It’s been a trying week for New Jersey Transit commuters, but the outcome of the April 3 derailment in Penn Station probably wasn’t too foreign for many. The last few years have brought a string of incidents which had a broad impact on the system:
- August 2011: a NJ Transit train derailed right as the train had entered one of the North River Tunnels between New York and New Jersey, stranding 300 passengers and causing massive delays which lasted well into the following day.
- October 2012: Super Storm Sandy brought NJ Transit service to a screeching a halt for three days as the North River tunnels were inundated with water.
- February 2014: NJ Transit commuters faced the agency’s worst month for on-time performance in 18 years.
- September 2016: an NJ Transit train failed to stop and crashed into the passenger waiting area at Hoboken Terminal
- March 2017: an Amtrak train derailed and sideswiped an NJ Transit train, resulting in about 24 hours of major service disruptions
While this week’s derailment may have been labeled “relatively minor,” an incident that involves just one or two trains can have a profound impact on the system. In this case, eight of the 21 tracks at Penn Station were rendered inoperable because a switch machine was badly damaged.
The region’s rail infrastructure cannot afford to operate on anything less than full capacity. Running holiday-level service with additional trains peppered in here and there simply cannot move enough people. Sure, it’s nice that PATH cross-honors NJ Transit rail tickets, but PATH is already at capacity; it shouldn’t be expected to absorb a substantial share of marooned NJ Transit passengers.
While this week has been no picnic, it could be much worse. When it comes time to take one of the two North River Tunnels out of service, capacity won’t be reduced by a little over a third; it will be reduced by 75 percent.
Of course, this doomsday scenario assumes that the Gateway tunnels won’t be up and running in time — which is looking more and more likely. Unlike the Obama administration, which fast-tracked the Gateway program, President Trump only says he “may support” the project. It’s also not helpful that Republicans are hell-bent on zeroing out all forms of transit funding, including the New Starts program, of which Gateway was set to receive funds.
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