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

 

Trump mulls funding for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel, but continues to balk

Photo showing scene inside Penn Station, NYC
Inside Pennsylvania Station, New York City

Every weekday, about 450 trains pass through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel carrying New Jersey commuters to and from NYC’s Penn Station, as well as Amtrak passengers traveling the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington. The tunnel is over one hundred years old and seriously decayed, and it can’t be renovated until a new tunnel is built. The estimated cost for a new tunnel: $13 billion.

Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader, speaking to transportation planners in December 2016 (Bloomberg News report) said: “We don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse. There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

A year earlier, in 2015, the federal government reached an agreement with New York and New Jersey to split the cost of a new tunnel three ways, with the feds (who own the tunnel) paying fifty percent. But when Donald Trump assumed the presidency, what had once been considered a done deal, became undone. No federal funding is guaranteed these days. There are no done deals. Deals are fluid things, subject to cancellation on a whim.

The current president is like the ogre featured in fairy tails, the one pictured lurking under a bridge, blocking traffic and the way forward. What does the ogre want? He wants wins, personal wins, and federal funds are a means of getting them. Need federal funds? Give him a win. No win, no funding. And don’t forget, he’s armed with a bag of derogatory names and a veto-tipped cudgel. If you don’t give this ogre what he wants he’ll clobber you.

Last October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo starred in a video in which he’s seen inside the Hudson Tunnel pulling loose chunks of concrete from its wall (see: Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits). The New York Times called it a stunt designed solely to win over an audience of one, the one in the Oval Office. Apparently the stunt worked because a month later, the President invited Governor Cuomo to a meeting in Washington to discuss the need for funding.

At a press briefing November 28, the governor described the meeting as “productive.” Did he a get a funding commitment? No. Will he get one? That depends on what’s in it for the President. Some sort of quid pro quo? Support for his boarder wall in exchange for a funding commitment perhaps? Governor Cuomo says no, not from him. What then? The tunnel project, even if it started today, will not be completed for 8 to 10 years. If there’s a win in that situation for Mr. Trump, I don’t see it. Will he support the project simply because it’s the right thing to do? What do you think?
The following YouTube video shows the Press Briefing held by Governor Cuomo following his meeting with President Trump. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

 

The light at the end of the tunnel

My last post titled, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits’, elicited this question:

Is the tunnel as straight as the map suggests?

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC. Image from Draft Environmental Statement, June 30, 2017; Hudson Tunnel Project.

The answer is yes, it is in reality as straight as a die, at least in plan view. tunneling is a costly business; the least expensive way to dig a tunnel is to keep it absolutely straight. The following YouTube video created by Konstantin Gorakine titled, ‘Tunnel ride under Hudson River to Penn Station, NYC’, will convince you. It convinced me.

You’re a visitor and you want to experience ‘authentic’ New York City life. To the millions of people who live and/or work in the city, there’s nothing more ‘real’ than the daily commute. About one hundred thousand commuters pour into the city through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel every weekday. And that’s just one of the entry points. Get a feel for what it’s like; take the same train ride. But there’s no need to punish yourself; avoid the rush hours.

The NJ Transit train ride from Penn Station, NYC to Penn Station, Newark, NY, makes for an enjoyable excursion — about 20 minutes travel time, each way. If you leave at about 10:30 in the morning, you can be back by noon. Navigating Penn Station is an authentic New York experience in itself.

Map showing location of Penn Sta., NYC in relation to Penn Sta., Newark andNorth Bergen Tunnel portal
Map showing locations of Penn Sta.,NYC, North Bergen Tunnel portal, and Penn Sta., Newark, NJ