Penn Station derailments expose Northeast Corridor’s big weakness

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Passenger frustration and confusion reigned in early April after emergency track repairs at Penn Station snarled commuter train schedules for five days.
Joseph M. Calisi
New York Penn Station track diagram
Trains Magazine: Rick Johnson
NEW YORK — Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman’s April 6 mea culpa laid bare what went wrong in two relatively minor accidents in as many weeks that snarled multiple Penn Station rush hours (mismatched rail and defective cross ties). But Moorman didn’t wade into the inevitable conflict between uninterrupted train operations and diligent maintenance on a track plan created in 1910 that can’t adequately accommodate today’s traffic.

Specifically, Moorman pinned the blame for a three-car April 3 derailment of an inbound NJ Transit train on a wide gauge due to defective wood ties. He said mismatched rail on a curve caused an Acela Express to sideswipe an NJ Transit train on a curve on March 24.

The incidents occurred on rails leading to tracks 9 and 6, respectively, at the southeast corner of the station. Any train headed to or from the Hudson River Tunnels or the Empire Connection that uses station tracks 1 through 9 must pass through switches across one of two “ladders” that are constantly busy.

Stub-ended tracks 1 through 4 are reserved for either NJ Transit equipment or Amtrak’s New York-Harrisburg push-pull Keystone Corridor trains. Because both services can reverse in the station, they don’t eat up valuable through-track capacity needed for trains which must travel through East River Tunnels to access Sunnyside Yard.

An added limitation is that all Empire Service trains and the Lake Shore Limited can only use tracks 5 through 9. The connection to an ex-New York Central freight line was built in 1991 when all Amtrak operations moved out of Grand Central Terminal.

Thus, many Keystones and Empires were cancelled while trackage was being repaired following both derailments; some Keystones reversed at Newark, N.J., where passengers could catch Port Authority Trans Hudson trains into Manhattan and a few Empire Service round-trips connected with Metro North at Poughkeepsie or Croton-Harmon, N.Y.

Even though Long Island Rail Road trains don’t typically traverse interlockings where both derailments occurred, its operations were impacted by reduced platform options for Amtrak and NJ Transit trains needing to get to Sunnyside for servicing.

According to Moorman, only after the April 3 mishap did Amtrak, “survey all other sites at the station that could possibly have the (misaligned rail) condition, and we can confirm that none were found.”

He adds, “We have changed our specs to eliminate the mismatched condition” which caused the March 24 Acela Express-NJ Transit sideswipe.
Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman inspecting tracks at New York's Penn Station on Thursday, April 6.
Conflict: operations versus maintenance
At the press briefing, Moorman acknowledged, “we had notations that the (defective ties) needed to be replaced…at that location and others” as a result of regular inspections, “but we clearly did not have the understanding that there was an imminent failure.”

Replacing ties, ballast, and rails on tracks as busy and interconnected as those that serve the throat of Penn Station requires an engineering supervisor to forcefully make the case to operations people — here not only at Amtrak but also with NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road personnel — that tracks must be taken out of service for a period of time long enough to make repairs.

Amtrak does this every weekend when it closes one of the two Hudson River tunnels for maintenance. Saturday and Sunday schedules are adjusted so most westbound trains leave Penn Station between the top and bottom of each hour, while eastbounds are fleeted from the half-hour to the next full hour.

Taking multiple tracks out of service for an extended period for repairs at Penn Station, as the disruptions last week illustrated, could require advance rescheduling that would have to be coordinated among multiple agencies so travelers could be notified.

Moreover, to do it as fast as possible in an off-peak period would demand amassing an all-hands-on-deck work force being paid time and a half or maybe double time unless management believes repairs could be safely conducted in piecemeal fashion over a longer time frame. That is clearly what happened here, with the prevailing consensus among inspectors betting that relatively slow speed operation would not put undue stress on wobbly infrastructure.

They were wrong.
Penn Station dispatchers view track occupancy in August 2009. Track 1 is at the bottom of the screen; both the March 24 and April 3 derailments took place on the interlocking leading from tracks 6 and 9 off to the left.
Bob Johnston
Who decides?
On paper, the arbiter of whether track repairs must to be done today or can wait until tomorrow is Amtrak’s recently-installed Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek, whose direct reports include both engineering and operations. Like any upper level manager, however, his role in maintaining a safety culture impervious to financial pressures is only as good as the information that flows up from the troops.

Moorman says he is “leading a comprehensive review of our maintenance practices and engineering department, including bringing in independent experts, to ensure we have the right processes and organization to maintain and improve our infrastructure.”

Evidently, Amtrak senior management has let a wealth of institutional knowledge slip away that helped prevent Penn Station track failures in the past. With retirements, some loss is inevitable, but the pace picks up when presidents continuously shuffle the deck. Perhaps what’s needed now is a hands on “czar” who insists on absolute compliance with the safest strategy possible. And that person needs to be Wick Moorman.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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