NJ Lawmakers Grill Amtrak Officials Over Train Troubles

April 28, 2017 | Politics, Transportation
They wanted an explanation why Amtrak’s infrastructure kept going off the rails.

By Brenda Flanagan

“These delays and cancellations affect people’s lives,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio.

Maher Muoio and other lawmakers spent hours venting to Amtrak officials about how the recent plague of trains stalling and derailing at New York’s Penn Station threatens people’s safety and utterly explodes their commuting constituents’ lives.

“These are missed soccer games, missed school productions, missed family meals,” Maher Muoio said. “It’s workers who stress every day that they’re going to miss a meeting, be docked pay, lose their jobs.”

“We cannot afford to play Russian roulette with the lives and livelihoods of our commuters,” said Sen. Bob Gordon. “We know that both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit have been underfunded for years, but we need to know why emergency repairs were not made to the New York Penn Station tracks prior to the derailments.”

A joint hearing of the Assembly Judiciary and Senate Legislative Oversight Committees wanted an explanation why Amtrak’s infrastructure kept going off the rails. The basic answer: it’s more than a century old and handles significantly more train traffic than it was ever designed for — 1,300 weekday train movements. That hampers maintenance crews from fixing a growing list of problems.

“It is the most complex, difficult place that could ever be imagined to do track work. It’s just that simple,” said Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman.

“We have balanced the need for service, the need for maintenance against each other,” said Amtrak Executive Vice President and COO Scot Naparstek. “We’ve done everything we can to keep the station safe and running well. The stress that we’re putting on the station is increasing.”

Lawmakers demanded to know how an accelerated repair project announced yesterday will impact commuters and got bad news. It will require shutting down at least one track — if not more — for major work this summer.

“This will require two or three significant outages during the summer,” Moorman said.

Amtrak hopes to finish most of the work by Labor Day. Lawmakers warned Amtrak and New Jersey Transit needed to keep lawmakers in the loop.

“It’s a big deal. And you got to let everybody know this Tuesday, this Friday, whatever — it’s going to be screwed up. And you got to get it out there really loudly,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

But transportation guru Martin Robins said Amtrak should never have allowed the station and tracks to deteriorate this badly, for so long, in the first place.

“It’s just sad that we had to come to this point,” he said. When asked if they didn’t see this coming, he said, “Somebody could have. That’s really a very important question that wasn’t pursued.”

Democrats blasted Gov. Chris Christie, noting his cancelling the ARC train tunnel contributed to this current crisis, which won’t be relieved until the new Gateway train tunnel project under the Hudson is built — assuming it gets funding from the Trump administration. New Jersey Transit’s executive director expressed deep frustration that it’s a major player and pays fees for Amtrak facilities but has had little control over maintenance decisions.

Biggest lesson learned?

“It’s no secret that New Jersey Transit has been criticized over several even years that our customer notifications during events was less than robust,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro.

NJ Transit says it’s trying to upgrade its service announcements for customers. Meanwhile some frustrated commuters are launching a protest called #NoPayMay. They’ll be offering April’s monthly rail pass for payment on Monday, May 1.