Christie Stops Payments to Amtrak After Derailments Cause Chaos

(Bloomberg) —
Christie, Payments, Amtrak, Derailments
Workers repair rails inside New York’s Penn Station. (Chuck Gomez/Amtrak via AP)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is withholding payments to Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, after two derailments in as many weeks caused major train delays in the U.S. Northeast.

In an April 5 letter to Amtrak leaders, Christie says he has directed New Jersey Transit to cease payments until Amtrak examines its equipment. Amtrak owns the tracks on which New Jersey Transit operates.

Amtrak hasn’t disclosed the cause of Monday’s incident at New York’s Pennsylvania Station or that of another on March 24, when an Amtrak Acela train carrying about 250 passengers derailed and sideswiped a Transit train. An examination of three New Jersey Transit cars that derailed on Monday, causing minor injuries to passengers, showed all were current on federally mandated inspections, according to Steve Santoro, New Jersey Transit’s executive director.

The derailments “indicate Amtrak does not take its obligations seriously and has not effectively applied NJ Transit’s considerable payments to the proper maintenance of these assets,” Christie wrote in the letter. “Amtrak’s apparent disregard for NJ Transit’s customers is entirely unacceptable to me.”

Mike Tolbert, an Amtrak spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call for comment. On its website, Amtrak said Wednesday that it “is working as quickly and safely as possible to restore regularly scheduled operations” and its “top priority is the safety of our passengers, employees and the traveling public.”

New Jersey Transit is beset by its own troubles. It is under review by federal investigators and the Federal Railroad Administration amid a slipping safety record, increased crowding and eroding reliability. Last year it logged the most accidents among the 10 biggest commuter railroads, including its first fatal wreck in two decades.

New Jersey Transit made a payment to Amtrak of $62 million last week for capital investment in the Northeast Corridor. That doesn’t include monthly payments of $2.5 million to $5 million to cover Amtrak operating expenses, according to Christie’s letter.

The governor said that in addition to halting payments, he has asked his attorney general to consider taking legal action to recover the money paid to Amtrak, according to the letter.

Amtrak for Thursday warned of modified service and delays for its Northeast Regional line operating between Washington and New York. New Jersey Transit told commuters to anticipate fewer trains, and diversions to Hoboken, opposite Manhattan in New Jersey. It was relying on supplementary buses and ferries.

Penn Station, the busiest rail depot in North America, is stymied by too few tracks and platforms, and limited by its major feeder, a century-old Hudson River tunnel that is a fragile choke point for trains between Boston and Washington. The passage, damaged during Hurricane Sandy, must be closed for a complete overhaul, and has less than 20 years of serviceable use, Amtrak has said.

Gateway, a $23 billion Amtrak plan to build another tunnel, upgrade the station and replace antiquated bridges in the New York City suburbs, lacks a federal funding commitment. A budget blueprint by President Donald Trump last month proposed scrapping the main federal financing source.

Christie in 2010 canceled plans to construct a tunnel, criticizing its design and potential cost overruns.

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