Home Gateway Tunnel Amtrak breaks ground on possible future Gateway path

Amtrak breaks ground on possible future Gateway path

by Benjamin Kabak
With an infusion of billions, this concrete box will one day host Amtrak's Gateway Tunnel.

With an infusion of billions, this concrete box will one day host Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel.

With Sandy money flowing New York City’s way, Senator Chuck Schumer was able to wrangle enough dollars earlier this year to launch part of the Gateway Tunnel. Specifically, the state’s senior senator secured the $185 million needed to preserve Gateway’s right-of-way under the Hudson Yards development under the rubric of flood prevention. Yesterday, officials gathered to celebrate the ground-breaking of this monumental concrete box that may, years and billions of dollars in the future, host a new trans-Hudson train tunnel for Amtrak.

“The value of the work on this concrete casing cannot be underestimated as it preserves a possible pathway for new tunnels designed to increase the reliability and capacity for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit’s operations and will step up the resiliency of the rail system against severe weather events like Super Storm Sandy,” Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia said.

This current construction effort is a two-year project to build a casing between 10th and 11th Avenues in order to save what Amtrak called a “possible right-of-way” for two new tunnels into Penn Station. It is slated to be completed in October of 2015. When or if Gateway and the corresponding Moynihan Station plan will ever see the light of day remains to be seen.

Interestingly, the Sandy part of this picture could spur Amtrak and the feds to action though. As the rail agency detailed in its press release, the storm surge from Sandy flooded four of the six tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers. This is the first time in their 103-year history that the tunnels were inundated, and nearly 600,000 daily riders on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit saw their commutes disrupted. The casing, wide enough for a two-track train tunnel, will be flood-proof, though Amtrak’s materials do not explain how.

Before Gateway can become a reality, Amtrak will have to replace the Portal Bridge and extend the concrete casing to the west to 12th Avenue, but the region’s politicians remain ever hopeful. “Today’s groundbreaking is about so much more than making way for the Amtrak Gateway tunnels,” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez said. “It’s about celebrating a $185 million investment in our future, in keeping our competitive edge in the New Jersey-New York area, in our preparedness against severe weather events like Super Storm Sandy. We can’t be satisfied with a 19th century infrastructure in a 21st century world and expect to stay competitive in a high-tech, fast-paced, global economy. For the growth of the entire region, it’s critical that we invest in new rail tunnels across the Hudson.”

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Marc Shepherd September 24, 2013 - 2:06 pm

This was really good work by Schumer, as otherwise the possibility of building Gateway would have been precluded, essentially forever.

lawhawk September 24, 2013 - 2:17 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but NJ Transit and Amtrak need to get the Portal Bridge replaced without tying it to the Gateway/ARC tunnel project.

I get that some of their materials and plans overlap, but the Portal Bridge project would eliminate one of the worst bottlenecks on the NYC-DC NEC, one that causes a near daily delay of some form – whether it’s mechanical problems, signal trouble, or having to open for river traffic.

The replacement span is supposed to eliminate those problems and allow high speed traffic, particularly for Amtrak, which has to slow considerable to deal with the problems with the existing bridge.

Everyone involved understands the need for replacing the 100+ year old span that is functionally obsolete and simply can’t handle existing traffic, but no one wants to break it out from the Gateway tunnel plan, even though the funding for Gateway is simply not there.

SEAN September 24, 2013 - 3:14 pm

I agree with you regarding the portal bridge. Not to sound like an idiot, but I’ve wondered what’s wrong with it. I’m thinking beyond two tracks & signals here. Is it to low for tall container ships to pass?

Tim September 24, 2013 - 3:55 pm

Well, it’s a drawbridge for one thing, so yes, it’s way too low, and worse, the bridge has to go up sometimes, which really takes a bite out of things.

They need to build it something like 100ft higher, but I’m still not even sure how much river traffic really goes up that way anyways.

SEAN September 24, 2013 - 6:01 pm

Oh I knew it was a draw bridge, sorry I didn’t make that clear. How often does that bridge open anyway.

As I recall, the original project called for two aditional tracks from the Hudson River to Secaucus Junction as SJ is a four track station. I do see some issues… 1. there are wetlands on both sides of the ROW, so what kind of remeadiation would need to take place. 2. How much of the existing trackway would get rebuilt?

lawhawk September 25, 2013 - 9:10 am

The current drawbridge is 23 feet above MHW. That means it has to open far too frequently to provide proper service. There are rules in place to avoid opening during the morning and afternoon rush hours, but the structure is prone to problems with track aligning back in the closed position. It’s also obsolete as far as structural components are concerned.

As per the Portal Bridge documents here, maximum speed on the bridge segment (including the approaches) is 60mph, versus 90 mph for the adjacent segments.

The Portal Bridge replacement spans would be at 50 feet above MHW. The new spans would flank the existing span and would include a flyover to assist train movements.

Nathanael September 28, 2013 - 3:18 am

It’s also worth noting that drawbridge components are all custom — there’s no “off the shelf components”, because not enough drawbridges get built to make it worth it. Accordingly, as the moving parts wear out after 100 years, repairing the drawbridges becomes economically infeasible and it makes more sense to just replace them — even if you have to replace them with drawbridges.

If you can build a fixed bridge instead, it’s much better.

Alon Levy September 24, 2013 - 8:23 pm

Also, track quality is so low (and the trains are so heavy) there’s a slow restriction on the bridge.

Guest September 24, 2013 - 2:29 pm

Ah! So this Moynihan Station will increase track capacity after all?

Alon Levy September 24, 2013 - 2:51 pm

No. Separate projects, bundled in popular media for maximum citizen confusing. Amtrak wants to enlarge its fief in three ways: first, by building its own equivalent of ARC Alt G (a worthy project, except that all Penn-Grand Central capacity should go to commuter rail, with intercity trains staying on the old tracks); second, by adding tracks in its own turf at great cost; and third, by taking over more intercity-only concourse space. Moynihan is a project for the third goal; Gateway is for the first two.

Nathanael September 28, 2013 - 3:20 am

Having taken a long-distance train into and out of Penn Station, I can say definitively that Amtrak needs more intercity-only concourse space. *LOTS* more. Penn Station NY is the worst major intercity station to wait at in the entire US. Chicago Union is considered overcrowded, and it has far more waiting space.

Alon Levy September 24, 2013 - 2:55 pm

With this, they’ve decided, with no input or thought as to sources of funding, to build the high-investment plans. See explanation here. tl;dr note: at low investment levels, it’s optimal to build the new tunnels to the north of the existing tunnels rather than to the south, because that’s where the other pair of LIRR tunnels is; at high investment levels, i.e. if the plan includes a connection to Grand Central, it’s better to build to the south, because it’s easier to connect tracks 1-5 of Penn Station to Grand Central via a new tunnel under 31st Street than via hooking into one of the existing East River tunnels.

So if they’re actually blocking the northern path, they’ve decided to do the high-investment plan. It’s fine; the high-investment plan is better. But the low-investment plan should at least have been presented as an option.

Rob September 24, 2013 - 3:14 pm

“secured the $185 million needed to preserve Gateway’s right-of-way under the Hudson Yards development under the rubric of flood prevention.” – Sad that our ‘leaders’ can’t be honest about what they are fleecing the taxpayers for. When the Red Cross didn’t use all the contributions after 9/11 for those victims, they had was hell to pay. But when the government misrepresents what it’s doing with our taxes, that’s just fine and business as usual.

Karm September 24, 2013 - 4:26 pm

well it’s not really a lie… the argument is that added capacity adds to storm resiliency. It’s the same reason that money was allocated for a one seat ride from JFK to Lower Manhattan after 9/11 (Charles Schumer was also involved then)… because that would spur private development downtown. “Rebuilding” doesn’t mean just to put back what was there.

Wilson September 24, 2013 - 4:10 pm

How does a concrete box two blocks long cost $185 million? Isn’t that the real story? Can we get an itemized breakdown of the costs?

Benjamin Kabak September 24, 2013 - 4:17 pm

The costs include digging underneath an active rail yard and construction site, dismantling and rebuilding an LIRR crew room, constructing the concrete casing along with a few other minor expenses. It’s a lot, but as New York prices go, it’s inline with expectations.

BruceNY September 25, 2013 - 1:10 pm

Compared with a billion dollars to extend PATH over existing ROW from Newark Penn to the airport, let alone $4 Billion for Calatrava’s PATH station, $185M sounds like a drop in the bucket. It’s a first step, and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s happening.

Alex C September 24, 2013 - 7:01 pm

Actual (albeit, incredibly minor) forward-looking transit investment? I almost can’t believe it. Credit to the politicos for doing something productive for once.

solgolberg September 24, 2013 - 7:19 pm

An itemized breakdown would be interesting to examine.

Regarding the overall cost, Mr. Kabak’s explanation above sounds good. I would just emphasize the ACTIVE rail yard aspect of this and that the initial, eastern, excavation is right next to the Empire Corridor Tunnel. In addition, the tunnel box itself goes down into the bedrock, next to the Empire Corridor tunnel, so special (& more expensive) rock excavation techniques have to be used.

Ken September 24, 2013 - 8:01 pm

Let’s hope this does not become another ‘abandoned’ infrastructure article on some web site. Maybe the tunnel can be used as a club, restaurant or mall (or all of the previous) until the time is right to build a tunnel from NJ to NY. Might even be a way to bank some money to be used when the time is right.

SEAN September 24, 2013 - 8:17 pm

Are you refering to a place where the elite can safely store their wealth away from the serfs? I think the egyptions of antiquity did something similar.

Wizard September 25, 2013 - 11:38 am

Best case this will become a place for NJT to park a couple of trains during the midday lul. Worst case it will sit empty. Keep your fingers crossed that they actually find the money for the other half from 11th to 12th avenue (this only covers from 10th ave to 11th ave), or this will really become a waste. The second half will be more expensive as these tunnels need to go down, which means more excavation of rock and whatever else is there.

solgolberg September 25, 2013 - 7:40 pm

This is just nitpicking, but I can’t help it.

AFAIK this $185M tunnel box will not connect with anything.

So to store NJT trains would mean connecting the east end of the tunnel box to the tracks on the east side of 10th ave, currently under the AP building.

I think 10th Ave is a 100 foot wide avenue, so a proportional cost for just excavation would be 100/800 * $185M = $23M. And then you’d have to add RR infrastructure to the now 900 foot long tunnel box…

Frank B September 24, 2013 - 8:43 pm

Sigh… At least they can do something right.

Frank B September 24, 2013 - 8:59 pm

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Amtrak owns those East River Tunnels, and it makes a fortune on the Northeast Corridor. Once push comes to shove (and the tunnels are at 98% capacity, so we’re kind of already at that point) Amtrak will gladly tell NJ Transit to get out of their way to run more NE Corridor service, as well as all other service traveling down south and out west. Americans are rapidly getting sick of being treated like cattle at the airport and are rediscovering the intercity train.

NJ Transit did nothing but shoot itself in the foot when it cancelled the ARC Tunnel; it may have be a stub-ended terminal buried under Macy’s, but let’s face facts here; East Side Access is nothing but a bloody stub-ended terminal buried under Grand Central Terminal! That doesn’t mean we’re not going not to build it! Here’s a modern craze that’s sweeping the nation; Escalators. Elevators. Problem solved. That bleak basement terminal would’ve been owned and controlled by NJ Transit exclusively.

Gateway is ultimately a better idea, on several fronts. However, NJ Transit will not own the Gateway Tunnels; and Amtrak can, should, and will increase the premium NJ Transit pays for the use of its invaluable infrastructure, lest it send all of its trains to Hoboken Terminal and pray PATH can take the capacity (which it really, really, can’t).

Alon Levy September 24, 2013 - 10:33 pm

Yeah, and East Side Access is the Big Dig of public transit. It’s the sort of project that you can point at and say “at least the 7 extension/Stuttgart21/Crossrail/Munich 2nd tunnel isn’t that bad.”

Gateway is better than ARC Alt Cavern, yeah. There are yet better options out there, and some of them are being eliminated as we speak by the decision to only preserve the alignment that is useful for Gateway.

Adam September 24, 2013 - 10:30 pm

Question: Why do all the tunnels have to go to the south side of Penn? If they were smart they would dig it to the NORTH side of Penn. This will allow for a future connection to Grand Central, which by the way, is very necessary.

Alon Levy September 25, 2013 - 12:47 am

Good question! ARC-North should have been investigated, for easy hooking into the northern pair of LIRR tunnels. Without the full documents (which Port Authority is refusing to release despite Stephen Smith’s FOIA requests) we can’t know for certain why all proposals go to the south side of Penn, but my guess is that this is where the current NJ Transit fief is, and ARC was originally a project for NJ Transit.

However, it’s actually easier to tunnel to Grand Central going from the south than from the north. The explanation is that going from the north, your options for tunneling to Grand Central are to take over the northern pair of LIRR tunnels, under 33rd, and to build a new connection under 34th. The 33rd option requires messing with active track; the 34th option requires going a block out of Penn’s existing footprint. In contrast, going to the south lets you take over the current NJ Transit tracks, and go east via 31st within existing footprint. In addition, the tunnel from Penn to Grand Central can’t be 100% under streets because it has to have a 90-degree curve with radius at least 3 short blocks; going under buildings is easier in the 31st-34th area than in the 33rd-36th area because in case demolitions are needed, property values are lower to the south. With modern TBMs, going under the existing East River tunnels is not a problem, and the distance between Penn and Park Avenue is more than sufficient for the tunnels to Grand Central to obtain the required vertical separation to curve north and go under the East River tunnels.

ARC-North is good mainly as a plan for if there is no connection to Grand Central. If there’s no Penn-Grand Central connection, then the only way to go east of Penn is under the East River, and then the new tunnel should be aligned with the old tunnels. The East River tunnels are under 32nd and 33rd, where the tunnel under 32nd directly faces the existing Hudson tunnels.

Nathanael September 28, 2013 - 3:24 am

Hooray for a future Penn-Grand Central connection.

Now, rebuild the Upper Harlem, and we’ll have a flood-resistant route through New York City…

Hugh December 15, 2013 - 10:36 pm

Is it because the former West Side Freight tunnel (aka Amtrak Empire Connection) sweeps around where a northern approach would have to surface? Keep in mind that The Empire Connection makes a 90 degree turn (incoming into Penn) from a southerly direction to the east and becomes tangent to the NEC tracks of Penn Station adjacent to where the Gateway tunnel box emerges.

Matty Mis September 25, 2013 - 9:23 am

Long time reader and I always enjoy and appreciate Alon’s contributions.

Matty Mis September 25, 2013 - 9:28 am

Can anyone explain the logistics of replacing the Portal Bridge with a bridge some 100 feet higher? With grade limitations and the short distance between the North River tunnels and Newark Penn, it seems like a high bridge would be difficult to build and require slow speeds.

SEAN September 25, 2013 - 10:31 am

You forgot about Secaucus Junction, wich is only a few miles west of PSNY. That’s where the challenge lies, not so much Newark Penn as it’s 7-miles out.

Matty Mis September 25, 2013 - 11:08 am

You’re right. I confused the Hackensack and Passaic River crossings. Also, someone above wrote that the new bridge would be 50, not 100ft high. That seems more manageable. I’m curious if the grades required for a higher span would limit speeds significantly.

llqbtt September 25, 2013 - 9:47 am

Meanwhile, while we are taking our sweet little time on the NEC:


AG September 25, 2013 - 5:38 pm

I read that earlier in the day. Good for them… it’s a different world.

solgolberg September 25, 2013 - 7:49 pm

As AG says, it is a different world.

But it does give an easy to grasp scale of how inadequate our basically century old rail infrastructure for the “busiest passenger transportation facility in the United States[5] and by far the busiest train station in North America.[6][7]” [wikipedia]

And that observation is not related to the bygone beauty of the long-demolished above ground portion of NY Penn Station, just how many tracks in and out you have.

Tomoya Usagi May 22, 2014 - 10:03 pm

They need to both start the Gateway Project and a dirct rail tunnel to Grand Central to meet future growth, plus close the older Hudson River Tunnels for a full rebuild they need to for double the number trains that run between NY-NJ. Plus this can help this part of the Nation keep growing and live on for centuries to come and this will be a game changer for the Northeast, a long with the new 220 MP/H (350 KP/H) right-of-way and don’t forget the new and extanded Amtrak Fleet.


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