Lautenberg's office expected the bill would be amended to include $400 million he has been seeking for safety improvements to tunnels used by Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.There are serious issues with the way Amtrak does business, as well as the way it has managed its capital assets. It ran into serious trouble with the introduction of the Acela train service, where trains suffered from design defects (trains built too wide to permit full high speed service) mechanical issues that decimated service for months on end (no service actually for months on end). Blackouts on the Northeast Corridor over the past year have resulted in stranded trains as new equipment doesn't provide the kind of feedback to operators of the power supply to inform them that power levels have dipped.
About 6,000 Bergen and Passaic county commuters ride NJ Transit trains through the Hudson River tunnels each day.
Along with fire suppression and ventilation improvements, the money would be used to widen emergency stairways that are nearly a century old so escaping passengers could get out at the same time rescue personnel were heading in. The current stairways are only wide enough for one person, a Lautenberg aide said.
Lautenberg, D-N.J., got the tunnel funds added to a $1.1 billion rail and bus security bill that cleared the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Feb. 13.
Lautenberg is chairman of that committee's surface transportation subcommittee, which held a hearing Tuesday on a bill to authorize spending more than $19 billion on Amtrak through 2012.
That bill includes funding for bridge and signal improvements on the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor that are expected to reduce delays for New Jersey commuters because NJ Transit uses the corridor extensively.
To combat the impression that Amtrak is important only to the Northeast, however, Lautenberg invited officials from Oregon and Wisconsin, who also praised the bill. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship from Lautenberg and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., but it faces opposition from the Bush administration, which has been trying to get Amtrak to operate more like a business and pay its own way.
The overhead catenary wires need to be upgraded to permit faster service in many areas, including New Jersey. Yet, it is the safety issue that is the most serious one to be addressed by Lautenberg.
The Northeast corridor is the busiest section of the Amtrak system and NJ Transit piggybacks on the rail service into Manhattan from several of its branches. All the rail traffic is funneled into the two train tunnels, each of which are 100 years old and are in serious need for rehabilitation and safety improvement.
Should there be any kind of emergency with trains in those areas, rescue and evacuation would be extremely difficult and the potential for a mass casualty event is quite high because it is impossible to enter and exit the emergency stairs at the same time. A bottleneck in the current stairs could lead to major loss of life and hamper rescue operations.
There is also an effort underway to build a new rail tunnel with two tracks into Manhattan parallel to the existing rail tunnels to relieve congestion and improve service along the NE corridor.
I've been writing about the awful safety situation with these tunnels for years. It's nice to see that someone is finally doing something about it.