Monday, June 28, 2010

Reconquering Gotham

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The $9 billion Access to the Region’s Core project is the most ambitious railway engineering and construction undertaking since the Pennsylvania Railroad tunneled under the waters of the Hudson River over a century ago.

One-hundred years ago, the Pennsylvania Railroad completed its massive New York Improvement and Tunnel Extension project. The “Standard Railroad of the World’s” grand gateway into the heart of Gotham, Pennsylvania Station, opened for business, permanently changing how travelers accessed the nation’s heart of commerce and finance. Alexander J. Cassatt and Samuel Rea, the PRR’s legendary president and chief engineer behind the project, were men of vision and determination. Their accomplishment, the complex system of electrified rail tunnels and station and support facilities still known as New York Penn Station (though the Beaux-Arts outer station itself was demolished and replaced with an underground facility in the 1960s), has served the New York metropolitan area well, for a century. Cassatt and Rea are among the great railroad builders of the 20th century, ranking in importance with people like the Union Pacific’s Grenville Dodge, the Great Northern’s James J. Hill, and the Canadian Pacific’s William C. Van Horn. Their achievements are chronicled in numerous history books. Among the best of these is “Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels,” by noted historian Jill Jonnes.

Cassat and Rea built a facility that over the years would accommodate a growing number of commuters and intercity travelers. They could not have imagined that, a century later, Penn Station New York would be at capacity, and that their successors would be planning and building two additional tunnels and a massive new underground terminal complex. Nor would they have even considered that the new facilities would be planned to someday connect with Grand Central Terminal, built by the PRR’s bitter rival, the New York Central Railroad.

Arthur D. Silber, New Jersey Transit Assistant Executive Director and Project Chief, Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel Project, isn’t a legendary name in railroad engineering or historical circles just yet, but he and the staff of several hundred he oversees nevertheless are today creating history—reconquering Gotham. The $9 billion project Silber is spearheading—two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River and a new three-tiered, six-track station deep underground that connects with the existing Penn Station New York complex as well as three MTA subway lines and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s PATH rapid transit system—is the most ambitious engineering project the nation’s third-largest public transportation agency has ever undertaken.

The project, which is expected to be completed by 2018, is known by two names: Trans-Hudson Express (THE) Tunnel (try saying “the THE Tunnel”—doesn’t quite roll off the tongue), or the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Mass Transit Tunnel. It’s a joint venture of NJ Transit and the PANY&NJ, with each contributing $3 billion. The remaining $3 billion will come from the Federal Transit Administration, which is close to signing off on a Full Funding Grant Agreement.

ARC, Silber points out, is much different than most civil engineering ventures of this size, in that the 18-person project management team consists entirely of NJT and PANY&NJ employees. “Everyone is hand-picked,” says Silber, a 28-year veteran who got his start at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. “We’ve attracted people from all over the world for this project.” Two tri-ventures handle design and construction management/document control, respectively: Parsons Brinckerhoff/STV/AECOM and Parsons Transportation/Tishman Construction/ARUP. Each tri-venture employs numerous subcontractors. The entire operation is housed in its own offices at Two Gateway Center, across from Penn Station Newark and NJT headquarters.

ARC promises to produce vastly increased train-throughput capacity. For example, at the height of the morning rush hour, NJT, Long Island Rail Road, and Amtrak operate 61 trains per hour. Many of these trains carry more than 1,500 passengers each into a station that was not designed for extremely heavy peak-hour traffic. NJT and Amtrak can operate a maximum of 25 inbound trains per hour through the eastbound (south) Hudson River tunnel. When those trains arrive, there aren’t enough stairways, escalators, and elevators, and many of the platforms are too narrow for passengers to exit them quickly. Severe crowding often results, and during the evening rush, sometimes results in trains being delayed because they cannot be loaded quickly enough to stay on schedule, in their allotted train slots. For train dispatchers, it’s a delicate, daily balancing act. All it takes is one breakdown to send delays rippling back through the operation. ARC will almost double the number of trains arriving from West of Hudson to 48 per hour, and the new 34th Street Station, officially known as the Penn Station Expansion, will add platform and station capacity. The new station, located 200 feet north of the existing facility and 150 feet down, will be two city blocks long and be able to accommodate 12-car electric multiple-unit trains or 11-car MultiLevel trains hauled by NJT’s on-order dual-power (a.c. electric/diesel) Bombardier locomotives. These units are in final design; the prototype is expected to be delivered by late 2011.

ARC will also improve operating flexibility, as any train from any NJT line—Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast Line, Raritan Valley, Morris & Essex, Port Jervis, Main Line, etc.—can be routed into the existing Penn Station or 34th Street Station. The “Secaucus Loop” will enable trains from NJT’s northernmost lines, which normally terminate at Hoboken Terminal, to swing around and enter Manhattan through any of the Hudson River tunnels.

An operating plan is currently being devised. It will be based on the fact that, according to ridership studies, 50% of NJT passengers transfer to the subway, half of those to the Sixth Avenue lines (N, Q, R, W, B, F, V) at Herald Square. Currently, they have to exit to street level and walk. The new station, in addition to providing a direct underground connection to Herald Square (where PATH trains can also be accessed), will have direct connections to the Eighth Avenue (A, C, E) and Seventh Avenue (1, 2, 3) lines. High-rise escalators will connect the new station’s mid-level mezzanine to the access points. Silber points out that these connections “will greatly diminish above-ground pedestrian congestion at Manhattan corners and subway entrances.” The high-rise escalators are nothing new to transit, as they are in use at other deep-tunnel stations, such as on the Washington Metro. Why so deep down? ARC’s critics complain that the new tunnels should connect to the existing Penn Station (and this provision was in the preliminary plans). They won’t, for several reasons having to do with maximum operating grades and existing structures.

First, the new tunnels had to go deeper than originally proposed, because there’s all kinds of natural and man-made obstacles in the way.

When the original Penn Station was constructed over 100 years ago, there wasn’t much below the surface of Manhattan’s streets. Today, there are building foundations, water mains, electrical lines, sewers, and many subway tunnels. “Additionally, the geology of the area surrounding the new station precludes raising the station elevation,” ARC officials say.

Among the obstacles are an historic river bulkhead, NYCT’s Number 7 Subway Line Extension project (tunnels for which are nearly complete), and city water mains and sewers. A higher approach would have involved additional Hudson River fill, which the Army Corps of Engineers said would not be possible, and tearing down and rebuilding an historic bulkhead and a portion of a Hudson River park. But worse than that, it would have involved trenching—making a huge open cut, temporarily shutting down the West Side Highway, displacing structures in LIRR’s West Side Yard, relocating Amtrak’s West Side Connection, clearing out a major office building to underpin it, and other disruptions. Aside from these engineering problems, the project would have needed clearance from the Hudson River Trust and New York City’s Community Board 4—different problems than those faced by the PRR at the turn of the 20th century, but in many ways more challenging.

All this would have added years, and billions of dollars, to the project. The solution was to go deeper and avoid tearing up the West Side. But it would mean a grade of greater than 2% on the ARC tunnel-Penn Station connector. A stalled train in the tunnel would be unable to restart on such a steep grade, requiring rescue power—and creating havoc with the operation.

Art Silber has two challenges his predecessors did not have to worry about 100 years ago: ADA compliance, and numerous stringent safety standards. With these, he is unflinching. “We’re going to meet the ADA requirements,” he says. “But in addition to following the letter of the law, we will have zero ADA waivers, and zero safety standard waivers.” To accomplish this, he and his project team have the benefit of computer simulations for such things as passenger flows, ventilation, and fire safety.

One benefit of the final alignment is that someday, given the funding, engineers could continue tunneling deep under Manhattan, and connect the expanded Penn Station with Grand Central Terminal. NJT, Amtrak, LIRR, and Metro-North through trains, perhaps using a common fare system linked to MTA subways and buses and PATH, could unite the New York Metropolitan area with a transit network enabling anyone from anywhere to go any place they need to be.

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