Sen. Schumer mediates plan to improve East River Tunnels

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) says that Amtrak has developed a plan to greatly and quickly improve the conditions of the East River Tunnels used by every Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train that leaves or arrives at Penn Station. The tunnels are owned by Amtrak and, according to Schumer, have been a massive source of delays for commuters.


In September, Schumer met with Amtrak Board of Directors Chairman Anthony Coscia to discuss recent service reliability issues affecting Long Island commuters. Specifically, this past August LIRR train service was disrupted due to a third rail malfunction in one of the East River tunnels maintained by Amtrak, delaying a train in a tunnel for an hour. On an early Friday morning, a joint rail bar failed in Tunnel 3, delaying morning rush hour trains. In the meeting, Schumer asked Amtrak to put together a plan to improve the condition of the tunnels.

The plan focuses on three critical areas: an overhaul of the existing track inspection program, replacing all of the old “jointed rail” segments prone to failure and implementing a new fix-it-first policy that will prioritize upgrading all aspects of the aging infrastructure before it breaks down. The goal of this program is to bring the tunnel infrastructure into a state of good repair within the next three to five years.

Schumer also says he will be urging that State Sen. Chuck Fuschillo (R-NY-8) be appointed to Amtrak’s Board of Directors. In August, Schumer called for a commuter representative to be appointed to the board to look out for the interests of Long Islanders, as every LIRR train passes through tunnels controlled by Amtrak. Sen. Schumer said that Sen. Fuschillo is just the man for the job.

“These tunnels are the weakest link in the commute of hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders and by bringing them up to a state of good repair we’ll reduce the frequency of the maddening delays, reroutes and cancellations that currently happen far too often. By committing to repairing and upgrading the tunnels, Amtrak is committing to improve the day to day life of almost anyone who rides the LIRR,” said Sen. Schumer.

Amtrak owns the four single-track tunnels that run under the east river, between Penn Station and Queens. These are the tracks that the LIRR runs on when crossing under the East River, meaning they are used by the vast majority of the railroad’s more than 300,000 daily riders.

Amtrak has developed short and long-range plans to address the state of infrastructure maintained by Amtrak in the tunnels, also known as the “Penn Station New York Complex.

First, Amtrak plans to overhaul the existing infrastructure inspection program to provide a more timely response to infrastructure-related incidents. Currently, the LIRR operates a program that identifies “hot spots” in the East River Tunnels and the East End of Penn Station every two weeks. Accoding to Schumer, Amtrak engineering typically investigates the hot spot alerts at nighttime, causing a lag between when the alert is reported and the response.

Sen. Schumer also notes Amtrak is short on manpower at night due to the demand for workers on projects at night. Amtrak’s new plan will move investigations of “hot spot” alerts to the daytime. The new plan allows personnel to respond to warnings in a timelier manner. Also, Amtrak will increase the scope and frequency of interlocking inspections to identify maintenance issues.

Second, Amtrak plans to eliminate all “jointed rail” and implement a new maintenance program for “insulated joints” in the East River Tunnels. According to Amtrak, jointed rail can lead to track malfunctions when bolts holding the rail sections together age or are not adequately maintained. Insulated joints exist on a track where a circuit is required for signaling and the insulated joints need to be regularly cleaned otherwise track circuit failures may occur. A majority of the recent service disruptions on Amtrak-owned track in the East River Tunnels can be attributed to insulated joint failures. Amtrak’s new plan will eliminate all jointed track in the East River Tunnels and replace it with welded, continuous track. Also, Amtrak has implemented a new policy to require inspection and maintenance gangs to clean and caulk the insulated joints during monthly switch inspections to minimize occurrences of steel dust and debris causing track failures.

Third, Amtrak plans to implement a new “Zero In-Service Track Failure” asset management initiative. The new plan will shift the maintenance philosophy from a condition-based inspection and replacement strategy to one that focuses on pre-emptive replacement and maintenance. The new program will prioritize fixing infrastructure that is at the end or past its useful life before it breaks, rather than after, which will reduce delays caused by the need to fix outages during peak travel times.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, Intercity, ON Track Maintenance