Sandy Rebuild: A Long Road to Recovery

Jan. 22, 2013
Transit systems pummeled by Hurricane Sandy look years ahead in rebuilding process.

As residents, leaders and emergency officials from across the nation watched Hurricane Sandy make its way up the eastern seaboard in late October, people living in the New York and New Jersey area were preparing for the worst.

For transit officials with NJ Transit and MTA, that meant halting services and trying to get equipment to higher ground. Crews worked feverously to shield the transit systems and to not only protect the systems, but aid in a quicker recovery of transit in an area where residents are heavily dependent on trains and buses to get around.

“I think that first of all, the decision the governor made to stop service was absolutely critical,” said Howard Permut, president of the MTA Metro-North Railroad. “That allowed us to put everyone out of harm’s way and then it allowed us to prepare for service restoration and it allowed us to move equipment around.”

With the storm now months behind the region, transit agencies in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country are now working harder than ever to get their systems back up and running.

Floods overtake the systems

In a Dec. 7 letter from the White House to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the administration is seeking $60.4 billion in money to clean up and repair the areas damaged by the hurricane. Of that, the Federal Railroad Administration is seeking $32 million for Amtrak repairs and dewatering of tunnels due to the storm and $6.2 billion is requested to repair transit systems in the New York City area. Another $5.5 billion is requested by the U.S. Department of Transportation for mitigation efforts to the region in order to prevent future damage and put in place a comprehensive flood control plan.

Flooding in the region wasn’t only a problem for lines bordering the Atlantic Ocean or on Long Island. Roughly half of the Hudson Line running along the Hudson River was covered in water, Permut said, with the flooding issue reaching all the way to Poughkeepsie, which is roughly 70 miles down river from New York City.

Helena Williams, president of the MTA Long Island Rail Road said the weekends before the hurricane hit, workers began to prep by moving rolling stock from low lying yards, taking key signal board out of low lying areas and pinning and removing crossing gates. A dam was set up to try and stop flooding at the Westside yard near the Hudson River as well, however, it still didn’t spare that area from flooding.

The most devastated area of the Long Island Rail Road was the Long Beach Branch due to its low lying location and the floodwaters that inundated the area, but after the storm, Williams said workers were innovative in getting track repairs completed and grade crossings were powered by local generators.

The Babylon Branch was the most difficult to repair due to flooding in the tunnels, but Williams said the railroad has worked with Amtrak to get repairs completed.

Despite the flooding and more than 600 trees and utility poles lying down in the trains’ right of ways, Williams said the agency was able to restart service between Penn Station and Jamaica within 24 hours after the storm was gone and from the Atlantic Terminal to Jamaica. Within 48 hours service from the Great Neck to Penn Station on the Port Washington branch of the rail road was up and running, and within 72 hours the “big four” lines were running. And by Dec. 10, full morning and afternoon service was restored.

“Now of course we’re up and back running, but what we’re doing now is a very extensive assessment of the damage,” Williams said. “We don’t know the long-term impact to the signal system and the circuitry from the flooding and the salt water.”

James Weinstein, executive director of NJ Transit, said the bus system for his system didn’t suffer any significant damage, so immediately following the storm about 80 percent of the buses were running, with more up by Nov. 1. The entire system was unable to get on line right after the storm due to damage to roadways, flooding and downed power lines, but many rail lines were devastated, so buses had to take charge in helping riders get around.

“The bus system functioned well and in some very real ways carried the New Jersey transit system on its back for a good period of time,” Weinstein said.

All three light rail lines in New Jersey were damaged due to flooding and flooding at the North Penn Station, which Weinstein said basically put the north city subway and light rail out of commission in that area for five to seven days. The least damaged line was the River Line between Trenton and Camden, which Weinstein said was up and running very quickly. That same line had been the most severely damaged during Hurricane Irene in 2011.

And the Hudson-Bergen light rail line running along the Hudson River from Bayonne, Hoboken and Weehawken, which serves the entire gulf coast of New Jersey and had seen a resurgence in recent years, suffered damage causing issues as well.

Weinstein said the greatest damage was inflicted on the system’s 12 rail lines with the last of the Gladstone Branch of the Morris and Essex lines not getting operational until Dec. 3. Although the area wasn’t flooded during the hurricane, Weinstein said there were a number of catenary poles snapped and downed trees from high winds.

“We do 325,000 to 330,000 round trips per day and a lot of people were inconvenienced by this,” Weinstein said. “(I) went up there to thank customers for their patience and they were as happy as we all are that the train service is back.

By December, roughly 92 percent of all service in the New Jersey system was up and running, along with 100 percent of Access Link paratransit service. But storm surges damaged substations and the Meadowlands maintenance facility, which caused issues with performing maintenance on rail cars. The rail operations center is part of the Meadowlands facility and has been running on generator power after the hurricane, so there also isn’t enough power at the facility to perform maintenance with new equipment.

“The thing that happened in the storm that probably caused the most devastation was the water damage to the electrical system and when that water is salt water it’s even worse,” Weinstein said. “I’m told what happen is that even after they clean it out, the corrosive qualities of the salt remains and eats away at the electrical systems.

“You have to sort of replace the whole thing because if you don’t it’s going to be a living nightmare.”

Although a much smaller system than MTA or NJ Transit, the Port Authority Trans Hudson connecting New Jersey and New York City suffered some of the most extensive damage from Sandy. Steven Kingsberry, acting director of PATH, said more than 10 million gallons of water had to be pumped out of the mostly underground rail line after the storm while staff had to live and work out of the system’s main office for eight straight days after the storm and coordinate the effort without power.

The saltwater inside the PATH tunnels caused more havoc on the PATH system cause of the corrosive effect it has on the transit equipment, so Kingsberry said crews are continuing to check any and all equipment for damage with the help of federal agencies and vendors. Damage to PATH is estimated at $300 million, which Kingesberry said the agency is working with FEMA to get reimbursed for the costs.

“We got the first phase of several up by Journal Square to 33rd Street and that was really a herculean effort because much of that part of the system was the most damaged by the storm,” Kingsberry said. “Working from there, we went out to our Newark location, which is one of the major hubs of PATH riders and we brought that on board by (Nov.) 12 and we’re very happy with that accomplishment.

“We opened up the World Trade Center on (Nov.) 26 and again that’s where we pumped out over 10 million gallons of water from the World Trade Center tunnel.”

Help from each other

Transit systems in the region that didn’t suffer the catastrophic effects of the storm were quick to lend a hand in the recovery. In early November, the Delaware Transit Corporation announced it would send 20 buses for NJ Transit to use as substitutes for inoperable rail lines and 20 DART employees drove the buses to a garage in North Bergan.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority also heeded the call for help and after the storm sent 30 buses to assist in New Jersey for a bus shuttle operation after the storm. Ron Hopkins, assistant general manager of operations said SEPTA uses 1,200 of its 1,400 bus fleet on a daily basis during peak hours, so they took the buses from several locations and sent them to help. He said SEPTA also made sure to send recently inspected buses to make sure New Jersey Transit had the best to use after the storm.

“The only damage we heard of was primarily associated with trees falling into wires. We didn’t have any vehicle damage or any major infrastructure damage that we had to go out and spend significant amounts of money on,” Hopkins said. “There were no washouts and we really didn’t get as much rain as the other states, but the heavy winds brought down some trees, so we were up and running the following day.”

SEPTA is also lending a hand to PATH in recovery efforts by helping do repairs on damaged equipment on that system. PATH has sent 25 air controlled valves damaged by the storm to SEPTA for repairs. The agency has also been offering repair services to other agencies devastated by Sandy.

And the SEPTA Transport Workers Union Local 234 helped their brethren in the TWU Local 100 in New York by collecting cleaning supplies such as bleach, masks, Tyvek suits, shovels, gloves, brooms, bags and industrial cleaners so they would be able to clean their own homes damaged in the storm.

New Jersey has been doing engine repairs at a short line maintenance facility outside of Morristown and has been working with MTA to procure a yard adjacent to that system’s Sunnyside Yard in Queens to use as a temporary area to work on equipment.

“You’re talking about an effort that’s going to take perhaps more than a year to fully recover from,” Weinstein said. “None of the equipment was irretrievably destroyed, it can all be repaired and we plan to repair it, but it’s going to take time because not only do you have that stuff to repair, but you also need to be running the system and conducting inspections on equipment.”

Transit vendors and contractors are also helping out in the recovery process, such as Ansaldo STS, which in a company statement said its working with customers in the region to regain full operation as quickly as possible. Ansaldo employees are taking part in daily meetings to plan and enforce expedition of materials to customers and pursuing all avenues to speed up the recovery process.

“The products being replaced range from new, microprocessor-based train control equipment, to mechanical and pneumatic train stops and valves that have been in use for over 50 years,” the company statement reads. “The diversity and quantity of the products damaged make their fast replacement a complex effort, but Ansaldo STS is dedicated to supporting its customers in this time of need.”

Hardening the systems

While transit workers are busy getting the systems back to pre-Sandy operational capacity, leaders and engineers are looking ahead to a future where systems area more resilient to this type of devastation.

“That has been the charge of the two governors to build it better and we’re building it better wherever we can and taking the necessary steps to prevent this type of damage,” Kingsberry said. “The one thing we really noticed is this really was a 100 year storm with a surge of over 14 feet high.

“We’ve been around 60 years and it has never happened before and we’re hoping it’s the worst possible and that it can’t get any worse.”

PATH uses buildings and tunnels more than 100 years old, so Kingerberry said the system is making updates to waterproof buildings, put pumps into rooms that flooded to make sure water can get pumped out if it ever comes in and at one Keysan that flooded a watertight submarine door is being installed to keep future flood waters out of the room and protect equipment.

The cost of replacing equipment and getting service back for the Metro-North Railroad will cost $200 million, Permut said, but the long term fixes to strengthen the system are estimated at more than $1 billion.

“Beyond that it’s a regional issue about storm barriers and surge barriers,” Permut said. “This isn’t just a transit issue. It’s a broader issue for the whole region.”

For the Long Island Railroad, finding higher ground may be the solution to protect itself from future storms, including more ways to protect Penn Station and better ways to protect the Westside Yard from future flooding.

“We’re examining ways to raise up the substations,” Williams said. If we’re going to rebuild and replace a substation, we’ve got to get it onto higher terrain.”

Although SEPTA was spared significant damage from the storm, Michael Monastero, chief engineering officer for communications and signals said the storm shows the importance for systems to get out and prepare for major storms and flooding by removing equipment.

“What you see is a lot of damage in their switch motors that went underwater in locations that went underwater and close to the flooding along the river,” he said. “If we see that there is a possibility of flooding and water going above the flood plains, one of the things we do now is go out and take all of the electric motors out and get them out of harm’s way.”

The initial estimates for damage to the New Jersey system was $400 million; roughly $325 million to $350 million was damage to equipment and the rest lost revenues. Despite the hefty price tag, Weinstein money hasn’t been an issue so far with FEMA and the Federal Transit Administration helping in the recovery.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie placed estimates of $36 billion in damage to the entire state due to the hurricane, of which Weinstein $1.2 billion is expected to be needed for the transit system because on top of the $400 million in damage from the storm, it has been estimated that it will take another roughly $800 million to “harden” the system and make it more resilient to storms like Sandy.

“New Jersey as a state—not as a region—but as a state, has the highest amount of transit ridership with 10 percent taking public transportation,” Weinstein said. “It seems like a lot and when you experience what happens when there’s not the transit systems in the state, people were forced to try and drive into Manhattan and the system collapsed.”

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.