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Schumer Announces Major Deal to Vastly Improve Condition of East River Tunnels, Which All LIRR Trains Use

Following Last August’s Derailment That Caused Major Delays, Schumer Pushed Amtrak To Develop Plan To Improve Condition of Tunnels – Plan Is Being Released Today

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New York, NY - November 18, 2013 - U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today announced that, after his push, Amtrak has developed a plan to greatly and quickly improve the conditions of the East River Tunnels used by every Long Island Rail Road train that leaves or arrives at Penn Station.  The tunnels are owned by Amtrak and 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 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, and that plan is being released today. 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 3-5 years, a historic commitment from the Amtrak Chairman.

Schumer also announced today that he will be urging State Senator Chuck Fuschillo be appointed to Amtrak’s Board of Directors.  In August, Schumer called for a commuter rep 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.  Today, Schumer said that Senator 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 Senator 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 Long Island Railroad (LIRR) runs on when crossing under the East River, meaning they are used by the vast majority of the railroad's over 300,000 daily riders.  According to the most recent statistics, more LIRR passengers move through those tunnels each day than ride Amtrak's entire Northeast Corridor route between Washington and Boston. 

Over the past year, there have been numerous LIRR delays due to track issues in the Amtrak-maintained and operated tunnels. For example, this past July 12th, LIRR trains were delayed and some were canceled after debris struck the third rail at Penn Station. This past July 17th, LIRR trains were delayed during the evening rush-hour due to a broken rail inside Amtrak’s East River Tunnels. This past August 19th, an eastbound LIRR train was stuck in the East River Tunnel after power to the third rail went out. Most recently, this past Thursday a joint rail bar failed in Tunnel 3 of the East River Tunnel overnight, causing delays during the morning rush-hour commute.

Schumer today announced that 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. Amtrak Engineering typically investigates the hot spot alerts at nighttime, causing a lag between when the alert is reported and the response. Additionally, 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” (sections of the track connected by steel plates) 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 there 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. In other words, 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.  This new initiative will be implemented in three phases:

·         Phase I will target high-use assets exhibiting signs of wear and approaching the end of their useful life. Some assets have already been identified as nearing the end of their useful life and have been scheduled for replacement in the next 18-24 months.

·         Phase II will identify assets that carry less train traffic but are approaching the end of their useful life or are exhibiting signs of wear. Amtrak will schedule them for replacement at pre-defined intervals in order to bring the track assets into a state of good repair. Concurrent with Phase I and Phase II, Amtrak will renew the track structure in the East River Tunnels to bring them to a state of good repair. Estimates of the completion date for this work range from August 2017 to May 2019.

·         Phase III will involve on-going management of infrastructure using a special asset management software to capture asset life data, inspection results and corrective work orders to better predict and avoid failure.