Commuting by rail in the metropolitan area was horrific this past week. Four days of delays, cancellations, and overcrowded stations were enough to make some want to just stay home.
This isn’t new or unusual. In the past month, commuters were delayed when a downed power cable disabled a train under the East River, when another train derailed at Penn Station, and when switch problems hit Penn during rush hour.
Enough is enough. The commuter chaos underscores concerns about the region’s railroad system overall, and Penn Station’s tracks and switches in particular. The region’s transportation infrastructure is old and decrepit, the management at Penn Station insufficient. But the strong reaction to last week’s commuting nightmare, combined with Washington D.C.’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plans, could lay the tracks for change.
Consider Amtrak’s explanation of what happened on Monday, when an NJ Transit train pulled into Penn Station and derailed. The wooden ties beneath the rails were weak. Amtrak had planned to repair them “at some point this year.” The rails moved apart and the train’s wheels came off. Eight tracks were unusable. The Long Island Rail Road had to give up four for NJ Transit and Amtrak use. Four days later, commuters were still paying the price.
“We clearly did not have the understanding that there was an imminent failure,” Amtrak CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman said.
This is not a good answer, and leaves us asking: What else don’t you understand about your own infrastructure? What’s going to go wrong next?
It’s a reason why responsibility for operating and managing Penn Station should be wrested away from Amtrak, which oversees the spaghetti of tracks, tunnels and switches there.
That wasn’t always the case. For decades, the Pennsylvania Railroad was in charge. Not long after it merged with New York Central, the combined entity declared bankruptcy. In 1971, Amtrak was created.
In recent years, Amtrak’s management of Penn Station and the tracks and tunnels has come under fire. LIRR officials have blamed some delays in the construction of East Side Access — which will connect LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal — on a lack of support and cooperation from Amtrak. Amtrak, they say, has not provided enough workers or access to tracks to get East Side Access done.
And problems at or around Penn hurt LIRR riders disproportionately. About 230,000 LIRR riders use Penn Station each day, compared with 100,000 on NJ Transit, and 30,000 on Amtrak.
Beyond that, Amtrak’s inability to manage a minor train derailment does bode well for the system’s larger infrastructure needs, especially when it comes to the existing, storm-damaged, century-old tunnels under the Hudson River. What would happen if a critical tunnel between New Jersey and New York has to shutter? The impact would be devastating, and Amtrak likely wouldn’t be able to handle it.
And what about the Gateway Project, the effort to replace the Hudson River train tunnels? How can that move forward without capable leadership? We can ask that question about East Side Access, and other key projects, too.
Amtrak’s funds are constrained by the whims of Congress. It faces severe financial losses outside of the Northeast Corridor, and its attention is spread nationally. It’s overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. As of now, FRA has no administrator, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao unfortunately has said nothing about Amtrak’s troubles.
But this may be a key moment. As President Donald Trump plans a national infrastructure bill, the region’s transit system and key projects like Gateway should be at the top of his list.
For now, Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo and Chris Christie will have to push Amtrak to show it can tackle immediate needs, and prevent minor incidents from becoming major headaches. Amtrak has to become more accountable to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and NJ Transit.
But the two governors, along with the region’s congressional delegation, also can take the lead in pushing for alternatives to Amtrak’s leadership at Penn. It would mean taking on Amtrak’s unions, but it can be done. That may mean bigger roles for transportation arms like the MTA or the Port Authority, which leads on Gateway. Both entities are not without flaws and bureaucratic tangles. Why not consider creating a new entity to operate Penn Station, either through a public-private partnership or perhaps a new private consortium that reports directly to elected officials?
What’s clear is that Amtrak can no longer drive this train. If it does, it’ll certainly derail.