Amtrak Announces Plan for Accelerated Repairs

By Brenda Flanagan

The bad news? Expect aggravating delays, track closures and cancellations. Thousands of New Jersey Transit rail commuters into and out of New York’s Penn Station will encounter service disruptions that could be significant, as Amtrak accelerates repairs to failing tracks, signals and infrastructure — focused on the so-called A-Interlocking routing hub. That’s where trains leaving the tunnel in New York can switch to 21 tracks. Work will start next month and run through June 2018, Amtrak estimates.

“What can we make of what Amtrak announced today?” asked Sen. Paul Sarlo.

NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro said, “So, the good news is that Amtrak is taking seriously the issues of the infrastructure in and around Penn Station. That is the good news.”

“The problem is, it’s going to cause a lot of inconvenience along the way. But this should’ve been done and what we now know is that if it’s not done, we’re going to continue to have the kind of derailments and other issues that we’ve seen over the course of time,” Gov. Chris Christie said.

Amtrak’s decision to spend millions and ramp up its repair schedule follows two recent derailments within a month, and trains twice getting stalled in the problematic tunnel beneath the Hudson.

CEO Wick Moorman explained Amtrak will now compress a three-year repair timetable, down to one, stating, “Without these improvements, Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road could continue to see major disruptions, which could also have an impact on passenger safety,” and he promised, “…to plan this work in order to minimize disruptions and inconvenience for our customers who rely on us for service.”

But Amtrak’s announcement didn’t detail how many tracks would close, or when, and commuters already feel abused.

“What do you say to the commuters of North Jersey. Be patient? What do we tell these folks? We know these repairs need to be done, but frustration is mounting, anxiety is mounting,” said Sarlo.

“We need to assess how that plan is going to impact our customers, and certainly customers, but also the economic vitality of certainly northern New Jersey and all of New Jersey. I’m also a little concerned about potential revenue hits if we’re cutting service to do these improvements, which clearly need to be done,” Santoro said.

Penn Station handles 20 NJ Transit trains an hour during the rush and more than 80 percent of NJ Transit’s rail customers travel the Northeast Corridor. It’s an economic engine and the derailments prompted an angry Christie to order NJ Transit to withhold its regular payments to Amtrak until the infrastructure problems were addressed.

“It’s what I was looking for. Remember, at the time, I said this was not to be punitive, just do what we’re paying you for. And so if in fact this plan meets what we’ve been paying them for then I’d be happy to continue to make the payments. If the work’s being done. If the work’s not being done I wasn’t going to make the payments,” Christie said.

Amtrak also proposed the three railroads at Penn Station create a joint concourse operations center to strengthen coordination and improve its response to disruptions. It will review protocol about how to handle disabled trains and will train a mobile response team to address overcrowding during peak periods.

NJ Transit officials will meet with Amtrak on Monday to determine just how severely these repairs will impact customer service. Meanwhile, expect some fireworks tomorrow when Amtrak’s CEO and New Jersey Transit’s executive director appear before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.