Repairing Sandy Damaged Rail Tunnels Could Snarl Commute for Years

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Almost two years ago, Sandy flooded four of Amtrak's six tunnels in and out of Manhattan with 13 million gallons of sea water. While the agency flushed the tunnels out in the days following the storm, chemical deposits containing chlorides and sulfates remained, slowly attacking the rails, cracking concrete, and damaging electrical systems.

Now, a new engineering report commissioned by Amtrak says while the tunnels are structurally sound, they should be taken out of service, one at a time, for extensive repairs to fix the "significant damage" caused by the storm. That work, if conducted around the clock, could take up to a year to complete in each tunnel.

The MTA performed similar work on one its tunnels recently, when it shut down the R train tunnel to make Sandy repairs.

Two of the four Amtrak tunnels under the East River, which also serve Long Island Rail Road, the nation's busiest commuter rail line, were also flooded. And both Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson River, which also serve New Jersey Transit, were flooded by Sandy. To shut down either of the Hudson tunnels, "you’re talking about debilitating losses in service," says Richard Barone of the Regional Plan Association. Because of the way the tunnels are configured, trans-Hudson rail service would need to be reduced by 75 — not 50 — percent.

(With four tunnels, the East River has more redundancy, so shutting down one of them at a time is expected to be less disruptive.)

Amtrak accepts the recommendations of the report, but officials say they won't shut down the Hudson tunnels until a new tunnel is built, and will continue to make repairs as needed. But the new tunnel, known as Gateway, is at least a decade away from completion. The project hasn't yet gone through the permitting process, and lacks a full engineering plan — to say nothing of the funding required to obtain necessary right-of-way and build it. Amtrak says if everything lines up perfectly, Gateway could be completed sometime between 2023 and 2025.

“Public awareness of the critical needs of the tunnels is important to build regional understanding of what must be done to provide current and future train service levels into New York,” said Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia.  “The Northeast region needs to make the Gateway Program a priority and we must get about the business of moving it forward as fast as we can.”

Meanwhile, the effects of Sandy are evident. Earlier this summer, a piece of concrete — made porous by lingering salt — fell onto the tracks of one of the Hudson River tunnels, disrupting service and necessitating emergency repairs.

The report, while startling, did not come as a huge surprise. Amtrak had been telegraphing the conditions of the tunnels for months. Earlier this year, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman warned that the tunnels could have as little as seven years left.

Amtrak says it's working closely with New Jersey Transit and the MTA.

The MTA said: “We share Amtrak’s concerns about the continuing safety and reliability of the East River Tubes and appreciate their careful attention to a piece of infrastructure we rely on very heavily. We also are concerned about anything that could reduce our ability to provide rush hour service to Penn Station. We’re reviewing the engineers’ recommendations that Amtrak has accepted, and will be in close communication with them about next steps.”

New Jersey Transit released a statement that read: "It is too early to know what the impacts (to) NJT customers will be. NJT, AMTRAK and MTA recognize the need to work collaboratively to minimize customer impact as much as possible in recognizing what appears to be a significant amount of effort needed to remediate the tunnels."

The news is likely to rip the scab off lingering resentments over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's 2010 cancellation of an earlier trans-Hudson rail project, known as the ARC tunnel, which was slated to be completed by 2018.

Read the report below.

NYC Tunnels Assessment Report