Commuters' outcry spurs rethinking of rail project

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/17/06

NJ Transit officials will study adding new tracks to the busy Northeast Corridor Line east of Newark Penn Station and have scrapped plans to detour some passenger trains through a rail yard.

Both courses of action, part of larger plans for building a second Hudson River rail tunnel, were recommended earlier this year by two rail passenger advocacy groups and several municipal officials.

Building additional tracks between Newark Penn Station and the almost 100-year-old Portal Bridge will be included in an environmental study of plans to replace the drawbridge, said NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel.

Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Federal Railway Administration are planning a wider, higher span that won't have to open for marine traffic, Stessel said.

"We plan to move ahead with the environmental assessment as soon as possible, which would involve increasing the Northeast Corridor to more than two tracks," Stessel said. "Track expansion is part of the Portal Bridge project."

That part of the Northeast Corridor handles trains from that line and North Jersey Coast Line trains traveling to and from New York, in addition to Amtrak trains. Trains from those lines and the Morris and Essex Lines use the Portal Bridge. After a second Hudson River tunnel is built, Raritan Valley Line trains would be added to that section of the corridor and the bridge.

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers said that would create a bottleneck. Al Papp Jr., a director of the association, said that section Northeast Corridor line needs at least four tracks.

Earlier this year NJ Transit officials countered that computer simulations showed a third track could handle additional trains.

But Stessel said recently that a consultant could be hired this summer to study building additional tracks and that new computer modeling will be done.  "If additional track capacity is necessary to avoid a bottleneck, we'll put it in," he said. "We want a project that will serve riders for the next 100 years."

"NJ Transit acknowledges that two tracks across the Meadows won't cut it," said Doug Bowen of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers. "To its credit, NJ Transit sees the issue and they're certainly discussing it."

Bowen said he wants to see more details on the additional tracks once they're available.

The massive Trans Hudson Express Tunnel project would build the second Hudson River rail tunnel, a station under 34th Street in Manhattan and a Meadows rail yard and loop track between the Northeast Corridor and the Main and Pascack Valley lines.
NJ Transit officials have abandoned plans that would have routed Morris & Essex line trains through that loop track and yard as a holding pattern to stagger traffic during the Portal Bridge construction.

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, the Lackawanna Commuter Coalition and officials of several towns on the M&E line opposed the plan because it would lengthen trips, Bowen said.

"It is not our intention to route Morris & Essex trains (this way) as a standard practice," Stessel said.

The loop would still be used as a detour if replacement of the Portal Bridge isn't completed by 2015, the estimated completion date for THE Tunnel, Stessel said.

"It provides redundancy for the Portal Bridge project," he said. "That is not the way M&E trains would be routed on a normal basis."

Bowen commended NJ Transit officials for listening to advocates' concerns.  "That's a step in the right direction, and we welcome NJ Transit's revised, upgraded plans on this aspect," Bowen said. "I'll give NJ Transit credit; they heard that. If we use the loop as a backup (route), it's good to have a second way, but it shouldn't be the first choice."

Overall, THE Tunnel project is proceeding on schedule, and NJ Transit officials plan to hold public hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project this summer, Stessel said. Locations for the hearings haven't been selected.

A preliminary version of that report is being reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration, Stessel said.

Construction is scheduled to start on THE Tunnel projects in 2009. That includes building the second river tunnel; a new station beneath 34th Street, Manhattan, adjacent to Penn Station; adding platforms and some track at Penn Station; and track and signal work on the Northeast Corridor.

Funding for the $6 billion tunnel projects will be provided by the federal government, New Jersey and The Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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