You know the New York Penn-centered NJ Transit traffic tangle has reached critical mass when the governors of both New Jersey and New York co-sign a letter telling Amtrak to turn over operations to a qualified private contractor. A fact-finding force of New Jersey lawmakers toured the spaghetti bowl of tracks today. The State Senate Transportation Committee Vice Chair Bob Gordon gave NJTV News Correspondent Brenda Flanagan an update.
Flanagan: Joining us is Sen. Bob Gordon who’s chair of the Legislative Oversight Committee, vice chair for the Transportation Committee representing District 38. Welcome.
Gordon: Good to be here.
Flanagan: And today you took a momentous tour. You went over to New York Penn Station and essentially down into, I don’t know, what some commuters might consider the ninth circle of hell where they’ve been experiencing so many track problems. Can you describe what you saw down there? What was it like?
Gordon: Well, first of all, we started in Trenton and went the length from Trenton through Elizabeth and Newark, picking up some additional colleagues, and then into the tunnels, the Sandy damaged tunnels. And this train car we were on had this glass, large glass picture window. The car itself is used by Amtrak for inspecting tunnels and facilities.
Flanagan: So you’ve got a picture on the whole thing?
Gordon: Yeah. And you see the tracks go from four tracks to three tracks. And as you get closer to the city, where you really need the capacity, down to two tracks, across the Portal Bridge built over 100 years ago, which often gets stuck and is the choke point of the entire Northeast Corridor into the tunnels, you could see the Sandy damage, you could see the water line along the walls. The electrical system installed in the 1930s, which is what they’re trying to keep together every weekend with these temporary repairs. And then into Hades.
Flanagan: Into Hades. Is that, you’re talking A-Interlocking hub where it comes out and there’s 21 tracks?
Gordon: There are two, on one side of Penn Station there are two tunnels coming from the Hudson from New Jersey and then four tunnels across the East River. So we came in from the west and what I found most fascinating is, you might think there would just be parallel tracks. There are all these crisscrossing tracks, which means that if, certainly if some sort of derailment occurs at the intersection, a wide area is just now inaccessible. Or if something happens over here, it has an impact over there.
Flanagan: What’s it look like down there though?
Gordon: Dark. A very confined space. It becomes very clear how difficult it is to do temporary repairs. And what they’ve been doing every weekend is they would shut down — they can’t just shut down one track that has to be repaired. Because of the tightness and the safety issues for the workers, they’ve got to shut down parallel tracks. And then they move in equipment and personnel, do the work and then when it starts getting to the end of the 55 hours, they’ve got to take some time and move everything out. So it’s just hard to get anything really done.
Flanagan: So it’s hard to get anything done. So it’s going to take this summer up to five out of the 21 tracks out at any given time and at that point we’re talking about what? Twenty-five percent?
Gordon: A 25 percent reduction in the number of trains going through for 44 days.
Flanagan: What’s that going to mean for commuters?
Gordon: It’s going to be like the last few weeks we had when we had the derailments. It’s going to have a huge impact. I had asked some of the officials of these transit agencies, well why start on July 7? You could start the weekend of July 4 and you could extend into Labor Day and you would minimize the impact. And what they said was, “We would do that if we could but we can’t get the personnel on those holiday weeks.” And I was just appalled by that.
Flanagan: What about the letter Govs. Christie and Cuomo earlier this week released a letter calling for a privatization of Penn Station saying maybe somebody like that can run it better. We pay $150 million a year. We want something for our money. What do you think of privatization?
Gordon: When I first saw that I thought it sounds like the kinds of ideas that two lawyers propose. I mean, no disrespect to lawyers, but the problems we’re dealing with are business issues. Sort of MBA issues. And it really doesn’t matter who owns it. What we need is, the problem is with organization design and financial management and the structure of incentives. What we need to do is take these three organizations that are now using this facility — two of them using 90 percent of the tracks — and create a new organization, put it together, it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s private or public, although I would say better not private because we don’t want an organization that’s going to maximize profits as its goal. We want an organization that’s going to maximize the commuter experience. But we bring these three organizations together, they share resources, share information, you create incentives to reward quality service and severe penalties when something goes wrong and I think the system would work much better.