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Renewed suspensions, delays, and finger-pointing cap rocky week for transit

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Renewed suspensions, delays, and finger-pointing cap rocky week for transit

Jun 21, 2024 | 4:01 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Renewed suspensions, delays, and finger-pointing cap rocky week for transit
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NJ Transit said issues with Amtrak’s overhead wires were responsible for Friday's delays, while Amtrak said a disabled commuter train was to blame. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Trains on the country’s busiest commuter rail line stopped running Friday for the third time this week amid scorching heat and persistent technical problems, spawning a new round of finger-pointing.

Rail service in and out of New York Penn Station was suspended Friday morning and delayed into the afternoon — snarling trains on the northeast corridor and other lines as transit officials offered competing explanations for the latest delays.

NJ Transit said issues with Amtrak’s overhead wires were responsible, while Amtrak — which owns the tracks the corridor’s trains travel on — said a disabled commuter train in New York Penn Station was responsible for the cancellations.

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

A spokesperson for the governor deferred 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 disabled train conducted before it left Newark uncovered no issues, including with pantographs that collect power from overhead lines.

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

I always had a feeling like once we hit the first heat wave, sh*t was going to go down.

– Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese

It has been a rocky week for the two transit agencies.

On Tuesday, train service to and from New York Penn was suspended during the morning rush due to Amtrak wire issues, with delays throughout the day that grew worse in the evening after officials reported a disabled Amtrak train near the station.

A power issue at a substation near train tunnels running into New York Penn caused more wire problems and another set of service suspensions on Thursday, and those were exacerbated by a nearby but unrelated brush fire that delayed wire repairs.

Renewed suspensions, delays, and finger-pointing cap rocky week for transit
Sen. Patrick Diegnan (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

“I know everyone likes to dump on New Jersey Transit, but this is a bigger issue. This is an Amtrak issue, and we really have to bring our federal representatives and state representatives together to address this. This is a number one priority,” said Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the Senate Transportation Committee chairman.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-06), whose district includes a portion of the rail line that runs along the Jersey Shore, on Friday called the service disruptions “utterly unacceptable.”

Throughout the week, Amtrak officials have warned the heat wave battering the Northeast could force trains to run at lower speeds, creating delays of up to an hour during afternoons.

Excessive heat can deform rail tracks and the overhead wires that power trains, and it can cause certain train parts to fail.

“I always had a feeling like once we hit the first heat wave, sh*t was going to go down,” said Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese (D-Bergen), the Assembly transportation chair. “Here we are in the first heat wave, and things are going down.”

Calabrese and Diegnan said they hope the early-summer disruptions do not presage another “summer of hell” of the type that has dogged NJ Transit in recent years.

Amtrak issues have mounted over the past few months. The quasi-public corporation was responsible for 185 of the 381 cancellations NJ Transit saw in May, according to NJ Transit data, though the causes for cancellations can vary widely month-to-month.

Sen. Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), the Senate transportation vice chair, said the latest issues underscore the need for customer advocacy at NJ Transit, pointing to a bipartisan bill that would create a new independent office to represent riders’ interests on fares and services.

“With everybody pointing fingers and a lack of clarity as to what keeps going wrong, this underscores why we need to pass my customer advocate legislation so that an independent rider advocacy commission can investigate these things and report to the Legislature and the governor and, most importantly, our commuters when things and go wrong what solutions must be implemented,” said Mukherji.