Oct
25

Some thoughts on the status of Amtrak’s Hudson River infrastructure

By

It's not entirely clear what problem Amtrak is trying to solve with its Gateway Tunnel or how urgent the problem may be.

Amtrak was briefly in the news over the weekend when Chris Christie made a stir in the Quiet Car. Rushing for an Acela from D.C. to the Garden State, the New Jersey Governor either didn’t realize he was in the Quiet Car or didn’t care. One story has him huffing his way out of the Quiet Car after complaints of loud phone calls while another has him apologetically leaving once he realized his mistake. He’s no stranger to Amtrak, and I’m inclined to believe he simply didn’t notice at first that he was in the Quiet Car. The way the story went viral on Sunday though is indicative of the way the Quiet Car has been a success story. If only the rest of Amtrak were this successful.

Meanwhile, the long-range plans for Amtrak’s Hudson River tubes were in the news last week as Crain’s New York took a look at ways the region can increase trans-Hudson capacity before Gateway comes to fruition. Noting that the current condition of the North River Tunnels is “a daily threat to transport and commerce,” Veronica Vanterpool, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued that we could and should act now. Generally, she argued for ferries (…) and prioritizing buses through current crossings. I’ll come back to her ideas later this week as they’re worth revisiting on their own.

Let’s look though at the argument surrounding the condition of the North River Tunnels. As now, it’s not exactly clear what the risks are to Amtrak’s tunnels. Seemingly in order to spur political action, the company has warned of potential defects and urged timely action. They’ve been pursuing this line of argument since Hurricane Sandy swept through the 100-year-old North River Tunnels, and in doing so, they’ve obscured the debate to their benefit.

There are essentially three different but intertwined arguments. The first is that trans-Hudson capacity is a problem because it limits the number of people who can enter into and pass through Manhattan in a timely fashion. This is a hinderance to rail expansion and a high-speed rail network running along the Northeast Corridor. The second is that a lack of redundancy makes the Hudson River chokepoint particularly vulnerable to disruptions both now and in the future. The third is that the aging infrastructure needs to be updated but can’t if there isn’t enough redundancy to weather the traffic. By conflating the three, Amtrak can argue that it needs more tunnels because the old ones are in danger of damage, and the system doesn’t have the redundancy required to pick up the load.

That’s all well and good (and perhaps, in a sense, true), but if Amtrak is truly worried that its tunnel is going to collapse, why is it running trains through it on a daily basis? Is this some sort of Russian roulette with rail passengers or a ploy? If the tunnels are going to fail in the future, the argument for investment can focus on needs; if the tunnels are at risk of failing tomorrow, then the time to act was yesterday. One way or another, Amtrak should be clear on these risks. Support for a multi-billion-dollar tunnel hinges on it.



Categories : Gateway Tunnel

49 Responses to “Some thoughts on the status of Amtrak’s Hudson River infrastructure”

  1. LC says:

    “Amtrak was briefly in the news over the weekend when Chris Christie made a stir in the Quiet Car.”

    Gawker ? news.

    https://twitter.com/Olivianuzzi/status/658378597338652673?ref_src=twsrc^tfw

  2. Will says:

    I think you’re certainly right that Amtrak is being deliberately vague to its benefit. On the other hand, the North River tunnels did flood to the same extent as the MTA tunnels under the East River, and I see the transit authority taking those tunnels out of service for many weekends or several months at a time. Granted, I’m in no position to say if the waters that flooded the North River tunnels were as brackish as the East River, and if Amtrak’s tunnels suffer from the same salt corrosion that seemed to affect the MTA tunnels or the PATH tunnels downstream. Still, it might not be unreasonable to think that some extended rebuilding might be needed beyond the outages Amtrak has been able to program in. I believe I read a report (citing Amtrak sources) in the Times saying that the tunnels were leaking in places, but not being an engineer I have no idea if that’s a real, new, or dangerous behavior from these tunnels. The near-term issue isn’t clear, whether it’s a vague-defined safety threat from the tunnels or just the ability to maintain service over the next ten years. I think you rightly call out Amtrak’s deliberate obfuscation. On the other hand, it’s hard to say the trans-Hudson infrastructure isn’t currently over-capacity, that significant new capacity can be created easily, or that the existing infrastructure isn’t in a poor state of repair and in need of redundancy. I wouldn’t want to see this transit project further delayed or vetoed because someone argued the need wasn’t immediate–if not for safety, than for the ability of the transit system to function in an over-capacity state. Or, worse, see the capital funds get diverted again to political pet projects of Christie-Cuomo.

    • Nathanael says:

      The necessary thing to do is to
      (a) rip out everything inside the iron rings,
      (b) seal any leaks in the iron rings with grout,
      (b) rebuild everything inside the iron rings.

      There’s really no other long-term alternative; there’s hidden, continuing concrete damage.

      Amtrak keeps running trains rather than shutting down one tube at a time for this… because with only one tube in operation, NJT would basically have to shut down operations (or divert everyone to Hoboken). It’s a favor to New Jersey.

      • adirondacker12800 says:

        There’s not enough capacity in Hoboken and except for strong swimmers, no way to get to Manhattan.

        • Jon Y says:

          How exactly is there not enough capacity at Hoboken for NJT? I live near the tracks and can tell you that, short of maybe a few stretches during rush hour, the 4 track lines run WAY less trains than they should. I don’t know the exact numbers off-hand but I would be very surprised to see even a 35+ tph count. Before you give me crap, remember that there are 4 tracks leading into 18 terminal tracks. The LIRR has 4 East River tunnels leading into effectively 8 tracks (13-21) and can have way more service than NJT does, even in shared trackage.

          I DO agree that there is not enough capacity in getting people from Hoboken into NY short of the idea floated around of having the HBLR take a full tube of the Lincoln, but even then, still highly unlikely. The HOB-33 PATH gets to crushload capacity when there are NJT operational issues. Before you say “add more trains to lower the 7 minute peak headway” remember that the JSQ-33 line gets the priority at ~3 minute headways because of the much higher current peak demand.

          • Brooklynite says:

            This is where extending the 7 to Hoboken comes in.

          • adirondacker12800 says:

            It’s very difficult to put 12 car trains from Trenton into 9 car platforms in Hoboken and get people off the trains in reasonable amounts of time. Even harder at the shorter platforms. Not to mention it would foul the interlocking.

            • Nathanael says:

              Not really a problem. They can run three nine-car trains instead of two twelve-car trains. There’s enough capacity on the four-track NEC.

              As stated before, the actual problem is how people get from Hoboken to Manhattan. You’d have to get some huge foot ferries very very quickly and they’d be running constantly.

      • Eric F says:

        Amtrak doesn’t have funding to repair the tunnels anyway.

      • Jedman67 says:

        And if you shut down one tunnel for ongoing repairs – for a day, a year – you effectively cut capacity by 3/4. Imagine your worst NJT gridlock – EVERY. DAY.
        On the other hand, all the articles i’ve read state that without a full shutdown and repair job, patchwork overnight and weekend repairs can only do so much before the tunnels deteriorate beyond the ability to repair without a complete overhaul.
        All the newspapers peg this time-frame at around 10-12 years; which means that the tunnels are not unsafe for current usage NOW, but eventually will become unsafe without a level of maintenance that is impossible on an active ROW.
        So, yes, the HR tunnels are in desperate need of maintenance, and the region is in desperate need of new tunnels. But it’s poor form to wait until the infrastructure is in danger of imminent collapse before building a replacement.

  3. Eric F says:

    That story sounds too wrapped up in a bow to be true, but if it is, I think it’s great that in the U.S. even a Governor has to leave the quiet car if he wants to jabber on his phone.

    As for the tunnels, I think the answer is “all of the above”, and using sandy as an impetus to start work is as good a lever as any. The redundancy is needed even under “normal” conditions. A two track configuration simply leaves no margin for error, and little hiccups in train operations lead to cascading delays very frequently.

  4. FLTD says:

    The main problem with the tunnels are Sandy-related damage where the saltwater intrusion did a number on the tunnel surfaces and sped up the pre-existing concrete corrosion. Similar phenomenon to what you’d see on a sidewalk or garage/basement floor where either a botched pour or advancing age makes the top layer cease being water-tight, and the moisture intrusion a few millimeters into the concrete makes the surface turn to chalk and start rapidly flaking off. So there’s escalating risk of little tufts of chalkified concrete falling off the walls and ceilings. Not heavy enough to be hazardous to trains but exposing the less water-tight subsurface layers of concrete to ever more rapid decay, getting caught on the overhead wires, gunking up signal equipment, and causing the screwed-in brackets that hold all the cable conduits to the wall to start jarring loose as the concrete around the fasteners disintegrates. They already have major leakage problems on the ceiling, requiring the “icicle train” to constantly be run–each and every day it’s below freezing underground–between passenger slots all winter. The overhead gets temporarily de-energized, and some guy on a hi-rail flatbed truck literally knocks down the icicles with a shovel to keep it from falling on the wires and shorting out a train pantograph. Then they spend nights shooting epoxy out of a caulk gun into whatever wall brackets are jarring loose that week. All these problems get exponentially worse the more the concrete flakes off and exposes the water-permeable subsurface.

    A re-surfacing and re-sealing isn’t something that can be done easily on night/weekend work without disruption to service because the tunnel floor underneath the trackbed also has to be re-sealed underneath the rock ballast to totally lick the problem. And all the brackets holding up the overhead wire, wall cables, signal mounts, and emergency lighting have to get wholesale replaced with each wall segment that gets re-sealed…meaning drying time for the mounts to all set in place before they can reattach everything and power back up. And several days of drying time for each X-ft. length of tunnel floor that gets re-sealed before they can re-ballast and re-lay track.

    Plus the third rail in the tunnels have been inoperable ever since Sandy, which limits the work equipment Amtrak can bring in there to work on the overhead wires when they’re de-energized. Slows down the patch work enough that they’re barely keeping up. And you won’t ever be running LIRR run-thru trains into Jersey to mythical Secaucus Loop using their next-gen third rail dual-mode locomotive and push-pull coach order until all that ruined DC power infrastructure gets wholesale-replaced. And then there’s fact that the signal and electrical was never permanently fixed after Sandy, just “good enough” band-aided (and band-aided and band-aided some more) to get back into service. It’s still on escalating decay that’ll outpace their ability to stay ahead of the day-to-day patch jobs.

    Only way to fix it is to surrender and take each tunnel offline for months at a time and get it over with in one furious blitz. Resurface the concrete, wholesale-replace all the cabling, and implement any necessary flood prevention modifications (pump installation, better drainage channels when they resurface the floor, new flood doors, etc.). None of it is a dire safety issue to anybody but the icicle guy with the shovel, so that part of the scaremongering is unwarranted. But it is a service outage catastrophe waiting to happen. And God forbid NYC gets another storm surge one iota as bad as Sandy; that’ll KO both tubes for a very long time with how brittle a condition they’re still in post-Sandy.

    • eo says:

      This is a very good description of the state of affairs. Thank you and let me add the following.

      Citing Ben:
      “That’s all well and good (and perhaps, in a sense, true), but if Amtrak is truly worried that its tunnel is going to collapse, why is it running trains through it on a daily basis?”

      The tunnels are not in danger of collapsing in 20 years. The reliability of them is in danger of going down to the point of having a train pass without an issue cropping up becoming a fair coin toss. Amtrak never said that the superstructure of the tunnels is in danger of collapsing. Everything else is the problem, not the superstructure (the cast iron metal rings). This includes the bench walls where the burned power cables are (the ones shown at the hearing), the concrete lining above which is not water tight anymore and causes the need for the “ice-patrols” during the winter, the invert under the tracks. The invert under the tracks is the big gorilla in the room because nobody knows what shape it is in. The invert is under the ballast and was never dried completely after Sandy. They pumped out the water after Sandy, but they pumped out what they could get to above the ballast. It is a safe bet that even now, years after Sandy there is a puddle of salty brackish water at the lowest points of both tubes. It is a hidden invisible puddle under the ballast that freezes and thaws every year slowly cracking and eating away with it concentrated salts whatever concrete and metal stuff it gets to. To get to the invert you need to remove the rails, remove the ties, and only then remove the ballast. You cannot do that over a few hours or days — it is just not possible to do — you need to close the tunnel in order to do it.

      Until they are able to close a tunnel and overhaul it, the reliability will slowly be creeping down: power cable will overheat tripping relays and breakers, icicles will form breaking off the pantographs of the engines (hint: there is a reason why during the winter NJ Transit runs with two pantographs up), the brackets holding the catenary will come off loose, requiring repair(sagging catenary will be “collected” by a pantograph wrecking havoc of the catenary and its supporting structures for a large distance), the signal system will short and fall back to restricting signals snarling the traffic, concrete chunks will eventually start falling onto the track from the benches and the ceiling making a derailment inside the tunnel more likely (do you know that the Vermonter recently was derailed by a relatively small rock that fell from a rock cut about 6 ft tall? That was a bad derailment on an almost empty train. A derailment of a full NJ Transit train at full speed inside the tunnel will close that tunnel for days and then they will make the trains crawl at 20mph — how many trains do you think you can get into Penn at those speeds?). The question is not about an imminent collapse of the tunnels. It is about their reliability.

      “Is this some sort of Russian roulette with rail passengers or a ploy?”

      Nobody is playing Russian roulette. The tunnels are safe, just becoming more and more unreliable. Please, do not scare your readers and everyone else by making such pronouncements. There is no need to ask the question is such a sensation seeking manner.

      • Nathanael says:

        Passengers are not at risk of death or serious injury. Passengers ARE at risk of their train getting derailed, disabled, and stuck in the tunnel for hours.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      Speaking of Sandy, Sandy Hornick had it right.

      http://www.nydailynews.com/opi.....-1.2303546

      If this were a real emergency, Amtrak would stop worrying about the rest of the Gateway plan and just build the river tunnel — even one-track — ASAP. Tie it into the existing Penn Station.

      Then it could shut down and repair the other tubes one at a time.

      Federal disaster aid is paying for NY to repair the subway tubes, so why not that?

      I agree with him, based on part on stuff I have read on this site.

      https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2015/10/20/the-gateway-tunnel-and-new-bus-terminal-more-money-that-new-jersey-and-the-port-authority-can-afford-and-more-time-than-they-have/

      • g says:

        It’s an emergency, just not for Amtrak. They’re using the situation to advance Gateway.

        If one of the tubes gets too unreliable or has a major incident they’ll just close it for a year long rehab and maintain Amtrak service in the other tube. NJT will be entirely up the creek without a paddle but that’s not Amtrak’s problem.

        • Nathanael says:

          This is correct. It’s actually an emergency for NJT. If one of the tubes gets too unreliable, Amtrak shuts it down — and with one tube, there’s room for Amtrak but not for NJT, basically.

  5. BoerumBum says:

    Unfortunately, the state of our political process is such that unless something is an imminent threat, it is completely ignored. Amtrak is probably just playing the game, knowing that if this is ignored until they actually have to stop running trains, we’re looking at a decade without Amtrak or NJTransit trains crossing the Hudson.

  6. LLQBTT says:

    Amtrak has no choice but to run trains through the tunnels. Would they seriously stop running trains because the tunnels are at risk? That’s not politically achievable and not how things work in our system. We run under there’s a “tragedy”, and then everyone lines up behind an aggressive recovery process, all rules, studies and costs be damned!

    • eo says:

      Correct — they have no choice but to run the trains. Eventually though to cover their liability they will cut the speeds down to say 20mph inside the tunnels, so that a train can be stopped if an engineer sees derbis fallen onto the tracks from the peeling cracking concrete ceiling and benches. How many trains do you think you can get in at 20mph?

      • Alon Levy says:

        Why would slowing down a) actually improve safety, or b) reduce capacity? The “the engineer must be able to slow down” thing is bullshit; if there’s any danger of debris falling on the tracks, the tunnel should be immediately shut down.

        • Eric says:

          Both tunnels?

        • Eric says:

          Anyway, a low speed collision/derailment is less lethal than a high speed one.

        • eo says:

          We do not disagree here — I said “eventually”. As of right now that danger does not exist, but when it slowly creeps up over the course of the next say 20 years, that is what would happen if money is not found for something to be done. The “no money” scenario for maintenance over long period of time leads to slow down until it is safe enough — something similar (but not the same) occurred with the oil trains. Our freight railroads do not have the money to keep the track to good enough maintenance standard to allow for normal speeds of such cargo, so they slowed it down. Same will happen here, just not now, but 20 years from now if no proper maintenance of the tubes is performed.

        • Nathanael says:

          There is danger of debris falling on the tracks right now. The tunnels are not being shut down, because this is the United States, and we have a long record of not really caring about safety. (See Streetsblog on traffic violence if you want proof that we as a nation have historically not cared.)

        • FLTD says:

          As for a)…

          You do absolutely slow down if wire sag from ceiling fixtures loosened by corroded concrete and the icicle problem get bad enough that it risks ripping a fully-compressed pantograph down inside an enclosed space. That’s S.O.P. everywhere in the world, and why the tightest-clearance tunnels are most often slower than the ones with a bit more ceiling overhead and space for more pantograph extension (when all else is equal). But wire sag is one of the primary issues here where the corrosion is manifesting itself, so if/when there’s a problem they have no choice but to restrict.

          That probably makes very little real-world difference re: b) because it’s not a fast trip to begin with and it’s doubtful the Gateway Tunnel will be here or there in terms of being tangibly faster on the schedule. Portal Bridge is the speed restriction that sets the ruling limit on service levels. They can probably live with further speed restrictions in the tunnels if the new bridge gets built with due haste and zaps that toilet clog.

          Of course…that’s not what everyone fears about the tunnels and service levels through them. It’s one or both of them getting knocked out of service by one of the multitude of things big and small that can’t be fixed on an overnight or weekend shift. Or another intrusion event ¼ as bad as Sandy.

  7. PL says:

    1 – Amtrak is a dysfunctional organization. This is not (or should not be) news. Take everything they say with a covered hopper full of salt.

    2 – The tunnels are >100 years old, but it’s not like they’ve never had any maintenance or upgrades. See, for example, http://www.nationalcorridors.o......shtml#NYP

    Given #1, someone needs to demand from Amtrak an accounting of the projects they have promised to do over the years. It doesn’t take much googling to find Amtrak’s CEO crowing about how Amtrak’s PTC system (“ACSES”) would be complete over the whole NEC long before the PRIIA deadline (2015-12-31). The dead people north of PHL a few months back should convince you that this didn’t happen.

    Likewise, the tunnel project in #2 probably needs to be scrutinized to see if they actually did what they claimed they would do. Amtrak has a problem with spending money on stupid things like boxcars for mail (c.2002) a business they couldn’t make work and baggage cars instead of revenue-producing sleepers (ongoing).

    • adirondacker12800 says:

      ACSES is installed in North Philadelphia. It was still being tested/verified when the accident happened.
      The new cars they are ordering get the crew out of the revenue cars and replace the last of the ancient cars that are limited to 100 MPH service.

      • PL says:

        All true, but keep in mind that Amtrak and Boardman have been writing checks with their mouths that the company can’t cash.

        And before anyone says “yeah, well, Congress” remember that these are projects they’d budgeted for already and had the money.

        Regarding the baggage cars, they originally ordered 55 bags and 25 each bag-dorms, sleepers, diners but then changed it to 70 bags and only 10 bag-dorms. As you know, getting crew out of the sleepers increases revenue. Hauling baggage does not. Especially when you change your policy to discourage excess baggage. None of this is new – been going on for decades. That’s why Gunn was fired – he was competent.

        PTC quotes:

        2009:

        “Boardman noted “Amtrak strongly supports the installation of PTC systems on the rail network, and we intend to complete it by 2012 (3 years prior to the deadline)” mandated by Congress last year. ”

        http://www.railwayage.com/inde.....needs.html

        2012:

        “Boardman explained that today Amtrak has a PTC system in operation on approximately 530 track-miles, including on some sections of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor (NEC) and the entirety of its Michigan Line. By the end of 2012, Amtrak will have installed PTC on an
        additional 1,200 track-miles which will build-out all remaining Amtrak-owned sections of the NEC and cover the full length of its Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania. This new territory will be fully functional when the locomotive fleet is PTC-equipped in 2013.”

        http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/39.....12-023.pdf

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Tell the sleeping car passengers they can’t bring their steamer trunks they don’t come. Replacing the ancient 100 MPH baggage cars with new 125 MPH baggage cars increases reliability, decreases maintenance and means the long distance trains won’t clog up the NEC as it transitions to full fledged HSR.

          • PL says:

            Gunn, smartly, worked hard to get rid of the old crap though clearly he wasn’t completely successful with the ancient baggage cars (probably more danger from them on the corridor than from a problem with the North R tunnels). He was at least partly successful converting the smoking chambers on the Superliners back to baggage areas.

            The company would have been far better off buying more sleepers (because rarely is there unsold space) and bag-dorms (to get the crew out of revenue space) than straight bags.

            The company’s new baggage policy should put a dent in “steamer trunks”. If it doesn’t, just insist that passengers by another room for their bags.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              The baggage car breaks down the whole train has to stop. And if the baggage car can’t go faster than 100 the rest of the train can’t.

        • Nathanael says:

          Gunn was the one who cut a large number of sleeping cars from the roster, and cut the valuable Philadelphia-Chicago train. You can claim he was competent, but he made some big mistakes.

    • Douglas John Bowen says:

      So if Amtrak is hopelessly “dysfunctional,” what does this make all the (many) other Class I railroads and regional passenger railroads who will fail to make/meet the congressional deadline?

      Amtrak is always the bumbling, stumbling whipping boy for all of us disappointed parents. The Hudson Tunnels are but the latest big focus of its supposed incompetence. And yet it runs.

  8. Bolwerk says:

    Who gives a fuck about windbag’s quiet car shenanigans? This got more press than his lying about ARC costs got.

    Our press sucks.

  9. Nathanael says:

    Let me be quite explicit: the existing tunnels won’t “collapse”.

    The concrete in them will start falling on the roofs of the trains, ripping down the overhead wiring. The concrete below will crumble, causing the track to shift and causing derailments. The concrete on the sides will start losing chunks, which will fall in the paths of the trains and cause them to come to a crashing halt. (They’ll take hours to rescue the stranded passengers.)

    That is what will happen. In order to avoid this, the concrete tunnel linings need to be completely replaced. This cannot be done effectively without shutting down one tunnel at a time.

    Amtrak could shut down one tunnel at a time right now — by *kicking NJ Transit out*. However, Amtrak is a political entity, and the government of New Jersey wants Amtrak to keep running their trains *EVEN IF IT IS NOT ACTUALLY SAFE*. (Does this surprise you? It’s the government of New Jersey!)

    That’s the situation.

    • =+= says:

      Imagine how the non-transit savy press would release an onslaught of bad bad press calling Amtrak a bunch of incompetent fools if they shut down one of the tubes.

      It would be a gift to every congressman would wants to see Amtrak sold off to some git in the private sector.

  10. Rider says:

    This is a bit of a wild scheme, but it may work as a temporary measure if one of the tubes needs to be shut down. NJT could tear out enough seats from some of its bilevel cars to get them up to the weight limit and run a train sized to the longest platforms at Penn as a shuttle from Secaucus. They could build a temporary platform extension at Secaucus if necessary. If you could get one of these shuttle trains every 15 minutes through the remaining tube, it wouldn’t be pleasant but it would take a lot of the displaced traffic.

    • adirondacker12800 says:

      no it wouldn’t

      • Rider says:

        Would it replace all the displaced traffic? No. But I assume you could fit 500 people per bilevel car if you removed some or all of the seating. With a 12-car train, that’s 6,000 people. At 4 trains per hour, that’s 24,000. If NJT serves 80,000 per day at Penn, that seems to be a decent chunk. Better than telling people to swim, crowd onto PATH or telecommute for 9 months.

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