Amtrak to commuters: Be prepared for worse service
Starting at some point more than a year from now, commuters who take trains from Long Island will find their access to Penn Station badly curtailed, with the number of operational East River rail tunnels reduced from four to three.
There "will be an appreciable reduction in capacity into Penn Station in peak periods,” Stephen Gardner, a vice president at Amtrak, told a handful of reporters Wednesday morning. “So, it’s not probably 25 [percent]. Is it 20 or so? In that area? We’ll have to see.”
In mid-March, nearly a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Sandy, Amtrak's consultants mounted a high-tech scanner on the back of a flatbed truck and, moving a mile an hour, probed the tunnels that comprise the linchpin of the nation’s busiest rail line.
On Wednesday, Amtrak released the consulting firm's report.
Its findings? Sandy did a number on four of the century-old, under-river rail tubes serving Penn Station, two under the East River and two under the Hudson. That doesn't bode well for commuters from Long Island and New Jersey, not to mention passengers who take 260 million trips a year along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
“I don’t really have words to accurately describe how critical all of this is, not just to Amtrak, but to our responsibility as the nation’s national passenger rail company to deliver effective passenger rail service,” said Tony Coscia, Amtrak’s chairman.
At issue is salt, coupled with the tunnels' pre-existing decrepitude. The chlorides and sulfates from Sandy's deluges stayed behind even after its waters vanished, and they continue to weaken the tunnels' concrete and corrode its cast iron and steel.
Unless it is remediated, salt will continue to attack two of the four tubes that run east from Penn Station across the East River to Long Island City, Queens, and which carry Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak trains, along with NJ Transit cars bound for Sunnyside Yards. At some point more than a year from now, Amtrak will take down one of those tubes to repair it. That should take about a year. Once that's done, Amtrak will take down the other tube for repairs.
The situation is even worse in the tubes running from Manhattan’s west side.
Starting at Tenth Avenue, two single-track tubes burrow into bedrock, snake beneath the Hudson River’s bed of clay and re-emerge in New Jersey.
Those tunnels also got badly flooded. At their deepest point, salt water inundated what are known as bench walls, which run along the sides of the tunnels, carry all sorts of important electrical wiring and cables, and, in the case of an emergency, serve as exit ramps.
The problem is that the region cannot operate with fewer than two tunnels crossing the Hudson into Penn Station, unless it’s willing to put up with “a draconian reduction of service,” Gardner said.
“The nature of the work is such that you have to take down the bench walls, excavate out the track,” Gardner said. “You can’t do an hour and then go away and come back. It’s just an impossibility really. You need to have an extended outage to permit this work to occur.”
That means that Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, can’t do the sort of top-to-bottom rehabilitation that the report calls for until another cross-Hudson rail tunnel is built to provide redundancy.
Had New Jersey Governor Chris Christie not killed a cross-Hudson project called Access to the Region’s Core, the railroad would have had some of the redundancy it needed to perform the repairs at some point in the near future.
“The fact that we don’t have ARC puts us much more under the gun now,” said Richard Barone, the director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association.“There’s a worst case scenario where you could potentially be at a loss of both tunnels. There’s a lot of uncertainty because we’re in uncharted territory looking at infrastructure of this age.”
In ARC's absence, Amtrak is pinning its hopes on a still unfunded, many-billion-dollar replacement project called Gateway.
The hope is that Gateway will double rail capacity beneath the Hudson by the middle of the next decade ... and also that the existing century-old, salt-saturated tunnels will hold up until then.
That’s no sure thing.
Earlier this year, Amtrak’s C.E.O. Joe Boardman told a gathering of urban planners that the cross-Hudson tunnels have “got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down.”
In the meantime, Amtrak will have to make do with patchwork. And riders will experience more delays, more cancellations, and more unreliability.
“These things are degrading, and [that means] we have to maintain them at higher rates to try to prevent them from failing,” Gardner said. "That will decrease the availability of the tunnel for service, over time.”
Coscia wouldn't put a cost estimate on Gateway, though a couple of years ago Gardner pegged it at around $15 billion.
“We don’t have the resources to do all of the things that we think need to be done, but we do have the capacity to try to make the case, to convince others to give us those resources, which is what we’re really doing here today,” Coscia said.