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New suspensions, delays and finger-pointing end difficult week for public transit • New Jersey Monitor
New suspensions, delays and finger-pointing end difficult week for public transit • New Jersey Monitor

Scorching heat and persistent technical problems caused trains on the country’s busiest commuter route to halt on Friday for the third time this week, sparking a new wave of finger-pointing.

Train service to and from New York City’s Penn Station was suspended Friday morning and delayed into the afternoon – creating a backlog of trains on the Northeast Corridor and other routes as transit officials offered varying explanations for the recent delays.

NJ Transit said problems with Amtrak’s overhead wires were to blame, while Amtrak – which owns the tracks on which the corridor’s trains run – said a stalled commuter train at New York’s Penn Station was to blame for the outages.

“We are working with our partners at NJT to investigate the cause of this morning’s outage,” said Amtrak spokesman Anderson Kyle.

A spokesman for the governor referred a request for comment to NJ Transit, which called the frequency and severity of recent service disruptions “beyond unacceptable.”

The agency said an inspection of the stranded train before departure from Newark found no problems, including with the pantographs that draw power from the overhead lines.

“We can say that we operate approximately 700 trains on hundreds of miles of track on 11 rail lines every weekday using the same equipment, and these incidents are occurring primarily on just this one stretch of NEC between Newark and New York,” NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said in a statement. “We continue to offer our support to Amtrak to resolve the issue.”

I always had the feeling that things would hit the fan as soon as the first heat wave came.

– Representative Clinton Calabrese

It was a difficult week for both transport companies.

On Tuesday, train service to and from New York Penn was suspended during the morning rush hour due to problems with Amtrak’s line. Delays continued throughout the day and worsened in the evening after officials reported a stranded Amtrak train near the station.

A power problem at a substation near rail tunnels to New York Penn caused more line problems and a series of new service outages Thursday, compounded by a nearby but unrelated brush fire that delayed line repairs.

Senator Patrick Diegnan (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

“I know everyone likes to pick on New Jersey Transit, but this is a bigger problem. This is an Amtrak problem, and we really need to bring our federal and state representatives together to address this. That’s the top priority,” said Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-06), whose district includes a section of the rail line along the New Jersey coast, called the service disruptions “totally unacceptable” on Friday.

All week, Amtrak officials warned that trains might have to run slower due to the heat wave in the Northeast, causing delays of up to an hour in the afternoon.

Excessive heat can cause deformation of the train tracks and overhead lines and lead to the failure of certain train parts.

“I always had a feeling that once we hit the first heat wave, things would go downhill,” said Rep. Clinton Calabrese (D-Bergen), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “Here we are in the first heat wave, and things are going downhill.”

Calabrese and Diegnan said they hoped the early summer disruptions were not a harbinger of another “hellish summer” like those that have plagued NJ Transit in recent years.

Amtrak’s problems have been mounting in recent months. According to NJ Transit data, the quasi-public company was responsible for 185 of the 381 outages NJ Transit recorded in May, although the reasons for the outages can vary widely from month to month.

Senator Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the recent problems underscore the need for customer advocacy at NJ Transit, pointing to a bipartisan bill to create a new independent body to represent riders’ interests regarding fares and service.

“Everyone is pointing fingers and there is a lack of clarity about what keeps going wrong. That underscores why we need to pass my Passenger Advocacy Act so that an independent Passenger Advocacy Commission can study these things and report to the legislature, the governor and, most importantly, our passengers when something goes wrong and what solutions need to be implemented,” Mukherji said.

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By Seren