NJ: NJ Transit, Amtrak meet to avoid summer of commuting hell

June 12, 2024
The initial result was NJ Transit and Amtrak agreed to establish a joint incident response committee, and improve communication protocols for quicker and more precise information sharing, when infrastructure incidents happen.

Veteran commuters recall the 2010s had several summers of commuting “hell” promoted by failing old infrastructure on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, and the agency doing critical repair work to fix it.

Will 2024 be another summer of hell, in the wake of last month’s and last week’s infrastructure problems that caused NJ Transit delays and train cancellations? NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett has some answers, fresh from a face-to-face meeting with Stephen Gardner, his counterpart at Amtrak, and senior staff.

Amtrak is the landlord of the corridor line, which touches many of tenant NJ Transit’s rail lines to and from New York. And the tenant’s boss, Gov. Phil Murphy demanded a meeting in the wake of a May 23 evening commute meltdown. Service on the nation’s busiest rail line was suspended after a signal line touched an electrical line that powers trains, blowing out the electrical service and affecting roughly 150 NJ Transit trains that evening.

“We talked of various steps on operations and communication,” Corbett said Tuesday after NJ Transit’s board of directors meeting.

The initial result was NJ Transit and Amtrak agreed to establish a joint incident response committee, and improve communication protocols for quicker and more precise information sharing, when infrastructure incidents happen, Corbett said.

That response includes ways to have NJ Transit officials on the scene of an infrastructure problem to relay information back to the agency so riders know what’s happening faster and the agency can plan for alternate transportation to be arranged where possible.

“We want to be out there at the site of an incident, so we can communicate it out for customers and to have as accurate information as possible,” Corbett said. “It’s when something happens, how quickly does it trickle up and what steps are they doing to respond so we know quickly and want to communicate it out.”

Shortening the time it takes to get that information from the site can allow NJ Transit officials more time to gear up the agency’s response and to marshal resources, he said.

“A 10 to 15 minute delay is an aggravation, if it’s a longer time, we need to ... know so can we can know when to reroute buses for bus bridging, to get PATH to cross honor rail tickets, to gear up at the Port Authority bus terminal for a surge,” Corbett said. “Those are the issues we need to get between information quicker.”

Gardner and Amtrak’s team have “set up a process..so it’s not an ad hoc response, and us waiting and pressing them,” he said. “It’s better to have a process upfront.”

A longer term goal is to modernize or replace the overhead catenary wire that powers electric trains, and to put signal lines, now suspended over the catenary, underground, Corbett said after Tuesday’s board of directors meeting.

“The number one cause of delays is Amtrak signal and catenary problems,” Corbett said. “We want them addressed in the coming years, while we’re still doing the big projects.”

The big projects include the $2 billion replacement of Port North Bridge that carries the NEC over the Hackensack River in Kearny and construction of the $16 billion Gateway Hudson River tunnels and rehabilitation the current tunnels will come with new catenary wires and signal systems, Corbett said.

The remainder of the catenary and signal wires between New York and New Brunswick that date to the 1930’s and 1940’s, some of which have been spliced and re-spliced to repair problems, that need permanent replacement, he said.

“It may take 8 to 10 years...we can’t wait that long (for it to happen),” Corbett said.

The work is in the massive NEC “to do list” in the $117 billion, 15-year Connect 2035 report, released by the Northeast Corridor Commission, Amtrak and other officials on July 14, 2021. It’s goal is to rebuild or replace aging, delay-causing infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor line across eight states and shave close to 30 minutes off a New York to Boston rail trip.

Connect 35’s New Jersey High Speed Rail Improvement Program includes upgrades to electrical power, signal systems, tracks, and overhead catenary wires to extend high speed operations from New Brunswick to Newark, and reduce trip times for NJ Transit and Amtrak trains. C35 is the first iteration of a 15-year plan to eliminate the backlog of NEC State of Good Repair projects and improve the corridor to meet 2035 service and travel time goals.

However, that report doesn’t have a timetable when work on that project would be done and is “in the backend” of the plan, Corbett said.

Plans to rehabilitate the Dock bridge over the Passaic River between Newark and Harrison which is used by Amtrak, NJ Transit and PATH trains, are in the plan.

“We support it but it’s not a major cause of delays,” Corbett said. “It’s more important to accelerate the signal and catenary work than prioritize Dock.”

Other talks were about altering rail schedules to increase the early morning window for NEC maintenance.

Now there is a window between 1:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 5 a.m. when NJ Transit trains aren’t running, for repairs, Corbett said. By the time electricity is turned off in overhead wires and work equipment is in place, that dwindles to about 3 hours of work time, he said.

“They have a theoretical plan; we want to have dates and specifics,” Corbett said. “That ties into seeing if we can amend our schedule, so we can accommodate them, that’s what we’re working on now.”

Amtrak wants a bigger windows to do bigger repairs, Corbett said, but he also wants to know what that agency’s priorities are.

“This is a great time for capital projects,” he said. “The Acela goes 150 mph between Trenton and New Brunswick and then has to slow the rest of the way. Their riders will get a benefit to have signal and catenary that is world class.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @CommutingLarry.

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