming many decades of underinvestment in passenger rail will not be accomplished overnight,” Coccia, Amtrak's chairman, said when he was renominated in June.

Work has begun on the early stages of a sprawling project known as “Gateway” that would remove that bottleneck and add a two-lane tunnel under the Hudson River. But this $30 billion project will take at least a decade to complete.

Until then, Mr. Wright said, “this system will continue to fail.”

New Jersey Transit operates the state's largest network of trains and buses. Its trains carry about 130,000 passengers to and from New York City each weekday on average, according to the agency.

But the main railway line running through central New Jersey – the Northeast Corridor – was out of its control. Amtrak owns the tracks and its trains have priority. New Jersey Transit owns most of its other lines but is chartered on the busiest sector, the two routes that connect to New York City.

However, many New Jersey passengers are still at Amtrak's mercy because they cannot get to and from Manhattan without rolling onto Amtrak's rails, across its bridges or through its tunnel.

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“There are several weak links in the chain between New York and Newark,” Mr. Wright said. As an example, he cited the 114-year-old Portal Bridge, which sometimes causes delays for thousands of passengers when it opens to allow small boats to pass on the Hackensack River.

If this section of the corridor had four tracks like the New York subway, he said, it was possible to close one or two tracks for maintenance or emergencies without stopping all traffic.

New Jersey Governor Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, sent an angry letter to Mr. Coccia on Thursday, writing that he refused to accept “Amtrak’s infrastructure challenges as an inevitable part of the operation of integrated mass transit systems.” New Jersey Transit is paying Amtrak more than $100 million as a “lessee” and expects more investment in improvements and updated emergency management plans, he said.

In response, Amtrak Executive Vice President Jerry Williams apologized and said, “We will implement any changes to avoid a similar incident like yesterday from happening again.”

One of New Jersey Transit's saving graces is that it has a station in Hoboken, New Jersey, that acts as a relief valve. During disruptions like the one on Wednesday, some passengers take PATH trains or New York Waterway ferries across the Hudson River to Hoboken and board trains that circumvent the bottleneck.

These other transit systems typically honor New Jersey Transit riders' tickets and are later reimbursed by the agency.

Amtrak and other transit agencies have been trying to untie this knot for decades, with intermittent support from Washington.

More than 15 years ago, New Jersey Transit began work on a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would have led to a new station buried under 34th Street near the Macy's flagship store. This project would have provided an alternative for riders when things go wrong on the corridor. But Chris Christie, then New Jersey's Republican governor, canceled the project in 2010 over concerns about how much it would cost his state.

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The Gateway Project is the long-awaited successor to that plan. It would dramatically increase capacity across the Hudson River and at Penn Station – if all of its components were completed.

The first phase, the $2 billion Portal Bridge replacement, is half built and scheduled for completion in 2026. The comprehensive plan includes replacing other bridges and adding tracks in northern New Jersey and at Penn Station. A new two-lane tunnel will be built between them under the Hudson River, and its cost is estimated at $16 billion.

The Gateway Development Commission, created to oversee the sprawling project, is in the final stages of applying to the federal government to cover half that cost. New Jersey and New York have agreed to divide the other half.

Once the new tunnel is completed, Amtrak will be able to take some of its aging infrastructure, including the current century-old Hudson Tunnel, out of service for extensive repairs.

After suffering through the transport crisis on Wednesday, Mr Wright, along with thousands of other passengers, said: “None of this should come as a surprise. That's why we need the portal.”