Amtrak Is Under Fire For Delays At New York's Penn Station

May 21, 2017
Originally published on May 21, 2017 8:20 am
Copyright 2017 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit WNYC Radio.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

New York City's Penn Station is the busiest transit hub in the country. It's where three rail lines converge, and it's the only connection for New Jersey rail commuters into New York City. Amtrak owns and maintains the station. And when there's a problem at Penn, it creates a ripple effect of delays for rail traffic in the northeast. From member station WNYC in New York, Stephen Nessen reports the agency is under pressure after two derailments.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: In late March, an Amtrak train was leaving Penn Station when it collided with a New Jersey Transit train. Thirty-four-year-old Jordan Geary from Montclair was on the New Jersey train.

JORDAN GEARY: The initial impact happened next to my head and then proceeded to rake down my car and the car behind mine, popping in all the windows, knocking all the doors off their hinges and, you know, shearing metal.

NESSEN: The cause of the derailment was a newly replaced piece of rail that was mismatched by a quarter-inch. The trains were traveling at such low speeds that there were no major injuries, but it caused over a week of delays and cancellations while Amtrak made repairs and inspected the tracks. Two weeks later, New Jersey commuters were jolted again by another derailment as a train arrived at the platform.

JUDY SCHULER: It started to lurch, and then it had a big bang, and that was it.

NESSEN: Judy Schuler from Princeton Junction was on that train.

SCHULER: How do you take that in that there is now a second derailment in such a short time?

NESSEN: This time, it was a weak railroad tie that caused the tracks to spread, derailing three cars. At a press conference later that week, Amtrak's CEO, Wick Moorman, admitted that Amtrak knew there was an issue with this part of the tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WICK MOORMAN: We had notations that these timbers needed to be replaced. We clearly did not have the understanding that there was an imminent failure.

NESSEN: He said as part of Amtrak's regular maintenance and upgrades, these ties were slated to be replaced later this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOORMAN: Clearly, that was something where we got it wrong.

NESSEN: This time, it was more than two weeks before service was back to normal. Moorman apologized to commuters but says train traffic has doubled at Penn Station since the 1970s, the last time the tracks received a major upgrade.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in charge of the Long Island Rail Road. It leases space at Penn and accounts for more than half of all the commuters there. He says he'll build his own train terminal. He blames a lack of federal funding for the conditions at Penn Station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: It is deplorable, and it was avoidable, and it was foreseeable. And there are no excuses.

NESSEN: Amtrak's long-term solution is the Gateway Program, an expansion of Penn Station that includes adding a second tunnel between New York and New Jersey. But it would require $12 billion in federal funding. This summer, Amtrak will attempt to make several years' worth of upgrades to Penn Station. During that time, it will reduce service by 25 percent, giving riders a summers-long headache. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.