Amtrak: East River tunnel repairs, maintenance procedures to change

An Amtrak train disappears into a tunnel in An Amtrak train disappears into a tunnel in Hunter's Point, Queens. (May 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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Amtrak Monday will announce major changes in the way it maintains and repairs the problem-plagued East River tunnels.

The new initiative -- an effort aimed in part at reducing Long Island Rail Road service disruptions to and from Penn Station -- is to include:

Replacing track components on a regular schedule instead of waiting for them to deteriorate.

Conducting inspections during the day when more crews are available to make repairs.

Protecting tracks from corrosive or damaging contaminants.

"These tunnels are the weakest link in the commute of hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders, and by bringing them up to a state of good repair we'll reduce the frequency of the maddening delays, reroutes and cancellations that currently happen far too often," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who for years has pushed for tunnel improvements.

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"By committing to repairing and upgrading the tunnels, Amtrak is committing to improve the day-to-day life of almost anyone who rides the LIRR," he said.

Other elected leaders, riders' advocates and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority also have put pressure on Amtrak to better maintain and repair the century-old East River tunnels it owns. The four tunnels are used by LIRR trains traveling to and from Penn Station.

Details of the plan's costs and implementation schedule were not immediately available. Some of the expense likely would come from the $86 million in superstorm Sandy recovery money awarded to Amtrak, according to Schumer's office.

Service disruptions caused by problems in the tunnels or Amtrak efforts to fix them have been on the rise. At least six major disruptions occurred over the summer, including the June derailment of an LIRR passenger train that was caused by a loose track component in one of the Amtrak tunnels.

"In response to the ongoing challenges and service disruptions over the past year, Amtrak has developed short- and long-range plans to address infrastructure issues in the Penn Station New York complex, including the East River Tunnels," agency spokesman Clifford Cole said in a statement. The initiatives "underscore the urgency to move forward to improve the aging and degrading infrastructure," he said.

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Amtrak will move its routine investigation of potential problems on tracks to daytime, instead of overnight, so that more workers will be available to respond and repairs could be made faster, according to Schumer's office. Amtrak also will step up the scope and frequency of inspections on rail switch locations known as interlockings.

The new plan also calls for the elimination of all sections of track connected by steel plates that can lead to problems when bolts become old or loose. The so-called "jointed rail" will be replaced by welded rail.

Amtrak will also implement a new policy of monthly cleaning and caulking on rail sections susceptible to contaminants such as corrosive steel dust.

And the agency will adopt a new approach to proactively replace parts and maintain sections of track based on age and use, instead of their condition. Amtrak said the new approach is a departure from its previous strategy of replacing worn-out parts "just in time."

"These initiatives take the right approach for LIRR riders," said Mark Epstein, LIRR Commuter Council chairman. "Drawing on sound asset management principles, Amtrak's plan emphasizes identifying risks and taking pre-emptive action to prevent failures that lead to disruptions and delays for riders, rather than performing repairs once infrastructure has failed."

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Separately, Amtrak is moving forward with a plan to replace and modernize all the tracks inside the tunnels. The project, started in 2011, is to be completed sometime between August 2017 and May 2019, according to Amtrak.

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