New York on the brink of a rail tunnel crisis 04 Nov 2014

Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk
Two years after the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, New York City is still counting the cost of repairing Manhattan’s critical, but already century-old, underground rail connections with the mainland. A new damage assessment report commissioned by Amtrak, which operates six rail tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, says nearly US$700 million is needed to repair corrosion damage caused by inundation of saltwater back in 2012. More worryingly, the extensive repair program recommended will, sooner or later, require closure of one of only two tunnels that service all New Jersey Transit-operated commuter and light rail services into Midtown Manhattan from the west. Peter Kenyon, for TunnelTalk, examines the need to accelerate long-standing plans for two new tunnels under the Hudson River.

It is nearly four years since US national rail operator Amtrak unveiled the Gateway Project, at the heart of which were to be two new, and desperately needed, Hudson River tunnels. Once completed, these would double capacity of mainline intercity Amtrak services on the Boston-Washington DC Northeast Corridor, form the crucial link upon which to base a long-planned US$120 billion east coast high speed rail program, and provide for a 75% increase in commuter services between New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan.

Flood waters rising in East River tunnel (2012)
Flood waters rising in East River tunnel (2012)

But two years after Superstorm Sandy demonstrated the vulnerability of Manhattan’s rail services, little has been achieved. Despite Amtrak’s often-stated desire to forge ahead with Phase 1 tunnel construction as soon as possible, and despite the conclusion of a high-profile post-Sandy commission that two new Hudson River tunnels are critically important to the very future of New York City, there is still no sign of any funding, nor even a preliminary engineering design.

A bad situation, however, could be about to get a whole lot worse. A confidential report by engineering consultant HNTB, carried out on behalf of Amtrak and seen by TunnelTalk, concludes that four of the six tunnels that it owns are now in urgent need of repair. Worse still, total closure of each of the affected tunnels for an extended period will be required to fix the worst of the damage.

HNTB recommends that remedial works requiring total closure of each affected tube be performed “as soon as possible and as tunnel access allows.” This work includes:

  • Portal-to-portal replacement of all the bench walls in all four affected tunnels, sized to conform with the latest safety standards. The inspectors noted that the condition of the walls (escape and access platforms along which passengers would be expected to evacuate in an emergency) are so badly damaged that they have started crumbling onto the tracks, a situation which is already causing disruption to services.
  • Portal-to-portal removal of all ballast and rail systems, and replacement of all existing track to a direct fixation rail system.
  • Structural repairs to cracks, spalling and delamination in all areas concealed from inspection (e.g. behind bench walls and under the ballast at the invert) but which will be revealed as rehabilitation proceeds.

This work is on top of pressure washing to remove sulfates and chlorides, patching up delaminated concrete, and replacement of all electrical and mechanical systems, all maintenance items that can be completed during shorter-period outages at weekends. HNTB concludes that the primary cast iron lining of all four affected tunnels appears undamaged – although it is noted that the weight of water inside the more heavily flooded East tunnels would have pushed bolts holding their linings together close to their design stress limits. This being the case, it is recommended further that the condition of the primary lining be monitored regularly “to identify areas in which damage continues to occur and to identify evidence of any new damage.”

The impact of the long-term tunnel closures that will be needed to carry out these repairs will be felt to a lesser extent by users of Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and mainline Amtrak services out of Manhattan to the east – here, two of the four East tunnels escaped flooding and remain undamaged. The situation on Manhattan’s east side is also helped by the fact that capacity will be added when the East Side Access Project connecting Manhattan with Queens under the East River is finally completed after many years in construction.

But for the two North tunnels that service all Amtrak mainline Northwest Corridor intercity services and all New Jersey Transit-operated commuter and light rail services to the mainland under the Hudson River, both of which were flooded, the situation has reached critical.

The problem is, according to none other than Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, that nobody can really be sure just how long Amtrak can hold off on the major repairs required to the strategically important North tunnels, nor indeed the East ones – which were even more badly damaged and were flooded right to the crown.

Manhattan tunnel connections and services
Manhattan tunnel connections and services

At a recent meeting of the Regional Plan Association conference, Boardman told delegates: “I’m being told we have got something less than 20 years before we have to shut down one or two [of our four damaged tunnels]. Something less than 20. I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it.”

To put this into some kind of context, these observations from the very top of Amtrak were made before the full extent of the HNTB damage report findings were known.

The existing tunnels across the Hudson reached their current 24 crossings/hour peak capacity years ago. During rush hour 20 New Jersey Transit-operated commuter services and four Amtrak long distance services use the tunnel every hour. This is barely enough to cope with existing demand of more than 160,000 journeys/day, let alone projected increases as New York City grows and the region’s traffic tunnels and bridges also hit capacity.

Closing down one of the tubes for repairs would, at a stroke, cut capacity by 75% (not 50%) to just six journeys/hour, since the tunnel could only be operated in one direction at a time. If Amtrak, as owner, insisted upon retaining its four slots to maintain its Northwest Corridor service that would mean New York Transit commuter services experiencing a devastating 90% cut from 20 trains/hour to just two.

Given how events have panned out, it now seems all the more remarkable to think that in 2010 the then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled the Access to the Region’s Core Project (ARC) that would have seen construction of the two new trans-Hudson tunnels that the City is now so desperately in need of. Unhappy that the funding deal for the $8.7 billion project would leave New Jersey taxpayers with responsibility for picking up the tab for any cost overruns, he cancelled construction even as a year’s worth of ground preparation work was under way. The whole sorry episode ended up costing $500 million. Judging by reports at the time the Federal Government, aware of the potential importance of the project, tried to get Christie to change his mind – even offering $300 million more in funding – but to no avail. Today, what remains of Christie’s Folly stands abandoned at a site in North Bergen as a permanent reminder of what might have been.

Had construction of ARC still been ongoing – Barnard Construction held the $538 million contract to build the tunnel – New York could have been preparing to more than double its peak New Jersey Tranist services (across all four tunnels) to 45 trains per hour in less than three years time (2017). It could also have temporarily maintained a service at current levels while repairs to the Amtrak-owned North tunnels were carried out. Amtrak, meanwhile, could have shut down its aging and saltwater-damaged tunnels one at a time since it only currently requires peak capacity of four trains per hour to maintain its Northwest Corridor service into New Jersey and beyond.

From the ashes of ARC – which to be fair offered no solution to Amtrak’s capacity problems and was incompatible with mainline services – the Gateway Project, emerged in 2011. Unlike ARC, this £13.7 billion project (in 2011 prices) offers capacity solutions for both commuter and Amtrak services, as well as fitting in with Amtrak’s vision for delivering a $120 billion high speed program rail along the US East Coast.

$13.7 billion Gateway Project Phase I comprises two new Hudson River tunnels and two new bridges in New Jersey
$13.7 billion Gateway Project Phase I comprises two new Hudson River tunnels and two new bridges in New Jersey

However, even in the aftermath of the storm surge of October 29, 2012, only a meagre $30 million of funding has so far been committed. This is not even enough to cover the $50 million Amtrak says it needs to fund an engineering design that will take the project beyond the ‘concept’ stage. And yet the consensus is that the new tunnels are a must.

The high-profile 204-page NYS2100 Report – drawn up by an editorial board representing a Who’s Who of Federal and State infrastructure service providers, regional and Federal transportation planners, scientists, and even foreign experts – specifically recommended construction a new tunnel connection between New Jersey and Manhattan.

NYS2100 report
NYS2100 report

The report, which predates by a year the HNTB investigation into the state of the existing tunnels, says: “The construction of two new tunnels under the Hudson River, along with associated track, bridge and station improvements, would provide system redundancy through the addition of new connections to New York’s Penn Station. The tunnels would help to manage demand by doubling capacity for rail passengers between New Jersey and New York. Additional trans-Hudson capacity would also minimize conflict by allowing all regional rail operators – Amtrak, LIRR, NJ Transit, and, in the future, Metro-North – more flexibility to maximize daily service to and from Manhattan.”

It continues: “The tunnels would be built to modern standards that will better prevent flooding and ensure rapid recovery following a seismic, fire or other severe event. Once built, the tunnels could also be used to temporarily accommodate all trans-Hudson rail traffic while the existing century-old rail tunnels are upgraded to modern standards.

“New Hudson River tunnels provide ancillary benefit as well. They are a prerequisite to bringing true high speed rail to New York. In addition, the tunnels support the revitalization of Manhattan’s West Side, currently underway. It would create jobs in engineering, construction, and related trades during construction years and would also serve commuters in the knowledge and service industries who work in Manhattan’s growing Midtown-west business district.”

Hudson Yards will eventually be covered by skyscrapers
Hudson Yards will eventually be covered by skyscrapers

Two years on, however, the only progress made so far, and the only funding acquired from the billions of dollars of Federal aid made available in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, is $185 million to excavate an 800ft long x 50ft wide x 35ft high concrete box starter tunnel that may, one day, serve as the portal and first 300 yards of tunnel on the Manhattan side. This entrance sits adjacent to the existing, iconic, Hudson Yards rail track complex. Contractor Tutor Perini is currently about half way towards scheduled 2015 completion of the structure, a structure that needed to be completed to safeguard for the future what is considered the only possible entrance for a trans-Hudson connection from the Manhattan side, and a site which will be lost forever once work gets under way on the biggest real estate project in US history.

The Hudson Yards skyscraper building project is close to being realized by the Canadian Oxford Properties Group, more than half a century after the ‘city within a city’ concept was first dreamed up. When complete, some time in the mid-2020s, it will comprise some 20 million square feet of office space, residential development and shops – all built on a 14-acre platform above the Western Yards.

Constructing the platform pillars at Hudson West Yard
Constructing the platform pillars at Hudson West Yard

Before work on that starts, however, another real estate developer, Related, is currently in the process of building a similar 14-acre platform – at a cost of $1.5 billion – over the Eastern yards. On top of this platform, atop piles sunk up to 100ft into land that is available between and around the 30 tracks in the rail yard below, will sit another enormous development. Had construction of the deep foundations required for the platform taken place before a starter tunnel was excavated, the opportunity to use this location for further underground construction would have been lost forever.

That transportation planners and politicians had the foresight to protect the alignment of a future pair of Hudson River tunnels by making a start on construction is commendable, but until funding can be agreed between a mix of Federal, State, local transportation authorities, and the private sector, Manhattan’s fragile rail connection with New Jersey remains exposed. Quite why the $20 billion private development above Hudson Yards was allowed to progress without some form of contribution arrangement towards the cost of the Gateway Project, or similar, seems mystifying.

Hudson rail yards will sit underneath $20 billion development on Manhattan’s West Side
Hudson rail yards will sit underneath $20 billion development on Manhattan’s West Side

In the meantime, Amtrak says that it “cannot reasonably begin” to perform the required maintenance on the existing tunnel infrastructure until the replacement infrastructure is built. But equally, and with that prospect being at least ten years distant, it might be left with no option. As it is, evacuating passengers would have to negotiate badly crumbling bench walls, and the damage is likely to get worse over time. “A permanent fix is required soon so that the tunnels remain available for long-term use by the traveling public,” said Amtrak in a statement.

“The Northeast region needs to make the Gateway Program a priority and we must get about the business of moving it forward as fast as we can,” stressed Amtrak Chairman, Tony Coscia. “Public awareness of the critical needs of the tunnels is important to build regional understanding of what must be done to provide current and future train service levels into New York.”


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