NJ: Amtrak will meet with N.J. officials over midweek commuting meltdown, Murphy says

May 28, 2024
Northeast Corridor service was suspended shortly after rush hour started when an overhead power wire broke at a busy junction that serves Amtrak and multiple NJ Transit rail lines Wednesday.

Gov. Phil Murphy said New Jersey and Amtrak officials will meet about Wednesday’s commuting meltdown when a downed power wire brought NJ Transit and Amtrak trains to a halt on the busy Northeast Corridor, stranding thousands of commuters.

Wednesday evening service suspension resulted in hours without rail service, with delays and train cancellations that spilled in to the Thursday morning commute. That prompted an angry letter from Murphy to Amtrak Board Chairman Tony Coscia asking for meetings and contingency plans.

“We’ve been in touch with Amtrak since this happened, we demanded a meeting with them in next number of days, which will take place,” Murphy said after an unrelated Friday event in Asbury Park. “We’re beholden to Amtrak in this place … enough already, our commuters are the ones who are suffering.”

Northeast Corridor service was suspended shortly after rush hour started when an overhead power wire broke at a busy junction that serves Amtrak and multiple NJ Transit rail lines Wednesday. Other infrastructure issues during the week caused service problems.

A transit expert said the problems with Northeast Corridor infrastructure aren’t new and could take decades to replace it.

But a former Federal Transit Administration official said these are not new problems to the Northeast Corridor.

“Problems with signals and power disruptions are nothing new and have gone on for years,” said Larry Penner, a former Federal Transit Administration official in the administration’s New York regional office. “Emphasis clearly needs to be placed on reaching a state of good repair for all capital assets before spending significant funding on any system expansion projects.”

In his letter, Murphy cited the $100 million NJ Transit pays Amtrak to use of the Northeast Corridor, writing that “Amtrak must immediately address equipment vulnerabilities and updated emergency management plans.” He blasted Amtrak, which owns and maintains the Northeast Corridor, calling Wednesday’s incident “an unmitigated disaster” for thousands of passengers.”

“We apologize to Amtrak and NJ Transit customers for the impact yesterday’s wire issues had on their travel,” Gery Williams, Amtrak executive vice president of service delivery and operations, said in a statement. “We hold ourselves to a high standard in terms of the reliable service we provide our customers and the customers of our commuter partners, who deserve better than their travel experience yesterday evening.”

Penner said Amtrak needs to answer what percentage of existing signals and power on the Northeast Corridor still need work to reach a state of good repair, how much will that cost and funding sources for the work, he said.

Amtrak, through the Federal Railroad Administration and NJ Transit, via the Federal Transit Administration, have easy access to federal funding to pay for the capital improvements necessary to resolve these issues, Penner said.

He also suggested that NJ Transit should ask the New York MTA for a small share of the anticipated $1 billion in annual Congestion Price Tolling revenue to be allocated specifically for improvements on the Northeast Corridor. Congestion Price Tolling would charges a $15 toll to enter lower Manhattan starting on June 30.

While an investigation continue into the root cause of the incident that caused catenary wires that power trains to break at a key junction in Kearny, Amtrak’s Williams said “we will implement any changes to avoid a similar incident like yesterday from happening again.”

When asked for details about the response and if it satisfied Murphy, a spokeswoman referred those questions to NJ Transit.

“President and (NJ Transit) CEO Corbett and Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner have been in contact and are setting up a meeting as soon as possible with key staff to clinically get to the root causes of these incidents,” said Kyalo Mulumba, an NJ Transit spokesperson, in a statement. “The goal is to ensure that all departments involved on both sides are fully aligned to reduce such occurrences while we work collectively on the longer-term project to replace and upgrade the antiquated infrastructure we inherited.”

NJ Transit did not answer questions beyond the statement.

But frustrated commuters had issues with the way both agencies handled the incident.

Amtrak posted an alert on X at 5:37 p.m., Wednesday that Northeast Corridor service was suspended.

NJ Transit began posting alerts about three individual NEC train delays due to Amtrak wire problems starting at 5:27 p.m., 5:34 and 5:40 p.m., before posting a cross honoring alert at 5:57 p.m. and service suspension alert at 5:58 p.m.

Some riders complained they were stuck on powerless trains caught between stations with no ventilation. Others commuters suggested on social media that trains should have been held in stations so riders could get off and find alternate transportation.

“In 2024, there is no excuse for up to the minute communications between Amtrak and NJ Transit so that during service disruptions, trains are held or sent to the nearest station rather than being stuck between stations,” Penner said.

NJ Transit was able to send buses to Newark Penn station where lines of commuters were waiting outside, to take Raritan Valley Line passenger from Newark to Cranford Station where trains were running.

Other passenger complained that had to pay for pricey Uber and Lyft riders if they didn’t have family members to pick them up or there wasn’t another NJ Transit bus line they could use.

“Amtrak is the (Northeast Corridor) owner and NJ Transit as a tenant or operator is at the mercy of Amtrak, “ Penner said.

Both agencies have short and long range capital plans documenting how much money, years or decades will be required before each reaches a state of good repair for all assets related to providing safe and reliable service along the Northeast Corridor, he said.

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

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