It’s already been a difficult spring for commuters who take New Jersey Transit trains into New York every day for work, and now federal officials are warning that it could also be a long summer, thanks to a series of major repairs that are being fast-tracked at Manhattan’s Penn Station.
Starting next month, Amtrak will close a number of tracks inside the station to accommodate the repair work. And yesterday, officials said that could cause delays and schedule disruptions that would likely impact NJ Transit service into the fall.
The announcement comes in the wake of two recent derailments inside the aging station, and amid a stepped-up effort by Amtrak to inspect problem areas that had already been tagged for maintenance. Although the infrastructure is owned by the federal government and New Jersey pays rent to use it, the recent problems have turned up the heat on NJ Transit and Gov. Chris Christie, as commuters who have been stung by two fare hikes since the Republican governor took office in early 2010 have been looking for people to blame.
Criticisms from Christie
Christie — who has been an outspoken critic of Amtrak’s stewardship of the infrastructure in recent weeks — told reporters after a public event in Jersey City yesterday that he’s not happy about the current situation, but he’s glad the necessary repair work will now get done. Steven Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director, told reporters following a legislative hearing in Trenton yesterday that he expects within the next few days to get more details from Amtrak about how the repair effort will affect his own agency and its customers.
“We’re all in this together,” Santoro said.
The repair work announced by Amtrak officials yesterday during a conference call with reporters was originally scheduled to be done over a longer period in an effort to ease any disruptions at the busy commuter hub. But the new schedule calls for the infrastructure upgrades to occur between May and sometime in the fall. And additional work, to be done on the weekends, will last through June 2018.
“We take our responsibilities as owner and operator very seriously,” Amtrak president and chief executive officer Charles Moorman said during the conference call.
“The events of the last month have shown we just have to step up our game there,” he went on to say.
But Moorman could not say exactly how many tracks would need to be taken out of service at a given time, or for how long, suggesting those details still need to be worked out with officials from NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, which also uses the station to shuttle commuters into midtown Manhattan.
A cost estimate for the repair work is also not yet available, Moorman said.
“This is not going to be a cheap thing to do, obviously,” he said.
Off the track
Last month, after the second of the two derailments occurred, the agency was forced to close eight of the station’s 21 tracks for roughly a week for emergency repairs. That disruption caused major delays and crowded conditions on NJ Transit trains, and enraged customers who used social media to air their complaints, some directed at Christie personally.
The infrastructure headaches have also put new attention on Christie’s own decision to cancel a major trans-Hudson tunnel project during his first year in office, largely over concerns about a potential for cost overruns. That project was originally scheduled to be completed by sometime next year.
But Christie has also gone on the offensive in the wake of the recent train problems, calling out Amtrak for letting the infrastructure deteriorate even as New Jersey has been stepping up its rent payments to the agency in recent years. Christie at one point also threatened to hold back the state’s payments, and also called for New Jersey to play a bigger role in Amtrak’s inspection effort following the second derailment, which left several NJ Transit customers with minor injuries.
Doing the best for commuters
“The whole purpose of my talking about this from the beginning was to hold them to account to do the things they’re doing,” Christie said yesterday. “As far as the commuters go, we’re going to try to do the best we can for them as well.”
Santoro, during his appearance before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton yesterday, was pressed by lawmakers to explain what they’re supposed to tell constituents who won’t be happy to hear about the likelihood for even more commuting delays.
“The good news is that Amtrak is taking seriously the issue of the infrastructure in and around Penn Station. That is the good news,” Santoro said.
“Obviously, safety is the priority, but we need to assess how that plan is going to impact our customers, certainly our customers and also the economic vitality of northern New Jersey and all of New Jersey,” he went on to say.
Cancellations and delays
“If they’re talking about cancellations and delays we need to analyze that very quickly in terms of the impact to our customers,” Santoro said. “It’s our job to assess what that impact is going to be and it cannot be egregious.”
But Santoro’s agency has also been put under the microscope in recent months as lawmakers have been raising a number of questions about the agency’s finances and safety record in the wake of a fatal train accident that occurred last year at Hoboken Terminal. Repairs at that facility are still underway.
Santoro said NJ Transit is on course to meet a federal mandate to install by the end of next year positive train control (PTC) equipment that matches train speed to track conditions and can override an engineer to automatically slow or stop a train before it crashes. A PTC test track has already been set up, and new employees are being hired to help support the system, Santoro said. New staff is also being added to boost track maintenance and other rail services, he said.
“I can unequivocally say that our railroad is safe,” Santoro said. “There’s a lot of focus on track safety.”
Before the hearing started, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said the recent renewal of the state Transportation Trust Fund — fueled by last year’s 23-cent gas-tax hike — means there is now more money available for infrastructure upgrades that should benefit NJ Transit and its customers in the coming years.
Sarlo also said the repair work that will now be done at Penn Station is important for the region’s economy given the number of New Jersey residents who have jobs across the river in New York.
“Penn Station is so important to the economy in North Jersey,” Sarlo said. “I feel for the commuters.”