Friday, December 14, 2012

When the trains stopped

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
Hurricane Sandy stranded millions for days. It will take billions to fully recover from the monster storm’s windy, watery wallop.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated that “Superstorm Sandy,” possibly the worst natural disaster on record to hit the Northeastern United States, resulted in the loss of 72,000 homes and businesses, and will cost billions to recover from. The Monday, Oct. 29 hurricane and its massive water surge crippled the largest, most complex, busiest network of passenger rail lines in North America—those of the New York Metropolitan Area. The region’s systems—MTA New York City Transit, MTA Long Island Rail Road, MTA Metro-North Railroad, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH, Staten Island Railway, which combined move approximately six million people a day—are engaged in an intense damage repair and service restoration effort, the likes of which have never been seen before. Other Northeastern systems—SEPTA, MBTA, MARC, VRE, PATCO, Shoreline East—sustained damage, though not as severe.

NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein can attest to Sandy’s devastating impact perhaps better than any of his peers. NJT took the worst hit of all, and, as of late November, was still working round-the-clock to bring its statewide rail system of nine regional/commuter rail and three light rail lines back to full operation and a state of good repair. It will be weeks until service is back to pre-Sandy level.

“Our prime responsibility is to get our system up and running,” Weinstein told Railway Age. “We’re not fully there yet.”

Added Rail Operations Vice President and General Manager Kevin O’Connor, “Our recovery effort is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”

NJT estimates its damage from Sandy to be about $400 million, with roughly 30% of that amount attributable to damage to its regional/commuter rail fleet. While local press reports have focused on the 65 locomotives and 257 railcars that were damaged by the unprecedented flooding caused by a storm “with remarkable destructive power,” the equipment, all of which is repairable, represents only 10% of NJT’s fleet. “None of the operational constraints we’re dealing with have been due to lack of equipment,” Weinstein stressed. “What we’re mostly dealing with is our infrastructure.”

Service has been returning to NJT lines incrementally. Service to Hoboken Terminal, which was engulfed in five feet of Hudson River water and muck, remained partially suspended as of late November, with the facility’s catenary system relying on generator power. Likewise, generators were being used to power catenary at NJT’s Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC) in Kearny.

Not surprisingly, NJT’s North Jersey Coast Line was the hardest hit of the agency’s regional/commuter rail lines. A dramatic example of Sandy’s intensity occurred at River Draw, a long swing-bridge structure spanning Raritan Bay. Not one, but two heavy tugboats that had broken from their moorings hit the bridge, knocking it eight inches off its pilings in 30 places. Morgan Draw, near Matawan, was jammed with several pleasure boats, among other debris. Electric service from Long Branch into New York Penn Station, with connecting diesel shuttles to coastal Bay Head, N.J., took two weeks after Sandy’s wallop to restore. It was operating on a modified schedule, with weekly changes as infrastructure was repaired.

Severe damage to the public utilities and Amtrak power systems that supply power to NJT made matters worse. For example, Amtrak Substation 41 in Kearny, N.J., which supplies traction power to the NEC between Newark and New York, was completely submerged, severely limiting the number of electric trains that could be operated. It was finally reactivated on Nov. 16, allowing NJT NEC service to resume.

Most of NJT’s equipment damage (mostly traction motor/gearset combos and wheelsets) occurred at the MMC, a low-lying shop complex that, up until Sandy, had never flooded. Responding to critics who chastised NJT’s decision to store equipment there during the storm, Jim Weinstein told Railway Age: “I think the decision we made in light of the information we had, our experience with Irene and Floyd (two previous storms), and the fact that the MMC had never flooded, was the right one. The National Weather Service said there was an 80% to 90% chance that area would be dry. NJT is not a toy train set. You can’t just pick up your trains and move them somewhere else. It takes 12 hours to shut the railroad down.”

NJT did not want to strand equipment, Weinstein said. In 2011, NJT stored equipment at its Morrisville, Pa., yard, just west of Trenton on the Northeast Corridor, during Hurricane Irene. Trenton flooded, isolating Morrisville and seriously curtailing service restoration on the busy NEC.

“It’s amazing to me how wise people become after the fact,” said Weinstein, who surveyed NJT’s damage from a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter. “How we prepared for this event will stand the test of an objective, professional assessment. Our critics, the Monday morning quarterbacks, are entitled to their opinions. They can’t make up the facts.”

What’s not so amazing is how the industry came together to help NJT get back on its feet. For example, Progress Rail and Norfolk Southern’s Thoroughbred Quality Services began immediately supplying replacement combos and wheelsets. Amtrak, Bombardier, and the LIRR opened the Arch Street locomotive shop adjacent to Sunnyside Yard in Queens to repair 11 damaged ALP-45DP dual-power locomotives and several MultiLevel cars. Canadian Pacific, working with Amtrak, allowed 21 new, sorely needed Bombardier MultiLevel cars to be delivered in a single move on a passenger route, rather than at a rate of two cars every 10 days over a CP freight-only line. Short line Morristown & Erie provided NJT use of its drop table for equipment repairs. Other railroads have supplied equipment like ballast-dump cars, and manpower, to assist NJT.

The same can be said of the NJT employees, both agreement and non-agreement, “who have banded together, tirelessly working side-by-side, to bring the railroad back to where it needs to be.”

Weinstein said a thorough assessment will be made after the operation is fully restored. “We’ll go back and take a look at what we did well, and what we need to change,” he said. One change will be to relocate NJT’s ROC (Rail Operations Center) well away from the MMC, on higher ground. As far as insulating its rail system from future monster storms, the cost will be upwards of $500 million. “Nothing comes cheap,” Weinstein said.

How the region is recovering

Passenger rail’s overall recovery in the Northeast can be measured in concentric circles focused on the rough epicenter of New Jersey-New York. Operators on the ends of the Northeast Corridor lost just one full day of rail service, contrasting sharply with New York’s MTA properties and NJT.

Amtrak cancelled some trains as early as Sunday morning, Oct. 28, and shut down the entirety of its operations along the NEC on Oct. 29 and 30, with most East Coast service suspended. Amtrak Oct. 31 resumed service between Washington and Virginia points including Lynchburg, Richmond, and Newport News. NEC service thereafter slowly extended north from Washington and south from Boston, reaching Newark Liberty Airport Rail Station Oct. 31 and New Haven Nov. 1.

On Nov. 2, Amtrak ran modified Northeast Regional and Acela Express Boston-New York-Washington services, after clearing, cleaning, and reactivating one Hudson River tunnel and two East River counterparts. Amtrak cleared those three tunnels late Nov. 11, with LIRR and NJT benefitting as a result. But ongoing tunnel repairs in the two remaining East River tunnels are not expected to be completed until January.

Normal LIRR service on 10 of the railroad’s 11 lines was reinstated Nov. 12, following days of piecemeal addition. Limited service on the Long Beach Branch, serving coastal areas hit hard by winds, flooding, and storm surge, resumed Nov. 13, with a diesel shuttle train service operated on weekdays only. Full service on the Long Beach Branch was restored Nov. 26, making the LIRR’s recovery virtually complete. One choke point remained, and it was a significant one: ongoing work being performed by Amtrak to fully restore capabilities in two of the four East River tunnels owned by Amtrak, but used primarily by the LIRR. LIRR officials said the railroad could only operate at about 70% of normal rush-hour capacity under such conditions.

Metro-North, the shining regional railroad star, strutted its stuff by getting nearly all of its East-of-Hudson rail service back in operation within one week of Sandy’s landfall, minus only its New Canaan Branch in Connecticut, which was restored Nov. 13. The railroad’s Harlem Line saw limited service restoration first, on the afternoon of Nov. 1, since it was less susceptible to flooding and storm surge compared with Metro-North’s New Haven Line, which also staggered back into operation late Nov. 1, or the Hudson Line, skirting the namesake river. The Hudson Line resumed operations Nov. 2. West-of-Hudson services were hampered by severe damage to both New York State and New Jersey points, notably Hoboken Terminal.

Dire predictions of catastrophic service discontinuance were rapidly overcome as New York City Transit quickly restored services line-by-line and tunnel-by-tunnel, earning rare plaudits from citizens and news organizations more accustomed to criticizing subway service routinely. By November’s end, only interborough service on the R subway line was still disrupted, due to severe flooding and partial tunnel collapse. NYCT launched a truncated “H Train” shuttle Nov. 20 to serve Brooklyn shore points hammered by the hurricane, trucking in equipment to provide the service, linked to the rest of the subway system (primarily the A train) by circuitous but functional shuttle bus service.

The damage wreaked by Sandy on the MTA came into clear focus when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office released the first breakdown of $5 billion in estimated costs the agency faces from the superstorm. Cost estimates to repair two severely damaged areas, the Rockaway (A train) line in Queens (along the waterfront), and South Ferry and Whitehall stations in lower Manhattan, total $1.25 billion.

Flooding in both of PATH’s Hudson River tunnel routes and at its Hoboken Terminal facility was severe; PATH re-established very limited cross-river service between Journal Square, Jersey City, and midtown Manhattan Nov. 7, extending the route to Newark Penn Station Nov. 12, but skipping two stops in Manhattan due to platform crowding concerns. PATH service to and from downtown Manhattan, including Exchange Place in Jersey City, resumed Nov. 26. PATH service to Hoboken was still lacking as the month ended. Tellingly, spokespeople for PATH and its parent, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, repeatedly declined to offer any specific estimates for service resumption, finally acknowledging Hoboken would be out of service “for weeks.” PATH did estimate service repair costs would total $300 million.

The MTA on Nov. 16 said the Staten Island Railway won’t have full service restored until at least March 2013. “The St. George Terminal signal system experienced extensive water damage,” the agency announced. “As a result, train operation there is severely affected as we can only operate trains on two of the tracks.”

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was spared Sandy’s worst fury, and held off shutting down rail service until 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 29, when other agencies had been shut down for 20 hours. As well, MBTA was among the first to restore service by resuming subway services with bus substitution on the Green Line D branch on Oct. 30. MBTA regional rail service also began returning, with delays, that day. Critics faulted MBTA in 2011 for shutting down too early in the face of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. For Sandy, MBTA was criticized by some for its late decision to shut down service.

SEPTA halted all rail service 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, but aggressively sought to re-establish service, with some subway/surface lines resuming operations the following day. Regional Rail service resumed Nov. 1 as Amtrak restored its own service to 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, a major SEPTA hub. Like MBTA, SEPTA was criticized for its shutdown timing, but in SEPTA’s case the lament was that SEPTA closed too soon.

Elsewhere, PATCO’s bistate rail operation ceased service Oct. 28, but quickly followed SEPTA’s lead by restoring service Oct. 30. Connecticut’s Shoreline East resumed near-normal operations between eastern Connecticut points and New Haven on Nov. 1. Plagued more by rain than by high winds or storm surge, Virginia Railway Express quickly restored near-normal regional rail service to and from Washington, D.C. by the morning of Nov. 1. Slightly behind VRE, Maryland Area Transit Corp. resumed service on its two MARC regional rail lines, and on its light rail transit and subway routes in Baltimore, on Nov. 1.

 How Conrail put people first

Within six hours of Sandy’s passing, Conrail resumed operations in the North Jersey and Philadelphia Shared Assets Areas. At the same time, the railroad was providing assistance to employees and their families who had been impacted by the storm. “We met Sandy with the usual preparedness of any past storm,” President and COO Ron Batory told Railway Age. “That involved taking risk aversion actions, continuous communication, and post-event contingencies. But the most critical component to our success in being able to operate trains within six hours of the storm’s passing was our people.”

Conrail operated two New Jersey 24-hour command centers for nearly five days, providing coordinated leadership, at Oak Island Yard, Newark (tactical response) and the Mount Laurel Operations Center (strategic direction). Immediate post-event actions were vital to resuming train operations: inspecting the physical plant, inspecting equipment, and establishing an employee welfare station at Oak Island.

“The assessment post-event of our physical plant allowed our people to put their creativity and sense of urgency to good use,” said Batory. “Materials and supplies were dispatched to restore washouts. Mobile generators were dispatched to all signal and communication locations incurring public utility service interruption. Grade crossings awaiting portable generators were protected with Conrail employees flagging. Alternate operating rules were invoked in the absence of wayside signals.”

Conrail’s post-Sandy assessment “confirmed that our people had done the right things to preserve equipment,” noted Batory. “There were 6,000 freight cars on hand at the time of the storm. Only 58 (1%) were damaged on Conrail tracks; 267 (5%) were damaged on industry tracks. We had 54 locomotives on hand, and five (9%) sustained damage.Most significant to the consumer market was approximately 4,000 new vehicles were awaiting to be dispatched to dealers. Only 20 were damaged beyond deliverable status.”

For the employees and their families, Conrail provided dry food and staples, fuel for their commuting vehicles, hot meals, and on-site bathroom facilities. Temporary housing was afforded to those who lost homes, and a zero interest loan program was offered to eligible employees. “People at Conrail treat each other well,” said Batory. “This was amplified with all the grocery stores, gas stations, hotels/motels, and restaurants that were either closed or destroyed. Our employees responded to the aftermath of Sandy with their usual high attendance rate and injury-free performance. Our reclamation and restoration efforts continue to be less each day, while the bond and respect Conrail employees have for each other continues to strengthen to the benefit of our joint owners, CSX and Norfolk Southern, and ultimately the customers served on their behalf by Conrail.”

Managing Editor Douglas John Bowen and Engineering Editor Mischa Wanek-Libman contributed to this story.