N.Y. faults Amtrak on neglect of tunnels

Report recommends federal funding totaling $898 million for repairs

September 02, 2001|By Dean E. Murphy | Dean E. Murphy,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - A state transportation report on Pennsylvania Station accuses Amtrak of neglecting costly improvements to 15 miles of potentially dangerous tunnels that serve the passenger station, the busiest in the country.

The report suggests that Amtrak, the federally subsidized railroad that owns the tunnels, was more interested in pursuing projects like the new Acela high-speed rail service and the redevelopment of the James A. Farley Building across Eighth Avenue. It blames Amtrak for not correcting fire and safety problems in the tunnels, some of which were identified as early as 1978.

The report was prepared by the State Senate Standing Committee on Transportation and was based on a public hearing held in the spring.

Among its recommendations, it calls on U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton to do more to get federal money to correct the problems, which are estimated to cost $898 million over the next 10 years.

"While we accept the sincerity of Amtrak's Northeast corridor administration's commitment to improve safety, it is clear that Amtrak has invested a great deal more effort in glamorous projects," the report says. "It is clear that Amtrak has sacrificed accelerated tunnel infrastructure improvements for these service expansion and economic development projects."

Amtrak views

Amtrak has long complained that lack of money, not neglect, is the cause. This year, Amtrak has allocated $20 million for tunnel work, which is all officials say the railroad can afford. Amtrak is so short of funds that it had to mortgage portions of Penn Station last month to get short-term cash.

An Amtrak spokesman, Rick Remington, said that federal funds for the $810 million Farley redevelopment project, which will convert the building into a passenger station, were assigned by Congress, not by Amtrak. As for the Acela service, he said it did not compete with the Penn Station tunnels for Amtrak's money or attention.

"It wasn't a case of either-or," Remington said. "We were progressing on both at the same time."

The tunnels were built more than 90 years ago and lack basic ventilation, adequate escape routes and water standpipes for firefighting. Each of the six tunnels is about 2 1/2 miles long; four of them run under the East River and two under the Hudson River. Together they serve about 300,000 passengers a day on Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit trains.

Based on testimony from fire officials and other experts, the state report says the tunnels pose no imminent hazard to commuters since they are structurally sound and kept in good repair. Nonetheless, it concludes that emergency and safety facilities "are woefully inadequate to deal with a major fire, accident, terrorist act or other emergency situation."

State Sen. Dean G. Skelos, one of the writers of the report, said in an interview, "All of Amtrak's projects are wonderful, but it means nothing if people are not safe."

In event of fire

In the event of a fire or other emergency in the tunnels, narrow stairways and trapped smoke would make evacuating passengers so difficult that the Fire Department's contingency plans call for first towing trains from the tunnels with the passengers aboard.

A spokesman for the Fire Department, Deputy Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon, said that Amtrak recently agreed to speed up the installation of standpipes in the tunnels - which would provide water for firefighting - and to provide hand-powered railroad carts so that firefighters could get into the tunnels without depending upon the 90-year-old spiral staircases.

The situation in the tunnels is so serious, the state report suggests, that if the federal government does not provide the money soon, the state should move to take control of the two East River tunnels that are exclusively used by the Long Island Rail Road.

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