NJ: NJ Transit, Amtrak spar over cause of the latest heat wave commuting meltdown

June 24, 2024
The disagreement comes after commuters have endured five days of service interruptions due to infrastructure and train problems on the nation’s busiest railroad. It has halted service numerous times as a heat wave played havoc with electrical systems and trains.
NJ Transit and Amtrak continued to disagree about the cause of Friday morning’s rail service problems to and from New York, with NJ Transit officials saying a commuter train that Amtrak blamed for breaking down passed inspection in Newark.
The disagreement comes after commuters have endured five days of service interruptions due to infrastructure and train problems on the nation’s busiest railroad. It has halted service numerous times as a heat wave played havoc with electrical systems and trains.
Lawmakers questioned why Amtrak hasn’t used federal infrastructure law money to fix these issues and one expert suggested a Gov. Chris Christie era idea, withhold the rent NJ Transit pays Amtrak.
Both agencies issued differing alerts on X Friday morning, with NJ Transit reporting that service to and from New York was suspended due to an Amtrak overhead wire problem. Amtrak Northeast alerts said its service was operating with 60-minute delays due to a disabled commuter train in New York Penn Station.
As late as 3:11 p.m., NJ Transit blamed Amtrak’s overhead wire problems for 30-minute delays to and from New York.
Amtrak officials said at 11 a.m. the agency did not have a confirmed cause.
“We’re still working with our partners at NJT (to) investigate the cause of this morning’s disruption, as well as remove the disabled train and repair any infrastructure,” said Kyle Anderson, an Amtrak spokesperson, who added the disabled train was an NJ Transit train.
NJ Transit officials pushed back in a statement Friday afternoon.
“Regarding today’s incident specifically, we’ve had rail maintenance supervisors positioned at Newark Penn Station to inspect trains in light of the recent incidents,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO. “The train involved was inspected thoroughly before leaving Newark, including the pantograph, and no defects were found.”
Amtrak and NJ Transit officials have disagreed on what’s bringing the wires down; Amtrak officials blame the train pantographs that collect electricity from the wires.
In a letter responding to Gov. Phil Murphy’s letter criticizing Amtrak after problems caused service to be suspended on May 22, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said Amtrak infrastructure-related delays were to blame for two of five incidents and NJ Transit equipment-related delays for three of five incidents, according to an early analysis of the events.
“We operate approximately 700 trains every weekday along hundreds of miles of track on 11 rail lines with the same equipment and these incidents are mainly occurring on just this one stretch of track on the NEC between Newark and New York,” Corbett said. “We continue to offer Amtrak our assistance to resolve the issue.”
Corbett noted Thursday afternoon’s incident that cut power and suspended Amtrak service between New Haven and Philadelphia was caused by one of their circuit breakers impacting power, citing Amtrak reports.
As of 2:25 p.m., Amtrak was citing the disabled commuter train and infrastructure repair as reasons for canceling two trains at Penn Station New York. An Amtrak spokesman did not immediately respond to an email about NJ Transit’s statement.
“We are as frustrated as our customers, and the frequency and impact these issues are having on our customers’ quality of life is clearly unacceptable,” Corbett said.
But some federal lawmakers said they’re equally as frustrated on behalf of commuters and questioned why Amtrak isn’t using funding from the $2 trillion federal bipartisan infrastructure law that they fought to pass to replace the aging catenary.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th Dist., blasted the agency, criticizing it’s June 10 response to his letter about late May service suspensions, saying it “did not offer concrete actions to prevent these problems from recurring in the short term.”
He called the service disruptions on Thursday night — which were blamed on an Amtrak wire overhead-circuit breaker issue — “utterly unacceptable,” in a statement.
“Congress provided Amtrak and the states with an historic amount of infrastructure funding, and it needs to be used in a way that prioritizes reliability,” said Victoria Bonney, a Pallone spokeswoman, reiterating what Paloone told Amtrak officials in his letter.
“We’re about to mark the third anniversary of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and commuters have yet to see the fruit of that investment,” she said. “That is unacceptable and it’s why the Congressman has requested a meeting with Amtrak’s leadership – a conversation in which he will absolutely discuss the need to make these urgent repairs.”
Others said the infrastructure law funding was intended to fix problems like this and should be used.
“A 21st century commute shouldn’t rely on equipment from the WW2 era,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-3rd Dist. “It’s absurd that in one of the busiest commuter areas in the country, we’ve waited generations to modernize. New Jersey commuters deserve to see a plan on how this will be fixed and a long-term vision for a better, more reliable commute.”
The overhead catenary wire on the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and New York City has sections dating to the 1940s. Those sections sag in hot weather, making them prone to being broken by passing trains. In the winter, it contracts in cold and can snap. A solution is to replace it with constant tension wire that automatically takes up the slack or adds it depending on weather extremes.
“I’ve been in touch with both NJ Transit and Amtrak about the recent delays impacting commuters across North Jersey,” said U.S. Rep Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist. “In my conversations, I’ve made it clear that fixing these overhead wires must be a priority. We cannot afford to delay these repairs and let service lag.”
A section of the corridor line between New Brunswick and Trenton had constant tension catenary wire installed as part of a larger $450 million project that built track, electrical supply, signal and overhead wire system improvements. It was part of a USDOT project to increase train speeds to 150 to 160 mph on a section of track dubbed the “raceway.”
It might be up to the congressional delegation to fight for replacement of the overhead wire between New Brunswick and New York with the same vigor that they fought to get funding for the Gateway tunnels to be built under the Hudson River.
“It’s great that our congressional delegation succeeded in advancing the Gateway Program, but the entire, monumental investment will be virtually meaningless for riders if we can’t get the electrical problems sorted,” said Micah Rasmussen, Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University director.
NJ Transit which pays more than $200 million to run trains on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and for maintenance, and might want to use that a leverage, he said.
“Our rent payments to Amtrak should be conditioned on a Northeast Corridor that’s in working order,” Rasmussen said. “It’s long past time for the nation to treat its most-used rail asset better than a neglected rental property.”
That would be a throwback to Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who directed the state attorney general in 2017 to stop making the $2.5 to $5 million in monthly rent and maintenance payments to Amtrak until there has been an independent inspection to verify the Northeast Corridor is in a state of good repair.
Christie was responding to two minor derailments of NJ Transit trains in Penn Station New York, which were later blamed on track issues and led to the 2017 “summer of hell” program of track repair and replacement at Penn Station to address those and other issues.

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

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