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OpinionColumnistsAmanda Fiscina

What we learned touring 'summer of hell' construction

Newsday's editorial board got a first-hand look at the emergency repairs on the tracks and switches with Amtrak CEO Charles "Wick" Moorman.

Workers are removing the equivalent of six football fields’ worth of old rails, rotting wooden ties and cracked cement via narrow tunnels, then installing new equipment. If work was limited to nights or weekends such a piecemeal project would've taken two years. But doing major repairs while operating one of the nation’s busiest commuter rail operations is disrupting service.

Take a look below at 10 things we learned and observed during our field trip.

Penn Station control center isn't in Penn

Our tour actually started above ground with a
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

Our tour actually started above ground with a walk to the main control room several blocks away.

While Amtrak's newer switches could be controlled elsewhere, some of the older Long Island Rail Road switches are hardwired from that building to the tracks in Penn Station, so the control room must remain where it is.

Central control room

At the control center, we were led into
Photo Credit: Randi F. Marshall

At the control center, we were led into what seemed to be an ordinary board room -- until curtains opened to reveal this view overlooking the main control room.

The board shows all of the track routes through Penn Station at every moment. The colors indicate if a route is occupied or out of service.

Back to Penn Station

After an interview with Moorman about how conditions

After an interview with Moorman about how conditions got so bad and a look at the nerve center of the operation, we headed back to Penn and the tracks below.

Along the way, one of the interesting pieces of information we discovered is that Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan is used to store LIRR trains, and Sunnyside Yards in Queens is used to store Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains.

Counterintuitive right?

Stepping underground and back in time

The staircase we used to enter the track
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

The staircase we used to enter the track under construction dates all the way back to 1910, when the original Pennsylvania Station was completed.

Parts of the platform and track where this staircase leads also date back to the original construction, showing just how dated this infrastructure is.

Construction ceiling

Down on the platform, Amtrak rep Stephen Gardner
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

Down on the platform, Amtrak rep Stephen Gardner pointed out that the ceiling above the platform includes the "glass bricks" that once allowed the light to filter down below from the airy and grander Beaux-Art station that was demolished in 1963.

What's on the tracks

We learned that the special, small cranes used
Photo Credit: Lane Filler

We learned that the special, small cranes used to do work on very confined spaces with low ceilings like this are called "burros."

Much of the shutdown track area was being used for storage, either for new rail equipment or for the crane and other heavy machinery. All of the materials have to enter the space through the tracks.

The old tracks and the new tracks

They still use old-fashioned wood railroad ties coated
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

They still use old-fashioned wood railroad ties coated in creosote and that they are apparently the most effective technology in certain circumstances.

Modern pre-made track can't be used here because there is a basement level directly underneath Track 10. Due to this, the track must be custom wood and concrete.

The construction materials

Most of the materials being used in this
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

Most of the materials being used in this construction are custom made -- there's not a one-size-fits-all here, and that clearly makes it so much more complicated.

Gardner even said, "This is not something you go to the rail equipment aisle of Home Depot and pick up."

What you can pick up at Home Depot is some soap and paint, but crews won't be using any of that. We were told that this is not a beautification project, and the project strictly sticks to track repairs and not cleaning the dirty, worn platforms.

A interlocking

Construction on Track 10 has disrupted trains entering
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

Construction on Track 10 has disrupted trains entering on the west side of the station. According to Amtrak, this area called "A interlocking" is one of the most complex intersections of track on the Northeast Corridor. It routes trains across 21 tracks entering and exiting the station from the Hudson River tunnels and the LIRR's West Side Yard.

Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman said the name interlocking comes from when mechanical signals were designed to prevent collisions by making it impossible to allow conflicting movements.

'Summer of hell' is not just hot for commuters

During the summer, the temperature in the tunnels
Photo Credit: Amanda Fiscina

During the summer, the temperature in the tunnels can get up to 120 degrees, according to Moorman.

When that happens, crews don't stop working, they just turn on fans, give more breaks and distribute lots of liquids.

Read more about our tour here and email thepoint@newsday.com with any "summer of hell" questions you have.

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