NJ Transit – Railroading in the age of Sea Level Rise

Satellite image of New York Metro region at night
Satellite view of New York metropolitan region at night

The New York Metropolitan region is cut in half by the Hudson River which runs north-south through the region’s center (see satellite view above). Of the region’s +20 million residents, 1.6 million commute into Manhattan, the region’s core, from surrounding districts. Of those, about 400,000 must cross the Hudson every week day from New Jersey, the west side of the river, by rail, road, or ferry. When Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic October 2012, the cross-Hudson mass transit pathways were knocked completely out of commission for more than a week. Repairs to flood damaged tunnels continue to this day.

New York’s subway system (MTA), and the PATH rail system that carries about 60% of New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters, were back in business within 2 to 3 weeks. By comparison, the New Jersey transit system struggled for 3 months to get back on its wheels. Why? According to a post-Sandy investigation by WNYC (NY Public Radio), the NJ Transit officials had no plan to deal with the storm surge caused by Sandy because they failed to appreciate the effect global warming is having on storm size. In the days leading up to Sandy, the National Weather Service repeatedly warned of storm tides of up to 15 feet. Yet NJ Transit officials paid no attention.

Believing they knew from past experience how to keep their equipment dry, the NJ Transit officials decided to park much of their rolling stock in two rail yards that forecasters had predicted would flood: the Meadowlands maintenance yard and the Hoboken yard (see map below). The storm surge flooded both yards, seriously damaging about 70 locomotives and 260 rail cars, roughly a third of the corporation’s fleet. Compare that to New York’s MTA which  lost only about 20 of its 8,000 rail cars during the same storm, even though all of its Lower Manhattan subway tunnels south of 34th Street were flooded.

Map showing areas of NYC and NJ flooded by Sandy
Areas flooded by Sandy. NJT train yard locations marked in red. Image: nichiusa.org

The Meadowlands yard is a 78-acre site in Kearny surrounded by wetlands where the Passaic River joins the Hackensack River — a natural flood plain. The yard contains the corporation’s maintenance facilities, indoor equipment storage buildings, training center, and the transit system’s operations center. The storm surge flooded the yard to a depth of 8 feet, damaging everything it touched.

Photo of NJ Transit Meadowlands Rail yard
NJ Transit Meadowlands rail yard looking east. Manhattan skyline in the distance. Image: Google

Asked to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations at a State Assembly committee hearing some months later, Jim Weinstein, the corporation’s executive director at the time, said: “I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time . . . The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”

An article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled ‘Protecting New Jersey from Sea Level Rise: the future of the Meadowlands’ has this to say: “If emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, sea level is projected to rise more than 6 feet by 2100. In this scenario, the same areas of northern New Jersey and New York City that we’re flooded by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge would be inundated more than 26 times per year, or every other week on average.” And that statement has nothing to say about what future storms coupled with rising sea level will do in the interim.

Northern New Jersey is a heavily urbanized/industrialized region dependent on a fantastically complex network of roads and railways. The number of elevated sections, bridges, underpasses and overpasses are too many to count. Three of the state’s largest city’s, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, as well as Newark International Airport, are all located on or surrounded by low-lying, flood prone real estate. And then there’s the Meadowlands, now only a remnant of its previous size. The Meadowlands, a stretch of wetlands, shows just how low-lying the region really is, and how difficult, perhaps impossible, it’s going to be to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Satellite view of New Jersey metro region
Satellite view of New Jersey Metro region. Image: Google

The following snapshot shows a portion of the Meadowlands as seen from the I-95 Highway which bisects the feature from north to south. The NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst is on the right. The tall structure to the left of the transmission tower is part of the draw bridge which allows trains to cross the Hackensack River. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance on the left. The water directly to the right of the rails, and only a few feet lower than the rail bed, is part of the Hackensack River. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the Meadowlands including all the rail lines crossing it.

Photo of NJ Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit Rail line
View of Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst

Another view of the New Jersey Meadowlands looking east across marsh water and beyond it, the Hackensack River (center).

Photo of New Jersey Meadowlands seen from
New Jersey Meadowlands looking east from I-95 Highway. Manhattan skyline in distance