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Christie, Cuomo Want Independent Review of Penn Station Problems

After latest train derailment, governors want outside ‘verification of track safety’ at the timeworn transit hub

christie and cuomo
New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie (left) and New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Not content with sitting on the sidelines while federal officials assess infrastructure at New York’s Penn Station after last week’s New Jersey Transit derailment, Gov. Chris Christie and his New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo are calling for an independent review of the station’s recent problems.

The two governors said in a joint letter that was sent to federal officials yesterday that they want “independent verification of track safety” at Amtrak-owned Penn Station, which sees nearly 200,000 daily commuters coming into New York on NJ Transit trains and another 230,000 passengers riding the Long Island Rail Road.

“These riders, residents of our states, deserve safe and reliable rail service,” Christie and Cuomo said in the letter, which was sent to Amtrak chief executive officer Wick Moorman and Federal Railroad Administration executive director Patrick Warren.

Derailment Penn Station
The latest derailment took place at New York Penn Station on April 3.

The call for an independent review comes a week after the derailment of an NJ Transit train in Penn Station left several passengers with minor injuries, and also caused a painful week of disrupted commutes for thousands of train riders as eight of the station’s 21 tracks were taken out of service for several days to allow for repairs. The derailment was blamed on rotted wood inside the more than 100-year-old station, which was also the scene of a similar Amtrak Acela derailment on March 24.

Federal officials said they would carry out inspection

In the wake of the two incidents, federal officials announced last week that they are launching a complete inspection of all station infrastructure, as well as a review of maintenance protocols. They also promised to share results of the review with officials from the New Jersey and New York rail agencies.

But Christie and Cuomo said that, since their respective states aren’t being offered a chance to participate directly in the assessment, they want an independent review. Though Christie is a Republican and Cuomo is a Democrat, the two governors have worked closely together in the past on transportation issues, including on capital projects at the Port Authority and on the finance plan for the Gateway trans-Hudson rail-tunnel project. “Specifically, this comprehensive review should take into account the causes of the recent failures at Penn Station and any needed changes to the processes by which routine maintenance and emergency repairs are performed,” the governors’ letter said.

“Severe service disruptions at Penn Station not only impact and inconvenience riders, but also create a ripple effect across the region,” the letter went on.

New Jersey lawmakers, meanwhile, have announced they will be holding a joint hearing of Senate and Assembly committees on April 28 to review conditions at Penn Station and the contingency plans that are in place at NJ Transit during such events. Officials from both NJ Transit and Amtrak are expected to attend the legislative hearing.

Old infrastructure

The two recent derailments were just the latest problems for the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, a key East Coast transportation system that links Washington, D.C. to Boston. In New Jersey, NJ Transit pays rent to Amtrak to use the infrastructure, which includes Penn Station. But the station and the two rail tunnels that allow trains to travel under the Hudson River are more than 100 years old; moreover, the tunnels were extensively damaged by flooding during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

Amtrak officials blamed the first derailment on mismatched rail along a curve inside the station that created a “step-like condition.” The second derailment was caused by “defective wood ties” that had previously been identified as a problem.

“I apologize to everyone who has been inconvenienced by the recent delays and cancellations at New York Penn Station,” Moorman said in a statement issued late last week. “It's our job to make sure that commuters and intercity passengers can safely and reliably travel along the Northeast Corridor and we know we let them down with these recent derailments.”

“Our customers and partners deserve better,” Moorman said.

Commuters lash out on social media

But NJ Transit and even Christie also felt some heat last week as the disruptions caused by the latest derailment dragged on for days, leaving commuters with long lines and frequent delays as they trudged to and from work. The same frustrated commuters have had to deal with two NJ Transit fare hikes since Christie took office in early 2010, and many lashed out on social media last week as other forms of transportation, including bus service and the region’s highways, were inundated by those seeking alternative ways into Manhattan.

Transit funding was also a hot topic for lawmakers during budget committee hearings in Trenton last week.

The derailments have also highlighted Christie’s 2010 decision to cancel construction of a trans-Hudson tunnel project that was championed by his Democratic predecessor Jon Corzine. Called Access-to-the-Region’s Core, the tunnel would have doubled capacity for trains heading in and out of Manhattan from New Jersey. But Christie canceled the project — which could have opened as early as 2018 — over cost concerns and the likelihood that it would come in over budget. The new tunnels planned as part of the Gateway project won’t be completed for at least a decade, and new questions have emerged in recent weeks about whether President Trump’s administration will honor the federal government’s commitment to fund half of the project’s more than $20 billion cost.

Last week, Christie also lashed out, directing his anger at Amtrak. He said New Jersey would withhold its payments to the federal agency until the federal infrastructure problems are improved. “We’ve asked them to step up their game, and they haven’t, so maybe I will get their attention by not paying them,” Christie said.

McKeon: ‘… I don’t want to hear excuses’

Meanwhile, the legislative hearing that will be held later this month is being organized by both the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The two panels have held a series of hearings in recent months in the wake of a fatal NJ Transit accident that occurred last year at Hoboken Terminal. The agenda for the April 28 hearing calls for both state and federal officials to be on hand to discuss issues like infrastructure maintenance, contingency planning, and funding.

“Both NJ Transit and Amtrak have some answering to do, and I don’t want to hear excuses or blaming others,” said John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

“NJ Transit makes payments to Amtrak for use of the Northeast Corridor, and we have a right to expect a state of maintenance that keeps our passengers safe,” said Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. “But we also have a right to expect better contingency planning, communication and customer service from NJ Transit when accidents occur, no matter which agency is at fault.”

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