Questions and answers about the Penn Station derailment
Last week’s train derailment in New York’s Penn Station, the second in less than two weeks, threw rail service into chaos for commuters in New Jersey and on Long Island and affected travelers throughout the northeastern U.S.
It also highlighted the challenges facing Amtrak and the commuter railroads that use its tracks and facilities during a period of uncertainty over how President Donald Trump’s administration will fund transportation projects.
According to Amtrak, some weakened wood cross-ties underneath a section of track near one of the station platforms failed to hold the rails together when a New Jersey Transit train passed over around 9 a.m. Monday. The force shoved the rails apart, causing the wheels to leave the rail.
Hundreds of thousands of people were affected, from commuters on New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road rail lines to people traveling on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains between Boston and Washington, all of which must pass through Penn Station.
Some questions and answers about what happened:
Q: Could it have been prevented?
A: Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman said a routine track inspection, done twice weekly, had noted that the wood under the track would probably need to be replaced later in the year, but that the danger wasn’t considered imminent. "We were aware we had some issues in that area," he said. "There was an awareness that there were some track issues that needed to be corrected in normal order."
Q: Why did the restoration of full service take so long?
A: Though the train was moving relatively slowly and derailed near the platform, it took a full day to get the wheels back on the rails, Amtrak chief operating officer Scot Naparstek said. The derailment also knocked out a network of switches that controls several of the station’s 21 tracks, eight of which had to be taken out of service. Naparstek said work had to proceed slowly so workers wouldn’t damage any of the surrounding infrastructure, including a network of overhead electrical wires.
Q: What is Amtrak doing to ensure this won’t happen again?
A: Moorman said Amtrak will do a joint inspection at the station with the Federal Railroad Administration to make sure all systems are in good working order, and said he will put together a team of experts to look at overall maintenance and efficiency issues and involve stakeholders such as NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.
Q: What about the rest of the Northeast Corridor?
A: Amtrak has spent, and continues to spend, millions of dollars to upgrade its tracks, signals, switches, electrical system and other infrastructure up and down the Northeast Corridor, some of which dates to the early 20th century. But the government-created passenger rail corporation must rely on an often reluctant Congress for funding.
Its large-scale project to build a new tunnel from New Jersey to New York and expand Penn Station has already been approved for expedited environmental permitting, but supporters fear President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget could jeopardize the project.
On Friday, New Jersey Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker urged their colleagues on the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development to reject what they see as drastic proposed cuts to money for transit projects.