Inside the Hudson Rail Tunnel: Decay, Water and a Power Puzzle

Amtrak Crew in the Hudson Rail Tunnel
An Amtrak crew repairs a 400 foot section of a transmission cable in the north tube of the North River Tunnel under the Hudson River. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Fixes aren’t quick in a commuter-rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Not when the crew is diverted to a more pressing repair. Not when 300 feet of faulty power cable is pulled from its housing and another 100 feet won’t budge.

Should Amtrak, the national railroad, invite you to watch, know this: All the detergent on Earth won’t get the soot and grease from your clothes, and by the time you hear an engineer warn about the occasional 15-foot waterfall, you’re already wet. And smelly.

Early Friday, after three days of unexpected hold-ups, Amtrak was getting closer to splicing a line whose failure contributed to a string of breakdowns in July between New York and New Jersey. On six occasions, delays were as long as 90 minutes on the Northeast Corridor, the Boston-to-Washington rail route that is the nation’s busiest.

As New Jersey Transit commuters took to social media to complain about a 9 percent fare increase for unreliable service, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx revived Amtrak’s Gateway plan, a new $16 billion tunnel. Foxx met in Newark on Aug. 18 with Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, to shore up support for the unfunded project.

“This is the straw that broke the back,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, as he escorted a group of eight news reporters and photographers to the repair site, near Weehawken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson.

Sandy Damage

Almost a month after the delays, it’s not clear what interrupted power in the pair of tubes leading to New York Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan. Amtrak spliced 400 feet of cable in the south tube last month. The same job in the north tube has been slower going.

The damage may be merely the toll of 80 years on copper wire encased in lead, paper, cooling oil and rubber, Magliari said. It may be the work of corrosives deposited in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy floodwater. It may point to a design vulnerability: Built 105 years ago on riverbed silt, the tubes rise and sway with the Hudson’s tides, even as trains zoom through at 70 miles an hour.

“They shift enough to twist the conduit,” Magliari said.

Amtrak will have sections of the cable examined for clues to the failures. Charred areas might indicate an overload. A clear break might be from corrosion or stress.

The tubes have fewer than 20 years of service left, Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said last year. Each need to be closed at least a year for an overhaul.

As a vehicle called a catenary car carried media and workers through the tunnel, crew members pointed out areas where leaking water has loosened concrete. At the job site, about 10 technicians were readying 400 feet of cable to thread and splice.

Done or not, they’d have to wrap up by 5 a.m. For the morning commute, each tunnel must be open and humming with 12,000 volts of uninterrupted electricity.

Even then, New Jersey Transit trains were running as much as 20 minutes late Friday morning because of an Amtrak signal problem, according to a commuter alert.

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