Home Metro-North Port Jervis Line repairs to total $50 million

Port Jervis Line repairs to total $50 million

by Benjamin Kabak

Twisted rails and eroded track beds mark the Port Jervis line. Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Hilary Ring.

The restoration of the MTA’s little-used Port Jervis Line in the aftermath of damage inflicted upon it by Hurricane Irene will cost the cash-strapped agency $50 million, Metro-North said earlier this week. Furthermore, the railroad does not anticipate returning to a full timetable until the Fall of 2012, over a year after the storm.

“We are committed to restoring the Port Jervis Line as quickly as possible. It is an important part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s regional network,” MRN President Howard Permut said earlier this week. “In the meantime, Metro-North has marshaled the resources of MTA Bus to provide alternative service during reconstruction and Metro-North forces are building access roads to the tracks to literally lay the groundwork for the outside contractor.”

According to initial engineering assessments, approximately 90 percent of the repair work will involve replacing stones and trackbed washed away over a 14-mile stretch from Suffern to Harriman. In the aftermath of the flooding, over 50 washouts destroyed over two miles of the MTA’s right-of-way. The remainder of the work will involved repairs to the signal system.

As Metro-North said, “Water infiltration and erosion of the right-of-way have undermined circuit houses, signal cases and associated battery wells. In many areas, signal and fiber optic cables have been exposed and must be reburied and tested.” All told, the MTA is trying to restore service between Harriman and Suffern first before implementing repairs that will usher a return to the old timetable.

With a lofty pricetag and low ridership — only 2800 people per day use the Port Jervis line — many have wondered if this expenditure is a good use of MTA funds. Between the busing service and repairs, the total bill will top $60 million, and while the authority believes FEMA and insurance will cover some of the costs, they’ll have to foot part of the bill out of their dwindling cash reserves. As I said a few weeks ago, will the MTA take advantage of an opportunity or just throw money at a lesser-used commuter line?

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Rolando P. September 28, 2011 - 1:42 pm

What are the chances they’ll at least consider this an opportunity for a rail connection to Stewart Airport? Probably slim to none…

Scott E September 28, 2011 - 1:56 pm

I still believe that this could have been done quickly and easily, under emergency conditions, and overriding all of the normal bureaucracy that goes along with these types of things.

Again, I refer to the I-287 collapse in New Jersey. The man in charge: Jim Simpson. Commissioner of the NJDOT and former Chairman of the MTA. See this article on how Simpson got the repairs done so quickly. It’s a shame that the MTA doesn’t have people with this type of motivation and assertiveness anymore.

From the article:

“So we said, look, if the SeaBees can build a runway overnight, why can’t we build this highway?” Simpson noted, referring to the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions renowned for their speedy work. “We know what we need — let’s just get the material and do it.”

John September 28, 2011 - 2:08 pm

I think they are doing it under emergency procedures. If they had to go through full bureaucracy, do you think it would even get done in one year??

pea-jay September 28, 2011 - 11:22 pm

Bigger question is why isn’t insurance picking up some or all of this cost? Doesn’t the MTA insure it’s properties?

Bernie Wagenblast September 28, 2011 - 1:59 pm

Let me play devil’s advocate and ask if service should be eliminated on this line would you also be prepared to have service eliminated on other lightly-used lines (subway, bus and commuter rail)? How much does it cost to run a train to Montauk, especially in the winter months?

Closer to home, do we need subway or bus service on some lesser used lines during the middle of the night? I’m sure the ridership numbers top 2,800 people but would any savings be better spent improving the system during the heavily used hours? In addition, would people in Orange County still be expected to pay the regional payroll/mobility tax if this service is cut?

What is the tipping point where costs are not justified by the number of people served? There are people elsewhere in the country who would argue if the costs of providing a transit service are not fully covered by the fare box the service should not be provided. Not a pleasant thought to contemplate.

Bolwerk September 28, 2011 - 2:57 pm

There are people elsewhere in the country who would argue if the costs of providing a transit service are not fully covered by the fare box the service should not be provided. Not a pleasant thought to contemplate.

Almost without fail, those people have no problem taking other people’s money for their roads and utilities. That leaves three conclusions, all unflattering: they’re hypocrites, they’re morons, or they’re just opportunistic liars.

I really don’t know what FEMA is going to kick in, but assuming the MTA is on the hook for the whole $60M, I think the proper way to weigh this issue is to weigh how useful PJL will be in the future – not what it does for 2300 riders/day.

Regarding whether you keep a service or not, contribution margin could be a tipping point to look at. If staffing, tracks, signals, turnstile maintenance, TVM maintenance, and station utilities – the fixed costs – are covered by fares, at least most of the loss will be in the incremental cost of operating a train. For example, Bedford Ave. will have lights on and a worker in the booth regardless of whether the L is running at 2TPH or 15TPH. The booth, utilities, and station maintenance could have their costs covered, but the train could still run at a loss. Further, the 2TPH trains could still be improving the bottom line indirectly because having them means at least a few riders will ride during the busier hours, knowing they can get back home during the quieter hours. This all leaves open the possibility that a service can only run at a financial loss, and the best option financially is finding the lowest loss.

Barring other factors, like the politics and social utility of servicing the taxpayers who subsidize the service, what one would perhaps wants to do regarding the subway is decide whether shutting down a few hours a day degrades or improves contribution margin, and act accordingly.

SpendmoreWastemore September 28, 2011 - 3:11 pm

Somewhat O/T but germane:
10 car trains with 10 people look pretty dumb, except that there are few of them.
e.g. at 1AM the 1-2-3 can be full, standing room only. Somewhere in the small hours they get empty, but then by about 5:30 they start filling up again. So if you’ve hired staff to drive the trains from 12M-8a, do you have them sit from 3-5am?

This situation probably varies by line. I think MTA should at least look at running half trains, needing only 1 staff, on some lines during low ridership hours. By getting rid of work rules the extra staff (the conductor not needed on the 1/2 train) could still have a job and do some sort of essential work.

Bolwerk September 28, 2011 - 6:06 pm

They may look dumb, but they might be perfectly reasonable, particularly is equipment is being marshaled into place for rush hour.

I’m skeptical about half trains, if only because they are labor-intensive to reconnect when you might only get 1-2 round trips out of them. The more obvious thing to do would be to run full trains without the already unnecessary conductor. If more frequency, but not more capacity, is still called for, then consider running half the cars.

Prester John September 28, 2011 - 8:00 pm

I’m not sure what your point is, other than the obvious point that everyone has a cost-benefit threshold, and different people define this threshold differently.

Farebox recovery is a bad threshold because it doesn’t take into account the true costs of driving (against which the costs of mass transit should be weighed) nor the full benefits of having a mass transit system (including reducing congestion and thus improving productivity for car commuters and delivery trucks).

However, the cost-benefit threshold is not what’s at issue here, as you suggest, but rather whether the threshold should be applied consistently: service on bus/train lines with more ridership is being cut, but the Port Jervis line is getting $50 million in funds as well as continued subsidies. The agency should evaluate all cuts by the same standard, and apply the funds in a manner that benefits the most riders and takes the most cars off the road. Simple as that.

Douglas John Bowen September 28, 2011 - 2:47 pm

I’ll add to Mr. Wagenblast’s excellent speculative queries by noting: There are places where “only” 2,800 riders per day on a line would be considered an excellent “new start.” Then, too, while it’s wise to measure expenditure to ridership, one might also weigh potential or induced ridership, something Metro-North has excelled at for nearly three decades now east of the Hudson River, bemoaning of (overall parent agency?) MTA incompetence notwithstanding.

Alon Levy September 29, 2011 - 5:13 pm

Sure. And there are places where 2,800 riders per hour at one station would be considered mediocre. Just because the PJ line doesn’t underperform horrifically low-ridership Sunbelt commuter lines doesn’t mean it’s good by itself.

Larry Littlefield September 28, 2011 - 2:59 pm

Do you still expect to collect MTA taxes in Orange County without this line? Perhaps since most of the money goes for PAST service via debts and pensions?

Hell yes rebuild it.

This is also the Erie main line, assigned to Norfolk Southern when Conrail was broken up. It is a historic piece of New York State infrastructure, created to give the Southern Tier the opportunity to develop that northern sections got with the Erie Canal. We’re still maintaining the little used canal. Who knows what the future will bring?

Where is Norfolk Southern on this one?

John-2 September 28, 2011 - 4:04 pm

You also have to consider the ongoing Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Adding rail access to the new span makes more sense from New York State’s point of view if there are actually passenger rail commuters already on the west side of the Hudson who could use improved rail access, to go along with those in the Nanuet-Suffern corridor in Rockland County who could be lured out of their cars if the MTA could develop a better west shore rail option than it currently has.

Bolwerk September 28, 2011 - 4:33 pm

I’m curious if such a connection could actually have good usage in both directions. With a connection to Stewart, maybe. With good speed, White Plains becomes a strong destination for Port Jervis residents too.

But I don’t really see how you get people who live east of the Hudson to go west of the Hudson so much.

SEAN September 28, 2011 - 8:22 pm

There are some corporate parks in the Nanuet Pearl River & Sufferern areas as well as Palisades Center Mall in west Nyack. If there were a frequent rail service across the tap, it would benefit all communities involved. It would also create more service on the TOR & Coach USA route systems.

John-2 September 29, 2011 - 11:35 am

The key advantage it would probably have in reverse-peak routing and off-hours usage would be for freight rail hauling, since it would knock about 100 miles off the current routing to get freight across the Hudson to New England, and over 100 to go up to Albany and then back down to the NYC area yards (the freight tolls to use the new bridge would also likely be more profitable to NYS than the passenger train fares, even though in terms of public support the expanded passenger service to the west shore of the Hudson would be the driving force to making any new Tappan Zee bridge with rail access a reality).

Walter September 29, 2011 - 12:47 am

Forget the Tappan Zee connection to the line, what if there was a massive project to connect the Port Jervis/NJT Main Line to Penn Station via new trackage at Secaucus and a new tunnel under the Hudson? I’m sure the Feds could even be counted on to pitch in a few billion dollars to such a project. That would be sure to add to the Port Jervis Line’s ridership and make this $50 million a decent investment.

What’s that? We had just such a project in the works but it’s now cancelled? Can’t be true…

Jason September 30, 2011 - 10:23 am

If it goes over the Tap, it could connect with the Hudson line and go to either Grand Central or Penn (using the Spuyten Duvil bridge).

Alon Levy September 29, 2011 - 5:17 pm

Adding rail access to the new span makes more sense if the cost of installing it is less than $4 billion. For a combined road-rail bridge, I’d consider about $2 billion a normal figure for the entire project, including connecting ramps.

Adirondacker12800 October 2, 2011 - 2:50 pm

Rail across the TZ sounds good but what are the origins and destinations? Someone who lives three miles from the train station in Rockland isn’t going to take the train to get to their office two miles from the station in Westchester. Bus routes that fan out on either side of the bridge mean a two seat ride and reliable connections at the bus transfer at the bridge. I’d pick the east side because you could then have elevators to the Hudson Line station at the foot of the bridge. And someday there’s going to be rail access to Penn Station and Grand Central along the existing lines in New Jersey.

David September 30, 2011 - 10:18 pm

$50 million fix?
That’s just chump change for those who really matter in this world…


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