Derailment Sparks Fierce Debate Over Future Of Rail Between NY And NJ

(robotbrainz/Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) For three rush hours over two days this week, the derailed New Jersey Transit train cars sat motionless as roadkill. They'd broken down not far from their point of departure, Penn Station in Manhattan, and were blocking a section of track outside one of two heavily used train tunnels beneath the Hudson River. With one slip off the rails, they'd reduced by half the rail capacity between New Jersey and the central business district of New York--a crucial commuter link that accommodates 1,300 trains a day. Massive delays ensued.

The longer the crippled cars idled, the lower two powerful New Jersey politicians swooped, looking to make a meal of the situation.

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg issued a statement that essentially said, this is why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie should never have canceled the ARC Tunnel last fall. The project would have doubled the train lines under the Hudson from two to four. With an ARC Tunnel, a derailment blocking one track would leave three tracks running.

"The existing tunnel is over a century old and not capable of handling the increased traffic we will see in the future," Lautenberg said. "Instead of accepting $3 billion in federal funding for New Jersey to advance the ARC project, the Governor turned down the money and settled for the status quo – leaving New Jersey commuters and our economy to suffer."

In an email to WNYC, Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak called Lautenberg's remarks "completely gratuitous." He said the ARC Tunnel threatened cost overruns that New Jersey couldn't afford.

"The senator of all people should know by now that the tunnel project he continues to endorse was stopped because it was a very bad deal for New Jersey," Drewniak wrote, before adding that the governor supported "additional cross-Hudson commuter rail capacity."

As it happens, there's a plan for that. It's called Gateway Tunnel. (See this pdf). Senator Lautenberg is a champion of the project, though he much preferred the ARC tunnel, which would've added 25 trains per hour compared to Gateway's 21.  It was also already under construction, mostly funded, and scheduled to open by decade's end.

New Jersey's monetary contribution to the ARC project, which Christie believed was too high, would've meant that New Jersey Transit controlled it--as opposed to control by Amtrak, which already owns and oversees the existing tunnel.

The importance of that arrangement was shown by the recent derailment. Amtrak was in charge of dispatching trains along the sole serviceable track. It's unclear whether Amtrak privileged its dozens of rush hour trains compared to NJ Transit's hundreds, but for the most part Amtrak suffered delays of 15 to 45 minutes while NJ Transit saw massive cancellations and long delays. (It was a bilevel NJ Transit train that derailed. Neither Amtrak nor NJ Transit has cited a cause for the accident.)

Supporters of the Gateway Tunnel say it will cost $10 to $13 billion and ten years to complete. What are the chances it will happen? Next month will provide a clue, when Amtrak's request for $50 million for a design study comes before Congress. A staff member to an elected official familiar with the request said he expects a fierce fight over it, with cost-conscious Republicans in the House opposing and Democrats supporting it.

UPDATE. The Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility says in a blog post that when one of two train tunnels is blocked, capacity is actually cut by more than 50 percent:

When trains go through a single tunnel in one direction, they can follow each other one after the other with minimal space in between. But if a single tunnel serves trains going in both directions, the trains must be more spaced out, because a train going in one direction must wait for the train in the opposite direction to clear the tunnel. So, for example, two tunnels each serving 25 trains per hour, becomes one tunnel serving 15.