NJ Transit will partner with the US Department of Energy to study the design a new kind of “electrical microgrid” to make the railroad’s electrical power and control systems more resilient. NJ Governor Christie characterized the effort as part of the program to make NJ Transit less vulnerable to events such as Hurricane Sandy, which crippled the transit system in October, 2012. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (August 27), Christie and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced the program in a press conference at the Secaucus Transfer train station on August 26. Moniz also stressed the vulnerability of New Jersey to rising sea levels.
It was not immediately clear just which NJT power systems would be covered by the new “microgrid,” dubbed “NJ Transitgrid”; reports suggested that parts of the railroad’s electric traction system, rail yards, and key passenger stations would be covered by the plan. Reportedly, the speakers stressed the key position of NJT train operations within the Northeast Corridor and the potential effect on NJT power failures on the entire Northeast; however, most of the NJT facilities in the Northeast Corridor are actually operated by Amtrak, and there was no mention of Amtrak participation in the study or program.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that improvements in the electric traction system used by NJT is critical to long-term service reliability; however, the most vulnerable areas are in the Amtrak power systems, which should be the main focus of any improvements of the power systems.
All the talk is of high-speed trains, but NJ Transit commuters wonder whether they will ever benefit, as commuter trains with their many stops, long loading times, and terminal congestion delays seem to be bogged down in a 19th-Century era, often managing less than 30 miles per hour average end-to-end. Still, it’s possible to run trains at breathtaking speeds on some of the same tracks that NJT commuters travel every day. Monday night, September 24, Amtrak tested an out-of-the-box Acela trainset on the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and Trenton, the same tracks used by dozens of NJT trains every day.
However, Amtrak’s train was trying for a new speed record of 165 mph, according to the story in the Star-Ledger the next day (by Mike Frassinelli). Even Amtrak’s fastest trains are limited to 135 mph on that stretch of track. Engineers were still bent over their slide rules and calculators, trying to figure out if the 165 mph goal had actually been acheived. Motivation for the test runs includes a project to upgrade the overhead “catenary” power-supply wires, which suffer from a design dating from the original electrification in the 1930s; the new system, to cost $450 million, will allow speeds up to 160 mph—hence the Sept. 24 tests aiming for 5 miles faster. Simiilar tests are scheduled up and down the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure improvements on all lines are essential, and notes that bridge replacement, new trans-Hudson tunnels, and catenary upgrades on the Northeast Corridor all will be vital to ensure that the transportation system continues to meet the needs of the region.
Aging infrastructure, and the lack of cash to fix it, particularly on the Northeast Corridor, are cited as a main cause of service delays on NJ Transit, according to reporting by Karen Rouse and Dave Sheingold of The Record (reported in the Star-Ledger, August 8). An NEC commuter is quoted as saying that conductors frequently blame signal problems, and Amtrak (which owns and maintains the Northeast Corridor track) as the cause of delays.
The Record (newspaper) analyzed operating records from 2002 to 2012 in the study, which showed that the NEC had the worst on-time performance, 91.7%. In contrast, the Main/Bergen and Pascack Valley Lines, which do not connect physically with the Northeast Corridor, posted the best performance: about 97.5% for both. Morning rush hour is the worst time to ride the trains, with 1 in 12 delayed; the evening is better, with 1 in 18, and off-peak best of all, with 1 in 24 delayed. The study noted the difference between operating and capital funding: NJT sends Amtrak about $70 million a year for operating costs, but its contribution to capital projects remains stuck near 1996 levels: $55 million was spent in the past year; $50 million in 1996. Amtrak notes that there has not been significant funding increases from Congress since 1976.
Also, while track and signal problems are a significant cause of delays, bad rolling stuck (locomotives and rail cars) are actually the leading cause of delays. Dispatching delays, when Amtrak and NJT trains compete for scarce track space, also are significant. Key infrastructure components at risk include the power system that supplies the signals, and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, over which all NJT trains to Manhattan must pass; the bridge is 100 years old, dating from the original Penn Station, and Portal failures accounted for roughly 75 NJT train delays last year. Additional delays occur when the bridge must be opened for marine traffic, and trains must travel at reduced speeds over the span at all times.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure conditions have reached a critical point, especially on the Northeast Corridor, and must be addressed immediately; replacement of the Portal Bridge is an essential component of any plan going forward.
Increasingly, transportation experts and politicians are getting behind a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel plan, the so-called Gateway project, according to Steve Strunsky, reporting in the Star-Ledger (June 14). The catchier “Gateway” name isn’t the only advantage over the now-defunct Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, derided as “the stop in Macy’s basement”. Like ARC, Gateway would double rail capacity into Manhattan by constructing 2 additional trans-Hudson rail tubes, and would also encompass smaller projects, including the Moynihan Station expansion of Penn Station passenger facilities into the main Post Office and replacement of the aging Portal bridge over the Hackensack River. However unlike ARC, Gateway would be fully integrated into the existing Penn Station.
Amtrak board member Anthony Cosca, speaking at a Regional Plan Association conference, said, “What should be clear is that nobody, nobody is debating that we need this.” Where the money might come from remains unclear; estimated cost of the project is $13–15 billion, higher than the ARC project estimates. New Jersey Gov. Christie, who killed the ARC project as an unaffordable cost to NJ taxpayers, has not ruled out support for Gateway. Amtrak supports the project as essential to eliminate a bottleneck limiting Amtrak’s long-range high-speed rail plans. If Gateway goes forward, it would take until 2025 to complete the project. NJ State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said that Gov. Christie would be fully briefed on Gateway; “We’ll see where it goes,” Simpson said.
Quoted on radio station WNYC (June 14), New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Joseph Lhota says that there are solutions to the capacity limits at New York’s Penn Station—if the railroads using the busy terminal would cooperate more. Lhota said there are three ways to increase capacity: longer platforms, more sharing of platforms among the three railroads (NJ Transit, MTA’s Long Island Rail Road, and Amtrak), and sharing of tracks, particularly if trains would be scheduled to run straight through the station, serving customers both east and west— the MTA/NJT cooperative service from Connecticut to New Jersey for fall football games shows that this is feasible.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that increased cooperation between the various operating agencies is vital to an efficient regional transportation network; through-running, a unified fare system, coordinated schedules, and compatible equipment all have a part to play. Until additional tunnels can be built under the Hudson, however, rush-hour capacity to New Jersey appears limited to the number of trains currently in service; the tunnels simply cannot handle more trains. In the near term, it appears that if demand on NJT and Amtrak trains continues to increase, solutions will involve increased use of the Hoboken gateway and economic incentives to encourage travel outside of peak periods.
Three severe service disruptions in as many days made commuting difficult for New Jersey rail riders on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, June 21st, 22nd, and 23d. Although the difficulties originated on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Line, some commuters and other riders on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone Lines were affected. These lines use NEC track for some of their route to New York Penn Station.
Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Alan has called for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to upgrade the electrical system on the railroad, which was built in the 1930s and has been blamed for the disruptions. Alan also said that the railroad should be brought to a state of good repair before pursuing major expansion projects.
The Amtrak plan would build new rail tunnels into the existing Penn Station, with new tracks to be built between 30th and 31st Streets, south of the existing station. The station itself would be extended southward to accommodate new platforms, which would terminate just east of Seventh Avenue. Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River would be replaced, and 2 new tracks would be built to Manhattan.
The Lackawanna Coalition considers this proposal a major step in the right direction, because Amtrak is not actively involved in proposing more rail capacity to the existing Penn Station. It is also a significant improvement over New Jersey Transit’s former proposal, because it does not include a “deep-cavern” terminal, disconnected from the existing station.
The Amtrak proposal in its present form does not present the entire solution to the region’s transit needs. New capacity is needed on the East Side, not on the West Side, which is already served from New Jersey. Amtrak also proposes essentially a new 2-track line, which would not have the operational flexibility that would be gained from expanding the existing line into a 4-track railroad.
The Lackawanna Coalition and other rail advocates in the region continue to push for the Affordable ARC Now – Not Later! alternative, which would bring 2 new tracks directly into the existing Penn Station. The line could be extended to the East Side later, when funding becomes available.
The Lackawanna Coalition calls for 3 elements of the Amtrak “Gateway” plan to be built as soon as possible: 2 new tunnels under the Hudson River for new tracks into Penn Station, a new 2-track line between the place where the M&E Line joins Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) line (Swift Interlocking, east of Newark) to Penn Station, and a new bridge on that line over the Hackensack River. We suggest the existing Portal Bridge be rehabilitated, rather than replaced.
Other elements, including eventual East Side access, can be built later, when funding becomes available. We believe that this project would provide the most cost-effective and least-expensive long-term solution to the Penn Station capacity constraints that prevail at peak commuting hours.
The plan to extend the existing Penn Station into the historic Farley Post Office Building on the west side of Eighth Avenue received a boost as the Federal Government gave the project a grant of $83.3 million under the TIGER (Transportation Improvements Generating Economic Recovery) Program. New York State and Amtrak officials hailed the move, which would improve capacity in the station and provide a place where it would be easier to make connections than in the current Penn Station layout. The Lackawanna Coalition urges NJT to build new tunnels and tracks that will go to the existing Penn Station, so New Jersey’s rail riders can also take advantage of the improvements that the Moynihan Station plan is slated to produce.