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Amtrak: Penn Station work to cause 2-3 major summer outages

In this April 6, 2017 photo provided by Amtrak, Amtrak workers do repairs on railroad tracks in a tunnel at New York's Penn Station. Amtrak officials said on Thursday, April 27, 2017 that necessary work on tracks and signals at New York's Pennsylvania Station will begin in May and continue through the summer. Rail travelers who have endured major disruptions recently at the nation's busiest rail station are likely to see more delays this summer because New York's Penn Station is in dire need of repair work. (Amtrak via AP)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Accelerated track repairs at New York’s Penn Station in the wake of recent derailments will require two or three “significant” disruptions to weekday service this summer, Amtrak’s CEO told lawmakers Friday, an indication that commuters may be spared what many assumed would be daily delays lasting months.

Wick Moorman told a New Jersey legislative committee the goal is to have the work at the nation’s busiest rail station done by Labor Day. The specifics were still being negotiated with Amtrak’s two largest tenants, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.

Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director, told lawmakers that he had just received Amtrak’s plan and would review it over the weekend. Moorman said negotiations would continue next week, and an announcement would be made the following week.

Amtrak’s replacement of aging tracks and other equipment, much of which dates to the 1970s, initially was scheduled to be completed over a two- or three-year period, mainly on nights and weekends. But the recent problems prompted Amtrak to condense the process, which will necessitate track closures and service adjustments on weekdays.

Derailments on March 24 and April 3 caused delays up and down the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. The second derailment, caused by old wooden cross-ties under the rails that inspectors had noted but didn’t feel warranted immediate attention, took eight of 21 tracks out of commission for four days, causing crushing delays for hundreds of thousands of commuters.

On April 14, a NJ Transit train became disabled in the tunnel leading into the station, stranding passengers for three hours and causing more havoc. An unruly person in the station was shocked with a stun gun by police, leading to a stampede as hundreds fled over fears that shots had been fired.

Moorman painted a picture of Penn Station as a relic that handles 1,300 train movements on an average weekday, twice what it handled in the 1970s when Amtrak took over, without a corresponding federal investment in capital improvements. The result, he said, is a “century-old station with 40-year-old tracks” and many components that have passed the point of needing to be replaced.

Amtrak owns the vast majority of the tracks and infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor, and NJ Transit and other commuter railroads pay to use it. That arrangement has come under scrutiny since the recent disruptions, as Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threatened to withhold NJ Transit’s payments until an independent inspector could verify the infrastructure was in a state of good repair.

The problems at Penn Station also have come at a time when uncertainty surrounds a $20 billion-plus project to build a new tunnel between New Jersey and New York and expand Penn Station to accommodate more trains. Republican President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut off federal grant funding that had already been approved for the project.

Other work also is in limbo while awaiting federal dollars, including the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River between Newark and New York. The 110-year-old span is a source of regular delays when it fails to close properly after opening to allow boats to pass through.

“Federal legislators from New York and New Jersey understand what the problem is. It’s their colleagues from different parts of the country who have different priorities,” Democratic state Sen. Bob Gordon said. “We’ve got to convince them that this is a national issue. Twenty percent of the GDP is coming from this region, and it’s got to be a national priority.”

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