Amtrak Criticized for Derailments, Problems at New York’s Penn Station

By | April 7, 2017

The heads of the two major commuter rail lines that use New York’s Penn Station took turns criticizing Amtrak on Wednesday for two recent derailments that continued to cause headaches for commuters in the nation’s busiest rail hub.

Rail service has been cut back since Monday morning’s derailment took out eight of 21 tracks maintained by Amtrak.

With the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit still operating on abbreviated schedules Wednesday evening – and bearing the brunt of criticism from angry riders – their directors took aim at Amtrak, which owns and operates the tracks, signals and switches in the station complex.

New Jersey Transit customers are “beyond frustrated at the havoc that has been wreaked upon their lives,” NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro said. “It is Amtrak’s responsibility to take immediate action, and all corrective action, to resolve the continuing problems at Penn Station New York.”

Santoro noted that as a tenant that uses Amtrak’s infrastructure along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, NJ Transit pays tens of millions of dollars per year under a federal agreement to help pay for maintenance and repairs.

“We just paid $62 million, and we’re going to pay $74 million this year,” he said. “With that we expect results, we expect more focus, we expect better service from Amtrak for our customers.”

About 100,000 people use New Jersey Transit to get into New York daily, either directly or through connections.

Monday’s derailment, as a NJ Transit inbound train approached a platform, came 10 days after an outbound Amtrak train derailed and scraped against an inbound NJ Transit train. No cause has been released for either incident.

The two incidents don’t appear to be related, Scot Naparstek, Amtrak’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday. No serious injuries were reported.

In a letter to Amtrak, acting Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Fernando Ferrer called the problems “unacceptable infrastructure failures” Wednesday and said they “leave the clear impression that Amtrak is not aggressively maintaining its tracks, switches and related equipment.”

Amtrak released a statement Wednesday night saying it values its partnership with commuter railroads and shares their frustration. Amtrak said it has requested the Federal Railway Administration join in a “thorough review of infrastructure” at Penn Station to evaluate current conditions.

“New York Penn Station is our busiest and most important station, and we take our role as host seriously and make every effort to keep it operating smoothly,” Amtrak said in the statement. “We are investigating the causes of these recent derailments and will take prompt action to address them.”

Amtrak also said it would continue to work with the two commuter rail lines to ensure that “adequate work windows and funding are available to keep these heavily-used and aged assets functioning reliably as we pursue the long term goal of modernizing Penn Station infrastructure.”

Santoro called on Amtrak to form a team of experts, including from the LIRR and NJ Transit, to “walk every inch” of the tracks in Penn Station to inspect their conditions. He also called for NJ Transit to have a bigger say in how the station is operated.

The derailments renewed calls for accelerating a multibillion-dollar project to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River and expand Penn Station. The Gateway project has been approved for a federal grant program, but President Donald Trump’s recent proposed budget could jeopardize funding, project supporters say.

A previous project to build a new tunnel was killed in 2010 by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over concerns about cost overruns. The existing tunnel dates back more than 100 years and is a source of regular delays due to electrical problems.

The derailments also were brought up in the nomination vote for a new deputy secretary of transportation Wednesday.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker told fellow committee members he was voting against nominee Jeff Rosen for what he considered a lack of commitment to infrastructure spending.

Booker called it “unconscionable” that the Northeast Corridor, a critical artery that supports hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity, is in such deteriorated condition.

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