Thursday, April 06, 2017

Amtrak knew of track issues before NY Penn Station derailment

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Amtrak knew of track issues before NY Penn Station derailment Courtesy New York Daily News

Amtrak knew of track problems before a New Jersey Transit commuter train derailed at New York’s Penn Station on Monday, April 3, turning the hub into a four-day quagmire of cancellations and delays for thousands of commuters.

Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman said the damaged track was repaired and operations should return to normal for the Friday, April 7 morning rush hour.

Wick PennMoorman in an appearance at Penn Station on Thursday, April 6 apologized for the problems that affected trains operated by Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road. The three agencies share tracks in the station, which has been owned and maintained by Amtrak since 1975. Amtrak was given possession of Penn Central’s Northeast Corridor assets as part of the USRA (United States Railway Administration) reorganization planning, called the Final System Plan, that year, one year before PC and several other bankrupt Northeastern railroads were reorganized and combined into Conrail.

“It’s our job to make sure that commuters and intercity passengers can safely and reliably travel along the Northeast Corridor, and we know we let them down,” said Moorman. “Our customers and our partners deserve better.”

The Monday derailment of an NJ Transit train arriving from Trenton was caused by “defective wood ties,” Moorman said. The ties in question were deteriorating and had been marked for replacement, but Penn Station’s m/w forces did not recognize the urgency of the problem, Moorman said. When the ties failed, they created a wide-gauge condition that caused the NJ Transit train to derail, with the wheels falling off the tracks into the gauge. This occurred at a critical junction point feeding tracks 9 through 12, damaging several double-slip switches ("x-tracks") and effectively taking half the station out of service. Repairing the damage took a lot of time because of limited work space, and the need to procure custom-fabricated special trackwork unique to Penn Station’s interlocking plant.

Moorman also said for the first time that the March 24 derailment of an Acela Express train at Penn Station that also sideswiped an NJ Transt train was due to height-mismatched sections of rail on a curve close to track 6. The April 3 incident was located near the Acela Express derailment, and repairs forced the closure of other ladder tracks leading from the site of that derailment.

“We are working around the clock to repair the damage caused by the second incident and to ensure that we have no other track problems in this busiest and most important terminal,” said Moorman. He added that many maintenance problems could be avoided if Amtrak wasn’t perennially budget-starved year to year.

The Trump Administration in its preliminary budget eliminated funding for most long distance trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

At the same time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the state would stop payments to Amtrak until an independent survey finds the line in “a state of good repair.” Moorman responded by saying that Christie's proposed witholding of funds wouldn't solve any problems.

Amtrak in 2016 collected $62 million from NJ Transit for maintenance and upgrades, according to local reports. Christie suggested the state might sue Amtrak to get some of that money back. He also was urging congressional leaders to hold hearings on Amtrak’s safety problems, leading one New York daily newspaper to opine that “the governor [seeks] to insulate himself from the wrath of commuters who blamed him for the problems.”

Christie in 2010 cancelled a $12.4 billion tunnel and stub-end-terminal project, Access to the Region's Core (ARC), that would have doubled the daily number of NJ Transit trains entering Penn Station from the west, but would have produced no benefits for Amtrak or LIRR passengers. He has been heavily criticized for that decision. ARC opponents call the canceled project “The Tunnel to Macy’s Basement.” Since then, Amtrak, with the support of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—and Christie—has been developing the Gateway Project, which would add two Hudson River tunnels, additional through-tracks adjacent to Penn Station, and turn the Farley Post Office Building into a rail station, among other improvements.

Moorman, who began his railroading career as a track worker during his college years and is an accomplished railroad civil engineer, said that Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have started a comprehensive inspection of Penn Station’s entire track infrastructure. He said he would personally lead a thorough review of Amtrak’s maintenance practices and its engineering departments, with the assistance of independent consultants.

Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze points out that Amtrak accounts for less than 5% of the passengers—about 10,000—that the LIRR (230,000) and NJ Transit (100,000) carry on a typical weekday. New York MTA Interim Executive Director Ronnie Hakim and Acting Board Chairman Fernado Ferrer, who oversee the LIRR, went public with a harsh letter April 5, demanding answers about what they are calling Amtrak’s shoddy maintenance and why its trains appear to have priority. Amtrak and the LIRR split dispatching duties at Penn Station 50/50, six months each, with NJ Transit providing an “observer” function. “There’s no quick fix to a mess as big as Penn Station,” Blaze says. “It may be necessary to replace Amtrak’s role there. Penn should either be entirely taken over by LIRR, or be turned into a union station with LIRR and NJ Transit splitting major ownership, and junior partner Amtrak getting a small share.”

How that scenario would be funded remains to be addressed.

Related story: NY Penn: Two derailments in two weeks

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