Amtrak‘s cascade of track troubles have been causing interminable delays that have escalated tensions among NJ Transit commuters. Anyone looking for a light at the end of the tunnel will find no new tunnel in the works. NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz sat down with the man who knows more about transit than just about anyone — Martin Robins, former NJ Transit deputy executive director and founding director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center.
Cruz: I want to start with some headlines from today. Today, Amtrak announcing that they’re possibly, they’re considering closing tracks in New York Penn for an extended period and coincidentally enough NJ Transit announcing today that commuters should expect train delays for the foreseeable future. Is this the beginning of that prophetized transit apocalypse that we all heard about?
Robins: I hope not, but it is a taste of the transit apocalypse. I know that we’ve said for many years that if we lose one of the existing tunnels and we have to operate on a one tunnel system we would have six trains per the peak hour coming from New Jersey into New York instead of a total of 24, combination of Amtrak and NJ Transit. That is a 75 percent reduction. What we’ll probably be facing is something considerably less of a reduction than that, but a taste of what it would be like as you start to strangle, get strangled by the interlocking tracks that come out of the tunnel and go into the platforms.
Cruz: I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Talk a little bit about what these tracks are and where they lead and why closing some of them down is so dangerous and terrible.
Robins: You have to picture in your mind the way the tracks are laid out at the point where the tunnels empty into Penn Station. Let’s say we have one tunnel that is operating eastbound into Penn Station. As that track enters the open facility and Penn Station, the tracks begin to fan out and they begin to fan out in a way in which they are interlocked, they crisscross, and they crisscross, and they crisscross and they crisscross until trains have an adequate route to go from the tunnel all the way to another track. NJ Transit operates from, generally, between track one and track 14, with some of those tracks less used than others. But that means that once the train comes out of the tunnel they need to be able to sort out between 14 different tracks.
Cruz: Now this represents a change in Amtrak policy in a sense that a lot of these closures would have taken place overnight or during the weekend, and now they’re saying let’s bite the bullet. Do you think that’s a better strategy going forward?
Robins: Well, it sounds like a strategy that has to happen. And the part, really the question that we have to answer is why is this happening? I mean it shouldn’t, it absolutely should not. There is a relationship. Amtrak is the manager of the facility. NJ Transit pays a substantial amount of money that has been decreed by the Northeast Corridor Commission.
Cruz: You say it shouldn’t happen, but how could we expect that it shouldn’t happen? These things are 100 years old.
Robins: Railroads have the capacity to be able to maintain a limited stretch of track like this. It’s limited as complex as they come. Those interlocking tracks that we were just talking about, it’s incredible, it’s like jewelry. But Amtrak is charged in its ownership in Penn Station to be able to manage that and keep it going. Nothing has happened that’s extraordinary. I mean, Superstorm Sandy didn’t destroy that particular part of the railroad. There are problems inside the tunnels but that’s separate.
Cruz: So no excuse. What’s the excuse?
Robins: That’s what I don’t understand. I’m flabbergasted that this is happening and I think that what you really have to wonder is what kind of management controls have been in place at both Amtrak and secondarily at NJ Transit to oversee the continued maintenance of the tracks. This is not acceptable.
Cruz: This past month the governor and NJ Transit management have found a very convenient foil in Amtrak. Is it fair?
Robins: No, not entirely. I think that the story still has to be investigated. I don’t think that it’s entirely fair. I point to the fact that for the early years of the Christie administration, the number of dollars that NJ Transit contributed to Amtrak maintenance of the Northeast Corridor and Penn Station in particular significantly was reduced.
Cruz: He will tell you, as he told me, to much public acclaim that I’m wrong for suggesting that they have been underfunded. That if you look at the whole scope of his seven and a half years that they’re actually getting as much money as they always have or a little more.
Robins: Aside from the recent increase in capital funding through the Transportation Trust Fund revival, I don’t believe that’s at all true.
Cruz: Because they moved the money from the Turnpike Authority and from something called Clean Air Fund.
Robins: All they did, for the Clean Air Fund, all they did was just simply maintain the level of funding. They did not increase the level of funding.
Cruz: Let me ask you this in the 30 seconds that I have left. Everybody seems to think the TTF is going to come to the rescue and some people said, “Oh, I’ll be happy to pay a 23 cent gas tax if the TTF comes to the rescue.” Is it going to come to the rescue?
Robins: It’s going to help. It’s going to allow NJ Transit to pay the proper amount of money to Amtrak to enable these facilities to be maintained. It will be very helpful.
Cruz: All right, Martin Robins, thank you so much as always for coming in.