No ‘Summer of Hell’ Repeat for NJ Transit Riders During New Penn Station Repairs

John Reitmeyer | May 21, 2018 | Transportation
Uncertainty over funding for planned new trans-Hudson rail tunnel won’t affect Amtrak’s ongoing upgrades to infrastructure

Credit: Amtrak
Penn Station NYC repair
While the fate of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel remains in question thanks to Republicans in Washington, D.C., Amtrak officials say they are making good progress on an ongoing project to repair infrastructure deep inside Penn Station in New York City.

Work at the busy commuter hub will continue into this summer. However, Amtrak officials believe the next phase of the infrastructure upgrades will not bring on anywhere near the type of disruption that New Jersey Transit customers experienced last summer during the expedited repairs at Penn Station that were known as the Summer of Hell due to significant route diversions.

“The actual interruption due to the track work we’re doing this summer is significantly reduced from that of last year,” said Scot Naparstek, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, during a conference call Friday.

In the latest phase of repairs that began earlier this year, workers have already finished improvements to tracks 15 and 18; they are also on pace to finish by the end of this month repairs that are being made in a part of the station known as the “C” Interlocking, Naparstek said.

That progress has allowed the federal agency to schedule a new phase of repairs that will include an overhaul of Track 19, he said.

Owned by the federal government, New York Penn Station is the busiest rail hub in North America, serving more than 500,000 Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit customers daily. NJ Transit pays rent to Amtrak to use the station, along with other infrastructure the two agencies share on the portion of the Northeast Corridor that bisects New Jersey.

The tunnel controversy

After two derailments occurred inside Penn Station last year, Amtrak officials decided to launch major repairs to restore Track 10 within the station, as well as a section known as “A” Interlocking. That work is what brought on the Summer of Hell service disruptions, including diversions to Hoboken between July and September of thousands of commuters who normally have direct service into Manhattan on NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex lines.

The infrastructure headaches also brought new attention to former Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to cancel a major trans-Hudson tunnel project that called for NJ Transit trains to travel into a new terminus that was to be built around the corner from Penn Station. The plans for that project, dubbed Access to the Region’s Core, called for it to be completed sometime this year.

Eight years later, Christie agreed to support another, more ambitious infrastructure program called Gateway; that also calls for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel and other improvements, including a replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge near Secaucus Junction. But the administration of President Donald Trump has yet to back up a commitment made by former President Barack Obama’s administration to provide up to half of the Gateway program’s cost. And now some Republicans in Congress are encouraging Trump’s use of a rarely employed tool known as “rescission” to strike rail funding from the latest federal spending bill; that could result in the removal of some $541 million that had been earmarked for Gateway.

June 8 through July 20

But the uncertainty over the planned new rail tunnel is not affecting Amtrak’s ongoing improvement project inside Penn Station. Work on Track 19 is scheduled to begin on June 8 and last through July 20, Naparstek said. The agency is also replacing tracks this summer in what’s known as the Empire Tunnel, which is used to provide service to upstate New York, including Albany. Electrical and mechanical repairs at the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, a swing span that links Manhattan to the Bronx, are also planned for this summer.

Even more repairs are expected to be needed inside Penn Station in the future, but Naparstek didn’t say on Friday which areas could be targeted for upgrades or how significant that work would be. “At this point, we’re getting ready to launch the summer work, which is vital work for us,” he said. “We’re not in a position where we’re ready to discuss (any future improvements).”