OP-ED: Unforeseen consequences for Amtrak East River Tunnel work

Nov. 17, 2023
Don't be surprised if the East River Tunnels project completion date slips from 2027 into 2028 or 2029.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer's (D-NY) announcement that he has delivered $1.3 billion in federal funding to pay for repairs to the East River tunnels as a result of 2012 Super Storm Sandy is really nothing to be proud of. In June 2016, he did the same with proclaiming that he obtained funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA grant that year provided $432 million in Super Storm Sandy funding to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for repairs to the East River Tunnels. More than seven years later, there is little evidence these funds have been used for their original intended purpose.  In the interim, the cost of work has increased 300 percent to $1.6 billion. Even if work starts in 2024, there is no guarantee that repairs to the two most damaged tunnels will be complete by 2027.  

Will Amtrak have sufficient track outages and force account support (Amtrak employees) to meet the promised 2027 completion date?  The same Amtrak resources are also committed to other projects along the Northeast Corridor between Washington D.C., and Boston, Mass., for years to come.  Three of these in the MTA New York area include the $1.6 billion New Jersey Northeast Corridor Portal Bridge, $3.1 billion MTA Metro-North Railroad Bronx East Penn Station Access and $16.8 billion Gateway Tunnel Hudson River Phase One projects.  This does not include ongoing routine maintenance at Penn Station Newark, Penn Station New York, Hudson and East River tunnels, $2 billion Maryland Susquehanna River Bridge, $4.7 billion 1.4 mile Baltimore Potomac Tunnel, $827 million Connecticut River Bridge, other stations, tracks, bridges, tunnels and facilities along the Northeast Corridor. How can Amtrak provide sufficient numbers of employees to work on these key state of good repair and system expansion projects while supporting work on the East River Tunnels at the same time?

Only a review by an independent engineer of Amtrak annual Master Force Account and Track Outage Plans could validate they have the resources to support future East River Tunnel work, along with all the other major capital projects in the MTA New York area and Northeast corridor. We would also need to see the detailed construction schedule submitted by any winning construction contractor, reviewed and approved by Amtrak.

The schedule would provide the weekly, monthly and yearly detailed construction project interim milestones, along with sequencing of work and critical path that justify the promised 2027 completion date. Don't be surprised if the project completion date slips into 2028 or 2029. The budget may also increase. Construction bids by firms may come in higher than Amtrak project cost estimators predicted.  There will also be the inevitable contract change orders during construction.

The delay may be due to unforeseen site conditions, last minute requests by Amtrak operations, maintenance or other departments, including Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit). Construction contractors sometimes submit delay claims for additional financial reimbursement. These claims may be based upon insufficient and timely track access necessary to perform required or additional work not included in the original contract. 

Amtrak has previously stated that it will require one of the two tunnels damaged by Super Storm Sandy to be out of service at a time to advance project work. The other two tunnels will also need work to bring them up to a state of good repair. With only three of four tunnels available, there will be a 25 percent reduction in Penn Station access and capacity. This directly contradicts Schumer's statement that "all 453 Amtrak and LIRR trains that utilize the East River Tunnels will continue to run on time during reconstruction."  Did he also forget NJ Transit? They, along with Amtrak, need significant access to move equipment to and from the Sunnyside Yards via the same tunnels. This facility is used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit for mid day and overnight storage to position equipment for rush hour and off peak service. 

Three of four tunnels running inbound mornings and evening rush hours have tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing during rush hours. Penn Station is currently operating at 100 percent capacity during rush hours.  If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays, cancellation and combining of trains. The West Side Penn Station yard is used by LIRR for mid day storage of trains. During the evening east bound rush hour, the LIRR runs out of equipment from this facility. Full east bound evening peak service is dependent upon west bound trains arriving at Penn Station. This equipment is turned around to make a second trip east bound.  

Amtrak initiation of East River Tunnel rehabilitation starting in 2024 will result in one of four tunnels being removed from service 24/7. If a train stalls in one of the three remaining tunnels, thousands of commuters will be late.   
How can Schumer make such a promise given all of these issues?  

To preserve existing service, it is obvious some LIRR rush hour trains will be canceled or combined. This results in overcrowded trains with insufficient seating capacity. Some riders end up standing in the vestibules and aisles. Until this work is over, it will be impossible to guarantee safe and reliable on time service with the same current level of service, including a seat during a.m. and p.m. peak trips to and from Penn Station for LIRR commuters.

Reduced East River tunnel capacity also makes it difficult to add previously promised new services. This includes Metro-North Railroad's East Bronx New Haven line Access to Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge and a 40 percent overall increase in reverse peak service as a result of East Side Access to Grand Central Madison. Both Amtrak and NJ Transit need access to the Queens Sunnyside Yards via the East River tunnels to support their own respective planned service increases. Going from four to three available East River tunnels can only result in a significant capacity reduction. This translates to no increase in existing or new services until work on all four East River tunnels is completed. 

The LIRR 1960s motto "Line of the Dashing Dan" should be changed to "Line of the Slow Moving Sloth" when it comes to completing East River Tunnel repairs as a result of damages from 2012 Super Storm Sandy 15 years later in 2027.

About the Author

Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.