The increasing challenges posed by the New York area’s aging rail infrastructure came into sharp focus Thursday as a congressional delegation prepared to get a firsthand look at the country’s busiest station on the same day commuters learned about summer schedule disruptions due to track repairs.
It’s the second time in three years that the replacement of equipment at Penn Station promises to cause delays during morning and afternoon peak periods for thousands of riders.
The station handles more than 500,000 people daily on trains from New Jersey and Long Island as well as the city’s subway system. It’s also at the center of a battle involving New Jersey, New York and the federal government over the funding of a new $13.7 billion Hudson River rail tunnel seen as critical to maintaining service along the corridor between New York and Washington, D.C.
Two years ago, repairs on the station’s west side near the Hudson River tunnel required the closing of several tracks and prompted a 20% reduction in rail service. Predictions of a “Summer of Hell” by Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo largely went unrealized, however, as disruptions were handled efficiently.
This year’s work, centered on the station’s east side that connects to rail yards in Queens, is less extensive, and no one is predicting the same level of disruption. Still, the Long Island Rail Road said it will have to cancel or divert seven trains each during the morning and afternoon commutes in July and August. The operator is adding trains before and after the peak periods in hopes of easing the crush.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Transit said 10 trains that normally originate or terminate in New York will switch to Hoboken, across the Hudson River, forcing commuters to take buses, ferries or other rail service to complete their journeys. That will add an estimated 20 to 30 minutes each way, NJ Transit officials said.
Seven Amtrak trains will be also affected, including one operating between New York and Washington, D.C., that will be cancelled
Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio, of Oregon, heads the House of Representatives committee on infrastructure and transportation and will lead the tour Thursday and Friday of Penn Station, the tunnel and the connecting track system in New Jersey. The 109-year-old Hudson River tunnel was damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and requires ongoing maintenance to restore crumbling concrete and protect an aging electrical system.
The House delegation’s visit comes days after Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders agreed in principle on a long-term plan to spend $2 trillion on rebuilding roads, bridges and rail infrastructure throughout the country.
There’s no indication yet whether that plan would include money for a new Hudson tunnel, which, when completed, would allow the existing tunnel to be fully restored without service disruptions. Federal transportation officials have made the tunnel ineligible for key federal grant funding, saying New York and New Jersey are relying too heavily on federal loans for their share of the project. Environmental approval of the project, needed to start construction, has also languished for more than a year.