Transit Commuters: 'Don't Think It's Fixable... Our Infrastructure Is Crumbling'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Is there light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to delays in and out of Penn Station?

As CBS2’s Alice Gainer reported Wednesday, Amtrak said it is putting together plans to improve the aging infrastructure at the depot — work that it says will result “in some delays and cancellations.”

The announcement came after derailments and track work have considerably slowed down the commute lately.

Amtrak has not provided specifics as to the plan it has in mind. But the plan is in addition to the ongoing Amtrak track maintenance work that NJ TRANSIT says will cause 15-minute delays to and from Penn on weekdays and 30-minute delays on weekends “until further notice,” according to a notice on its website.

“It’s going to be an inconvenience for a while,” one commuter told 1010 WINS’ John Montone. “You reap the benefits when it’s all done.”

Commuters like Mike Ditore, who ride NJ TRANSIT into Penn daily, believe Amtrak is only making extensive repairs to its aging infrastructure now because they have no choice.

“It shouldn’t take something like this. This should have been planned years ago,” he told CBS2’s Janelle Burrell. “I guess when so many delays happen in a row, they look bad enough, they finally have to do something.”

As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported, NJ TRANSIT riders such as Renee Pharo cannot take it anymore.

“It’s been terrible this week and it’s been bad all month,” said commuter Renee Pharo. “There’s been nights it took me three hours to get home.”

Many commuters were hit with a double dose of delays on Tuesday — a disabled Amtrak train in the morning and power problems in one of the East River tunnels later in the afternoon.

Because of the delays and cancellations, the crowds at Penn Station grew so large that police actually had to close off access points getting into the terminal.

“I pay an outrageous amount in fares, they keep increasing throughout the year and everyone is paying and we get horrendous service,” Summit, New Jersey resident Bart Pan-Kita said.

Riders like Michael Santana say the constant delays mean sometimes getting to work more than an hour late. He says it also means having to pay more for things like parking and babysitters.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “It’s not fair because we could lose our job.”

On Wednesday morning, NJ TRANSIT trains were delayed in and out of Penn Station again due to track work. The commute had lightened for the evening rush Wednesday, with usual crowds for the LIRR.

NJ TRANSIT Executive Director Steven Santoro posted a letter on the agency’s website thanking customers for their “continued patience and understanding during the recent and ongoing delays to your train service.”

“These delays have caused considerable frustration, inconvenience and stress for many of you as you travel to work, appointments, events and then back home. Traveling on NJ TRANSIT should be the easy part of your day, not the most challenging,” Santoro sad.

He also offered riders whose jobs have been impacted by delays to visit their customer service offices and pick up a delay letter for their employer.

The problems at Penn Station during the work week this week come after a litany of other woes.

Just this past Sunday, an Amtrak train broke down in the Hudson River tunnel while leaving Penn Station.

Two days before that on Friday, problems with an Amtrak signal stalled traffic in the tunnel, disrupting service between Newark and New York’s Penn Station during the Friday morning rush.

A week earlier, a disabled NJ TRANSIT train led to delays at Penn Station and across the area during the evening rush hour. Approximately 1,200 passengers were trapped on board for three hours without lights, water or instructions.

And earlier this month, a NJ TRANSIT train derailed at Penn Station, leading to four days of crowded and canceled trains, making for chaotic commutes. Eight tracks were out of service while crews made repairs, impacting NJ TRANSIT, LIRR and Amtrak riders.

That incident came just 10 days after an Amtrak train derailed and scraped against a NJ TRANSIT train.

Amtrak officials have yet to release details about the scope or the impact of the planned repairs.

But CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, the new word is that Amtrak is hatching a plan to close some of Penn Station’s 21 tracks for extended periods to make long-term repairs.

The still-secret plan, upon which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board is due to be briefed on Thursday, was met with a combination of excitement and dread. There is relief that repairs are finally on the drawing board, and worry about all the commuters whose lives will be affected.

There is also a demand that Amtrak “make no decisions going forward until we have thoroughly had the opportunity to understand what is going on,” said MTA Board Member Lawrence Schwartz.

Officials from the Long Island Rail Road and NJ TRANSIT say they haven’t received any information about the plan, with NJ TRANSIT saying that “it’s imperative that NJ TRANSIT see Amtrak’s plan to review its impact on our customers and the region’s economy.”

That frustration boiled over at the MTA Board meeting Wednesday morning.

“I am running out of words to explain the situation,” said LIRR Chairman Mitchell Pally.

“What they told us two weeks ago is that they needed two weeks to come up with a plan,” MTA Interim Director Veronique Hakim said. “My understanding is that’s what we’re going to hear tomorrow.”

There has also been talk about legal action against Amtrak, but MTA board chair Fernando Ferrer says they don’t want a fight, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.

“We’d like to work collaboratively,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest.”

A spokesman for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he also wants to monitor the situation, “to make sure these repairs by Amtrak address our deepest safety concerns and that they are done in the most timely fashion to reduce inconvenience to riders.”

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo also weighed in on Wednesday.

“The federal government has to get on the case and they have to do a better job,” Cuomo said. “There is no excuse for the inferior operation by Amtrak of Penn Station.”

More details on the Amtrak plan are expected Friday when Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Charles Moorman appears at a legislative hearing in Trenton on the recent disruptions in service, WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reported.

“If it works, gives you an excuse I guess,” said commuter Travis Subveri.

“It’s a short term solution for a big problem,” said commuter Byron Moran.

“It definitely needs to be done,” Pharo said. “It needed to be done a few years ago when they wanted to put the extra tunnel in.”

Still, commuters worry the desperately needed improvements will almost certainly mean extensive track closures and even bigger disruptions for the tens of thousands passing through Penn Station each day.

Meanwhile, CBS News got rare access inside the 105-year-old train tunnel beneath the Hudson River. It is easy to see the crumbling walls and leaking water, which is often blamed for loss of power.

“One more major event like Hurricane Sandy, it could take one of those tunnels of service,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) “It will create a traffic Armageddon like we have never experienced before.”

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Christie and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called on the federal government to fund the Gateway Tunnel Project.

The new tunnel project was approved for fast-tracked environmental permitting and was in line for billions in federal grants under President Barack Obama.

In 2010, Christie canceled the ARC Tunnel Project and claimed to save taxpayers money. That project would have added a second tunnel to augment the current, 110-year-old tunnel.

Meanwhile, NJ TRANSIT also announced Wednesday that effective May 7, schedule changes will be issued – including timetable changes. NJ TRANSIT also said it will be adding additional seats – and more cars – to ease overcrowding.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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