After Sandy, New Urgency for the Hudson Rail Tunnels

In a report released Thursday, Amtrak reminded New York and New Jersey commuters that the rail network many rely on might be operating on borrowed time. The railroad said that flooding during Hurricane Sandy had damaged tunnel structures, raising the specter of more frequent repair work, and eventual longer-term outages.

Commuting between New Jersey and New York City by rail already can test the patience of even the sturdiest passengers. Delays caused by aging infrastructure are common. Even on the best of days, there isn't enough capacity on the network to swiftly and reliably move the 80,000 people who travel from New Jersey into Penn Station on an average weekday. 

The Amtrak report brought new urgency to the matter. The century-old pair of tunnels linking New Jersey to Manhattan are in worsening shape, and need to be shut down for substantial repairs. This won't be practical until a second pair of tunnels is built alongside the current ones. If new tunnels aren't built, the region faces the prospect of having at least one tunnel closed without a backup in place. That would reduce tunnel traffic by a whopping 75%, since the remaining tunnel would have to safely accommodate trains running in both directions.

The tunnels already are the biggest chokepoint in the Northeast, with delays ricocheting up and down the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston. To alleviate the pressure and increase the number of trains that can run along the route, Amtrak has proposed building new tunnels and expanding Penn Station with its Gateway project. While the project has broad political support, it lacks funding. When our transit network functions properly, it's easy to take it for granted. The latest report is a reminder of the risk the region faces from becoming complacent about its infrastructure. -- Wendy Pollack

Photo: U.S. Department of Transportation