Tunnel Vision

by John Delach

Woe to the railroads operating in and out of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The six 105-year-old tunnels, four under the East River connecting to Long Island and the two Hudson River tubes connecting to New Jersey, are in sorry shape. Two of the four East River tubes flooded during Superstorm Sandy as did both of their Hudson River cousins. Almost three years later, the track beds, wiring, signals and the concrete itself continue to deteriorate thanks to the millions of gallons of salt water that filled them for several days.


What exacerbates the problem is all of these tunnels are part of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Amtrak is perpetually broke. This ugly step-child of Uncle Sam must grovel before congress for every cent of its inadequate annual budget. Unlike Amtrak, Uncle and his politicians love their two healthy offspring, those pretty twins, the airlines and the automobile / trucking industry showering them with generous gifts like highways, airports and an elaborate air traffic control system. Passenger trains remain unwanted and unloved whose early death would be a Godsend to Congress.


Like it or not, 340,000 riders move through Penn Station each and every weekday on 1,200 trains. The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) carries more than 230,000, New Jersey Transit (NJT), 80,000 and 30,000 travel on Amtrak. Eventually, a fair chunk of those LIRR riders will shift to the new East Side Access Terminal now being constructed deep under Grand Central Terminal but that traffic could be offset by proposals to bring commuters from Connecticut, Westchester and The Bronx into Penn Station on Metro North via the Hell Gate Bridge.


NJT is also clamoring for additional tracks in Penn Station as currently only 332 of their 697 daily trains can fit into their primary morning destination. Those two Hudson River tubes are barely adequate to carry their existing load and the failure of one train already leads to extensive delays. Unfortunately, an expansion of NJT service into Penn Station cannot be addressed until well past the mid-point of the Twenty-First Century.


Before it can even be considered, two new tubes must be dug under the Hudson and up until recently neither money nor sufficient political will existed to undertake this massive project. It will take at least ten years from first shovel and will cost a minimum of $14 billion. (Twenty billion dollars if an addition to Penn Station is included.) But service disruptions in these tunnels this summer have convinced Governorers Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie to cooperate with each other and the Feds to get the ball rolling. Even when finished, congestion will not be quickly ended as the existing tunnels must then be closed for two years for a thorough refurbishment.


Meanwhile, the two damaged East River tubes will likewise be rebuilt one at a time. Strangely enough, Amtrak actually carries real commercial insurance covering loss or damage to these tunnels. But like standard property insurance it has a sub-limit for damage caused by floods. Amtrak sued for $1.1 billion on the grounds that the damage was due to a wind-driven storm surge but U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled a flood is a flood and limited liability to $125 million. Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed that the Feds allocate a grant using the Sandy storm recovery funds which Amtrak could offset by any additional money they may be awarded when they appeal Judge Rakoff’s ruling.


At last plans and concepts seem to be coalescing. Now all we need is money so if you have some spare change…brother can you spare a dime?