In an outlandish and resoundingly unsuccessful attempt at damage control after the release of an engineering report earlier this month that suggested the possibility of massive repair-related delays for New Jersey Transit commuters, Amtrak has held several town hall meetings for train-riders in North Jersey. At one such gathering in Union County last week, a company spokesman had some baffling advice for those preparing for the prospect of almost no New Jersey-to-NYC train service:
“We encourage you to start training for the NYC Marathon today because depending on where you live in the county, you could be about 26 miles from Penn Station, and that’s marathon distance. I say this because in a few years, you might be looking at almost no train service and the worst car traffic since the opening credits for Office Space. Get your time down to three hours and you might be able to make jogging it work.”
When Bud Fox News tried to reach that spokesperson at Amtrak offices in Washington, DC, we were told that he was unavailable but resting comfortably in the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.
Asked about the spokesman’s advice, an analyst at the NJ Department of Transportation told Bud Fox News: “That might not be a bad idea because in a few years, the rush-hour traffic going into the city will make the road look like one long used car dealership. You’ll be able to walk into the city atop the roofs of all the stopped cars. They’ll be renting coffin apartments in the city like it’s going out of style.”
The implications of Amtrak’s October 2 disclosure are indeed troubling:
Amtrak earlier this month released an outside engineering firm’s report that revealed that four of Amtrak’s six tunnels in and out of Manhattan were so damaged by Hurricane Sandy that each should be taken out of service, one at a time, to fix the damage. According to the report, the work on each tunnel could take at least a year (which means, this being Amtrak/NJT, that it will probably take close to half a decade). The repair bill should come to about $689 million (so figure about twice that), which Amtrak had expected to get from insurance coverage, but according to an Amtrak employee who asked to remain anonymous, that money has already been wasted elsewhere by the federal government.
Two of the four tunnels under the East River are damaged, so a shut-down of one tunnel would be difficult but probably manageable, especially given Amtrak/LIRR/NJT’s world class customer disservice. Worse yet, both of the measly Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson River, which, in banana republic fashion, are the only tracks through New Jersey taking riders in and out of the city, are damaged. On the topic of shutting one of the Hudson tunnels, Richard Barone of the Regional Planning Association said: “You’re talking about debilitating losses in service.” In an odd bit of Amtrak/NJT math (part of a bizarre, Philip K. Dickean parallel universe where an hour feels like 90 minutes and the clocks don’t run on time), shutting one of the two Hudson tunnels would reduce service by 75%. In a comment that sounds like it was cut from the Raging Bull script, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman at a Regional Plan Association conference earlier this spring had this to say:
“Today those two tunnels carry 24 trains per hour, 24. If you take it to one tunnel, typically you’d assume 12. Not so. Six trains per hour. Six. Because you gotta get ’em in and get ’em out. Six trains per hour. Amtrak does four. So if Amtrak’s selfish and owns the infrastructure and says we’re gonna do our four, well it doesn’t matter whether New Jersey Transit gets two or not, because with two they’re dead anyway.”
Amtrak doesn’t deny the damage but says it will not shut down the tunnels until new ones are built. Instead, it will continue to make repairs on an as-needed basis. The good news is that there is a project, called Gateway, for a new Hudson tunnel. But it really only exists in the minds of vote-greedy politicians and unhinged Amtrak executives because it hasn’t gone through the permitting process, doesn’t have an engineering plan, and doesn’t have financing. Amtrak believes that Gateway could be completed between 2023 and 2025 if everything goes according to plan. When asked about the feasibility of that timetable, independent transportation analyst Cab Hansom stifled a laugh: “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got a better chance of seeing President Obama honor a redline ultimatum.”
Back on May 30 at a delusional “ceremony” to announce that Gateway had secured a microscopic $185 million of federal Sandy aid, Senator Chuck “Flight Attendant” Schumer (D-NY) and then federal Secretary of Transportation Ray “Toyota” LaHood couldn’t even agree on the projected full Gateway project cost (Schumer suggested $13 billion). According to Mr. Hansom, Gateway will cost more. He added: “I’m not sure why securing less than 1% of the money for a project that’ll be completed sometime around the year 3000 was cause for a photo op.”
But what makes this predicament seem like evidence that the Great American Experiment may have lost its way is something else that Amtrak’s Boardman added last spring:
“I’m being told we got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down. Something less than 20. I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver.”
Said Mr. Hansom: “I’m actually pleasantly surprised that Boardman knew that seven was less than 20.” He added: “The problem, obviously, is you can’t wait for the new tunnels before you start the repairs on the current ones. I highly doubt the current tunnels can last 20 years without shut-down, and those new tunnels probably won’t be built in twice that amount of time.”
The second Battle of Marathon may be just beginning.