Entrance to NY Penn Station

While Amtrak officials knew that tracks at New York's Penn Station were deteriorating to the point of danger, getting permission to perform repairs was not easy. According to investigative reporting by Michael LaForgia for the New York Times (October 9), conflicting projects, with political overtones, hampered the urgent calls by Amtrak engineering and track maintenance personnel to proceed with repair work.  The situation finally boiled over with derailments of trains on March 24, April 3, and July 6, all at the complex junction of trackwork at the west end of the station. When the derailments started to occur, Amtrak declared that the only way to address the many problems was to reduce the capacity of the station for eight weeks during the summer, which led to massive rescheduling of trains and rerouting of commuters, notably on the Morris & Essex Lines of NJ Transit, where most weekday trains were diverted to Hoboken.

While money is a factor in getting the work done, an even more precious commodity is "track time," the closing of tracks so work can be done. Amtrak is forced to ration track time to several competing projects, to limit the disruption to scheduled train service. According to the article, a main competitor for track time needed for track repairs has been the construction of the Moynihan train hall -- the conversion of the General Post Office west of Eighth Avenue to a new facility that will mainly serve Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers.  The new train hall has been a pet project of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; in turn, Cuomo's support has been critical to Amtrak's plans for a massive expansion of Penn Station called Gateway. So, the article suggests, Amtrak was sensitive to the needs of the Moynihan project -- to the extent that track repairs were sidelined until it was too late. Over a period from 2013 to 2017, according to the Times' calculations, contractors for Moynihan were granted 2200 hours of weekend track time, while Amtrak 's crews got only 1800 hours.  While the Moynihan contractors do not work on the tracks themselves, they need the tracks taken out of service so they can install columns and girders.

Competition for track time and other resources within Amtrak was intense. In March, 2017, as repairs were finally getting underway, Amtrak's head of track maintenance, Andrew Keefe, learned that the track project would stretch out for a year or more, and that Amtrak was considering giving even more priority to Moynihan. Mr. Keefe, the Times article says, lost his temper, pounding the table and saying, "You're not going to be happy until you put a train on the ground (i.e., cause a derailment)." Mr. Keefe was prescient; just weeks later came the first derailment.  Soon, an accelerated project, requiring the eight-week summer "blitz," was announced, although Amtrak "had long regarded disrupting weekday service as anathema," said the Times, quoting Amtrak co-CEO Charles Moorman. But this summer, that's what Amtrak concluded it had to do.

Although this summer's work achieved a lot of progress in the deferred maintenance at Penn Station, there is a lot more to do, and Amtrak would not foreclose the possibility that more weekday work intervals might be needed in the future.