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How a Few Pieces of Wood Wrecked Travel Throughout the Northeast

A routine inspection in the days before Monday's derailment noted the condition of the wooden ties that run crosswise under the rails and that they likely would need to be replaced later this year

The disruptions and delays to rail service up and down the northeastern U.S. this week apparently were caused by a few pieces of timber sitting under a piece of track in New York's Penn Station, a stark reminder of how one small glitch can send an entire region's commute into something approaching purgatory.

The derailment of a New Jersey Transit commuter train Monday as it approached the station platform also ignited a spat between Amtrak, which maintains the tracks and station, and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who angrily demanded a refund of money already paid by the state to Amtrak for maintenance and repairs.

More broadly, the April 3 derailment and an earlier one at the station on March 24 have highlighted the challenges posed by Amtrak's aging infrastructure and the myriad ways in which the system can go awry. In the past, problems with overhead electrical wires, signals and bridges that date back to the late 19th century, in some cases, have brought the system to a standstill.

While the signals and tracks in Penn Station aren't as old as the station's tunnel, which was built in the early 1900s, or the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, built in Maryland eight years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, they support a facility that strains to accommodate roughly the equivalent of the population of the city of Miami passing through each day.

"It is a complex place, it is extraordinarily busy, and that is only going to continue," Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman said at a Thursday news conference.

The derailments occurred where inbound trains emerge from the tunnel and into a maze of tracks that can take them to 21 different platforms. Monday's derailment knocked out eight of the tracks, forcing NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road to drastically cut back service.

For commuters, that meant long waits, more overcrowded trains than usual and, in some cases, taking a combination of carpools, ferries, trains and buses to get to work.

The repair work took as long as it did because of the configuration of the tracks. Moorman called it "an extraordinary amount of damage in a very confined area."

According to Moorman, a routine inspection in the days before Monday's derailment noted the condition of the wooden ties that run crosswise under the rails and that they likely would need to be replaced later this year.

"We had notations that these timbers needed to be replaced, but we clearly didn't have the understanding that there was an imminent failure," he said. "Clearly that was somewhere where we got it wrong."

Moorman said full service would be restored by Friday morning.

Amtrak officials - and the region's commuting public - are banking on a large-scale, $20 billion-plus project, called Gateway, that would build a new tunnel and expand Penn Station. While a new tunnel wouldn't have prevented the derailments, the interim head of the development corporation overseeing Gateway said the eight tracks taken out of service could have been connected to a new tunnel without a significant service disruption.

John Porcari added an ominous tone when asked about Gateway's fate if the federal part of the funding is negatively affected by President Donald Trump's recent proposed budget, as some supporters fear.

"There is no Plan B without federal funding, given the size and scope of the project," he said.

The same day the heads of NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road criticized Amtrak for the time it has taken to restore full service, Christie wrote a letter saying he had directed NJ Transit to withhold funds it normally pays Amtrak for maintenance and repairs until an independent inspection verifies that Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is in a state of good repair. NJ Transit says it paid Amtrak $62 million last year.

Moorman cautioned Christie on Thursday, saying while he understood Christie's frustration, "withholding funding is not going to solve any of the problems."

Vince Difiglia, a Philadelphia resident who commutes regularly into New York to his IT job at an insurance company, said the aging infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor is often in the back of his mind, more so upon learning that the cause of Monday's derailment may have been foreseen.

"It's like that bridge thing in Philadelphia," he said, referring to a vehicle bridge connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey where a crack was discovered in January that forced the bridge's closure for 1½ months. "It definitely gives you a cause for pause."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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