Amtrak Targets Easing of New York-Philadelphia Delays by End of September

Amtrak and commuter-train riders who suffered three service delays between New York and Philadelphia this week may see hold-ups linger while the national passenger rail service finishes some power-system repairs over the next three months.

“If I were to say we won’t have any more service disruptions over the summer, I would be doing everyone an injustice,” Clifford Cole, an Amtrak spokesman based in New York, said by telephone. “What we’re doing now, we believe, will help diminish the possibility of service disruptions.”

Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded this week because of computer and electrical-equipment failures in a power system that was mostly built during the Great Depression. Forty of 82 electrical substations between Washington and New York will be running on new equipment by the end of September, Cole said. The $25 million project is funded by grants from President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.

Substations take power from 138,000-volt overhead electrical lines, lower it to 12,000 volts and send it to wires above the tracks to power the trains.

In 2002, Amtrak started the project to replace transformers and other equipment at the substations, some more than 75 years old, on the south end of the Northeast Corridor, between Washington and New York, said Steve Kulm, a spokesman for the rail service.

Amtrak replaced all transformers and circuit breakers between Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington and between Philadelphia and Hackensack, New Jersey, Kulm said. The company upgraded the power system between New York and Boston in the 1990s, he said.

Trenton, Brunswick

Amtrak, which was awarded $450 million after Florida rejected $2.4 billion in high-speed rail grants, is directing some of those funds to improving the electrical system in New Jersey between Trenton and New Brunswick, Kulm said.

The railroad, which is partially funded by Congress, would need to invest $5 billion to $7 billion to bring the Northeast Corridor, mainly the south end, back up to “good working condition,” said Mortimer Downey, deputy U.S. secretary of transportation under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. The power system hasn’t “had much maintenance” since it was set up in the Great Depression, Downey said.

“There’s just a lot of work,” said Downey, a senior consultant in Washington with engineering and construction firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Lawmaker Resistance

There’s been resistance from lawmakers for about 15 years to giving Amtrak the money it needs to fully modernize the Northeast Corridor, said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“They are paying attention to it, but Amtrak is subject to the whims of the federal policy makers and the Congress,” Robins said.

A Republican-controlled Congress cut Amtrak funding from 1995 to 2006. President George W. Bush’s administration proposed removing the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak’s control in 2005.

This week, a fire at a substation in New Brunswick shut down operations on June 21 from 1 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Service between New York and Philadelphia was disrupted twice at peak travel times on June 23: between about 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. because of a computer failure and from roughly 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. because of insufficient power to operate the trains.

‘Long Day’

At the Trenton Transit Center last night, Elaine Arkin, a health consultant, was on Track 4 awaiting Amtrak Train 127, running to Washington from New York. The train, scheduled to depart at 5:02 p.m., was 90 minutes late, according to the overhead screens.

“It’s been a long day,” Arkin, of Washington, said at 6:35 p.m.

New Jersey Transit and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority both operate commuter rail service on Amtrak’s system.

This week’s service delays affected riders on three New Jersey Transit lines and three Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as well as Amtrak passengers between Trenton and New York City.

New Jersey Transit commuters using the North Jersey Coast line and the Midtown Direct service into New York Penn Station, as well as the Northeast Corridor between Trenton and New York City, were affected, Penny Bassett Hackett, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit, said by telephone.

An average of 160,000 roundtrips on weekdays are made on the three New Jersey Transit lines that were affected, Bassett Hackett said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Caruso in Washington at lcaruso7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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