It has been ten years since Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in much of the Mid-Atlantic region and many other places. Sandy was no ordinary hurricane. She came very late in the hurricane season, but even though she only packed enough wind velocity and rain barely to make “hurricane” status, she generated a storm surge that devastated the region, flooding low-lying areas, particularly in New Jersey and New York City. She caused enough damage that the National Weather Service and local media dubbed her “Superstorm Sandy.”
Sandy’s effects are still being felt, as property owners in low-lying places like the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens and the Jersey Shore still pursue insurance claims for Sandy-related damage, and environmental advocates fight for more environmentally friendly “Sandy resilience projects” than elected officials seem willing to build. New York’s NPR station, WNYC, is running a series headlined “Ten Years, Ten Stories” with recollections of the storm from a diverse collection of New Yorkers. Most important to us, Sandy caused some of the most severe damage in transit-rich areas like New York City and New Jersey, particularly Hoboken and towns along New Jersey Transit’s rail lines. Those lines were knocked out of service for periods ranging from two to five weeks.
In this article, I will look back at the damage that Sandy caused to the region’s rail transit, repeat some reporting from the time and recollections by folks who were on the scene. I will also look at how some of the issues that Sandy raised are still affecting transit today.
Disruptions Shockingly Severe
“October surprises” are not as rare as most people hope, and that’s not only true of elections. It holds for weather, too. New Jersey got some weather warnings in 2011. That August, Hurricane Irene, which did much of its damage further north, flooded a creek in Trenton. Irene knocked out service at the Trenton Station for several days, and all of New Jersey Transit (NJT) Rail for 36 hours. There was also a big “October surprise” that year: the “Halloween nor’easter,” which came on Oct. 29 and dumped several inches of snow in the region, most of the season’s accumulation, because the winter that followed was mild. Still, Irene and the Halloween storm prompted calls by rider-advocates for better preparedness by transit providers, although the issue of how much the agencies could have prepared for Sandy remains controversial to this day.
Sandy was only a Category I hurricane when she ravaged the New York and New Jersey area, but she was a terror, causing nearly $70 billion in damage (2012 dollars, and $65 billion of it happened in the U.S.) and killing 233 people in eight countries from the Caribbean to Canada. Her storm surge hit the area on Oct. 29, a year to the day after the freak 2011 snowstorm. Streets were flooded, as were subway and other tunnels, and millions of residents lost power, some for a week or more.
Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road suspended service in anticipation of the storm, and so did local transit, including New York City Transit and PATH trains between Manhattan and nearby New Jersey. The MBTA in Boston shut down, too. The storm devastated water infrastructure, as well. To make matters worse, the “November nor-easter” barreled through the region ten days later, leaving two inches of snow in Newark, New Jersey and more of the white stuff in places that rarely get it so early.
Reporting the Disaster
The area that Sandy impacted was huge, covering the entire East Coast of the U.S. and Canada, and stretching west as far as the bulk of the Midwest region. On March 7, 2013, NASA posted a list of updates, comparing Sandy to Hurricane Katrina, which had pounded New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast seven years earlier, reporting: “The scenes of devastation and wreckage that Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) left behind were tragically similar. Both storms flooded major cities, cut electric power to millions and tore apart densely populated coastlines. But from a meteorological perspective, the storms were very different.” The report went on to explain that Katrina was a typical “tropical cyclone” while Sandy became an “extra-tropical cyclone” with the difference being: “When tropical cyclones become extra-tropical, their wind and cloud fields expand dramatically. Their strongest winds generally weaken during this process, but occasionally a transitioning storm retains hurricane force winds, as was the case with Sandy.”
Even as the storm made landfall in South Jersey, the National Weather Service reported: “Preliminary estimates suggest Sandy was the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane on record (behind Hurricane Katrina). More than 120 people perished from the effects of Sandy, approximately 24 in the Mount Holly County Warning Area (CWA) alone, an inland location in South Jersey. Dollar estimates of damage to homes and infrastructure range into the billions of dollars in New Jersey, with more than $9 million of damage reported in Delaware.”
On Oct. 31, Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono reported about the damage that the storm had caused locally in an article headlined “Hurricane Sandy devastates NY/NJ area passenger rail systems.” ”Hurricane Sandy, the worst storm of its type to hit the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area in generations, had a devastating impact upon the region’s passenger rail systems, the busiest in the nation,” Vantuono wrote. “Literally millions of people who depend upon commuter/regional, rapid transit, light rail, and intercity trains every day have been left without service following extensive damage. Service will be unavailable for at least a week on most lines as crews feverishly work to repair billions of dollars in damage from the so-called ‘super storm.’”
Regarding the New York City subway system, Vantuono reported that it “has sustained the worst damage it has ever experienced in its 108-year history. Service remains suspended on all lines, as cleanup and water remediation efforts continue, especially in underwater tunnels linking Brooklyn and Manhattan that were flooded during the storm.” In addition, he reported that PATH, the Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North had suspended service. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Empire Service, as well as some other trains in the region, had also been knocked out. The one bright spot was the Philadelphia area, where SEPTA and other local providers had restored service relatively quickly.
Concerning NJ Transit, Vantuono reported: “The situation is somewhat grimmer on New Jersey Transit, which operates the nation’s third-largest commuter rail system as well as three light rail lines. ‘While this destructive and deadly storm is now gone, it has left behind long-term mechanical and operational challenges that NJT is working tirelessly to overcome,’ the agency said. ‘This will take time, and the blow delivered by Hurricane Sandy will continue to impact customers for days to come.’” The article also showed photographs of flooding at New York Subway and PATH stations, and a boat that ended up sitting on top of a rail line. Railway Age ran a cover story on Sandy in its December 2012 issue and continued to report on the story for several more months, focusing on recovery efforts and on financial relief from government sources.
At the time, I was Contributing Editor for the now-defunct on-line publication Destination: Freedom. I reported on conditions as they were, in a story headlined “An Election Day Snapshot: New Jersey and New York, One Week After Sandy,” that Amtrak had essentially come back: “Amtrak got its NEC operation running quickly. The storm struck on Monday, and Amtrak was operating south of Newark by Thursday. The tunnel to New York was open for service by Friday. So was the West Side line for Empire Service trains.” I also reported the return of subway service in New York City, despite a severe fire in the shore community of Breezy Point and heavy storm damage elsewhere in the city: “Subway service was down for five to six days, due to flooding in the tunnels. Amazingly, subway service has been restored to most of the city at this writing, including all major lines.” Service had returned no Metro-North and the LIRR, too, except at its east end, to Montauk and Greenport.
Conditions in parts of New Jersey were worse, especially at the Jersey Shore. The iconic summertime vacation spot bore little resemblance to what it was pre-Sandy. Much of it no longer existed. The boardwalks were gone, including the most famous one in Atlantic City. Even Gov. Chris Christie lamented the loss of hangouts at the Shore that he remembered from his youth. NJT’s North Jersey Coast Line (NJCL) was devastated. River Draw, the NJCL bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy, had a tractor-trailer-sized container from a ship perched precariously on top of the tracks. In addition, a boat hit the bridge and knocked it out of line, essentially separating 16 stations south of Raritan Bay from the rest of the railroad world. Nobody seemed to know when service would come back. The people did not fare much better. Many of them remained in shelters, their homes severely damaged at best and destroyed at worst.
Community transit providers at the Shore pitched in to help evacuate coastal areas and provide mobility during the emergency, according to Steven Fittante, who was NJT’s Director of Local Programs Support at the time and had previously served as Transportation Director for Monmouth County. Fittante wrote an account of the efforts by county providers along the Shore for the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), which began: “Hurricane Sandy tested the resolve of agencies throughout the Tri-State region, but the hardest hit were the communities of the Jersey Shore. Along with other transit agencies, the county-coordinated community transit systems played a significant role in the emergency even as they prepared for the return of their regular services, focused on populations without access to an automobile or traditional bus and rail services.” According to Fittante, the county-level agencies helped with evacuation to shelters, getting people to dialysis treatments and medical assistance in emergency cases, delivering meals, and providing other special transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities until they could again provide regular services.
New York’s transit came back sooner than New Jersey’s, so much of this part of my report will focus on the difficulties faced by riders in the Garden State. NJT was particularly hard-hit. The agency’s press releases told much of the story. There were 23 releases issued about Sandy, starting Oct. 27 and concluding Dec. 12.
Service on the Atlantic City Rail Line was suspended on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 28. The rest of the system was suspended at 2:00 a.m.t or the end of service on the line, whichever came first. On Oct. 30, Transportation Commissioner and NJT Board Chair James Simpson issued a statement that said: “The NJ Transit system has experienced unprecedented devastation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Destruction summarizes the impact to rails, rail yards, bus depots and critical operations centers.” Those impacts included flooding at Hoboken Terminal and washouts along the NJCL and at Kearny Junction (where Midtown Direct trains on the Morris & Essex Line enter the Northeast Corridor (NEC) for access to New York Penn Station), and damage to Morgan Drawbridge on the NJCL. Damage was particularly severe at the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex (MMC), where the Rail Operations Center was flooded, and nearly 400 pieces of rolling stock (locomotives and railcars) were also flooded. Some of that equipment was repaired, but the rest was scrapped. No rail service returned during October, except for the River LINE, a diesel light rail line between Trenton and Camden, which came back on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 31.
Service on the NEC Line to Trenton was restored on Thursday, Nov. 1. On Saturday, NJT said it was resuming service on several rail lines the next day. There would be limited service on the NJCL between Woodbridge and New York and on the Raritan Valley Line as far east as Newark (no trains on that line were going to New York yet), and the Main/Port Jervis Line was originating and terminating at Secaucus, the first time that trains were turned there. The Atlantic City Line would resume normal service. NJT announced that special schedules were in effect, and that the Bergen, Pascack, Montclair-Boonton, and Morris & Essex Lines remained suspended.
On Monday, Nov. 5, the agency initiated emergency bus service to New York City during peak commuting hours from several park-and-ride locations, but not from train stations. There was also a recap of service restorations since the storm made landfall the previous Monday. On Tuesday (Election Day), there was more information about the emergency bus shuttles. On Wednesday, ferry service between Liberty State Park in Jersey City and lower Manhattan was added during peak commuting hours, with a midday run, as well. On Friday, Nov. 9, shuttle buses started running between selected rail stations and Liberty State Park to connect with the ferries.
Limited service resumed on the Morris & Essex Line after a two-week absence on Monday, Nov. 11, although the Gladstone Branch and Montclair-Boonton Line were still suspended. There was also more service added on the NEC. NJT also announced that limited service would return to Hoboken Terminal on the Main Bergen/Port Jervis, Morris & Essex, and Pascack Valley Lines. Limited service would also return to the Raritan Valley Line west of Raritan, to High Bridge. The Montclair-Boonton Line did likewise on Wednesday, Nov. 13. The following Monday, shuttle buses started running from Gladstone Branch stations for ferry connections at Liberty State Park during peak-commuting hours. It would be two more weeks before rail service on the line would be restored.
While service had returned to every NJT rail line within five weeks after the storm hit, some lines still ran limited service. Even in mid-January 2013, full pre-Sandy service had not yet been restored, although most of it had. Railway Age reported on Jan. 11 in an article headlined “NJT: Pre-Sandy service levels to resume Jan 14” that full service to and from New York Penn Station would return that day, and the service level on trains within New Jersey would reach 94% of pre-Sandy level, with some trains being add on each of several lines. NJT notes flooding from Hurricane Sandy and the resulting exposure to saltwater destroyed the corporation’s Mason Substation in Hoboken, a critical component of NJT infrastructure that provides electric power for trains to operate into and out of Hoboken Terminal each day. NJT anticipates electric power to be restored to Hoboken Terminal by March, at which time electric trains will be restored to the affected lines.” While electric power and rail service to Hoboken were later restored, the issue of emergency power for NJT has still not been fully resolved, even today. Neither have several other issues.
Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath
It took five weeks to bring every line in the Garden State back to service, and even longer to restore full pre-Sandy service levels. Still, once the trains started running again, it was hardly the end of the story. Ten years later, controversies caused by the storm live on. The events concerning Sandy affected politics in New Jersey, equipment at NJT and an environmental dispute, as well as other issues that persist to this day.
The storm raised questions about the judgment of senior managers who were running NJT at the time. One was a decision to leave much of the agency’s equipment at yards near Hoboken and the MMC, located where the NEC and Morris & Essex lines meet, so it serves equipment that operates on both the Hoboken and Newark Divisions, the latter including trains to and from Penn Station New York. Because of a decision to leave much of the agency’s equipment there, much of it was flooded. Roughly 400 pieces of rolling stock, motive power and railcars, were damaged. Only some were repaired.
NJT officials believed at the time that the risk of flooding at those places was low, so they left the equipment there, rather than moving it to higher ground. One of NJT’s most serious problems was damage caused to locomotives and railcars because of flooding in Hoboken Yard and the MMC, two low-lying areas where much of the agency’s equipment was stored. Nearly one-third of locomotives and one-quarter of cars were taken out of service because of flood damage.
Three weeks after Sandy struck, reporters started piecing together what information they could glean. The most detailed report came from Reuters, published on Sunday, Nov. 18, 20 days after the storm struck. There were other stories in the New York Post, Asbury Park Press (and Gannett’s other New Jersey papers) and Bergen Record. The Reuters article reached the conclusion that NJT stored its equipment in places where flooding was not only possible, but likely. Nearly one quarter of the equipment was damaged, including nine dual-power ALP45-DP locomotives and 84 multilevel cars, purchased at a cost of $385 million, according to Reuters.
NJT’s Resiliency Program
In response to the damage caused by Sandy, NJ Transit proposed its “Resilience Program” and created a website for it, www.njtransitresilienceprogram.com, in 2017. The agency claimed that all elements of the program were interrelated: “While our initial post-Sandy efforts were aimed at repairing damaged caused by the storm and restoring operations, we are now focused on moving forward—rebuilding a robust and sustainable transportation system that will better withstand the effects of extreme weather, while meeting the current and future transportation needs of our customers.” There were three local projects in the program: filling in Long Slip, an old barge canal at Hoboken Terminal; replacing River Draw on the NJCL and building a new Delco Lead and County Yard storage yard on the NEC, south of New Brunswick.
River Draw has served the NJCL since 1908. Located between Perth Amboy and South Amboy, it suffered damage from the storm. A video released by NJT showed a small boat and a freight container from a ship lying on top of the tracks on it. The bridge performed well until Sandy hit, but a new bridge is now under construction.
Delco Lead is a five-mile-long freight siding, running parallel to the NEC south of New Brunswick. It would be converted into a storage track located in North Brunswick, between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. NJT says that the facility will allow equipment to be placed back into service more quickly than by using current facilities. It was designed to be “a permanent safe haven to store our rail vehicles and equipment where they can be both safer and more-readily deployed.” A new light-maintenance and inspection facility will be built in nearby County Yard. The facility will be used primarily for recovery from major storms.
Another aspect of the Resilience Program is the proposed NJTRANSITGRID, a “microgrid” capable of supplying highly reliable electric power during storms or other times when the commercial power grid is compromised … a reliable energy supply for a targeted portion of rail infrastructure. The project will be built in conjunction with signal and communications system improvements, and the power plant would be located in Kearny, between the NEC and the Morris & Essex Line. NJTRANSITGRID will be powered by a central facility that will include renewables technology, to the extent technically feasible.