Moynihan Station receives $83 million grant

Despite my recent slow blogging, I cannot ignore a big development in the New York Penn Station/Farley Post Office/Moynihan Station morass, which has been a recurring topic here at Quod Ero Spero. Past posts on this topic have highlighted Amtrak’s amnesia over its involvement in the project (and its rejection of it under David Gunn), linked to the Municipal Arts Society’s (apparently formant) site advocating for Moynihan Station, examined the whereabouts of the old station’s original stone eagles, looked at the lobbying budgets of the developers associated with the effort, noted a refutation of the idea that the death of the original Penn Station gave birth to modern preservation efforts, presented an overview of the then-current efforts to develop the Farley Post Office, lamented the delays and cost-increases imposed by New York’s political inability to execute this project, noted Sen. Schumer’s desire to shakedown Amtrak for $100 million, remarked on Amtrak’s oddly pivotal role in this whole mess, been amused by the unspeakable nature of the Farley effort, compared the inept, 16+ year public effort to build a station with the original, successful six-year private effort by the Pennsylvania Railroad, contrasted the Farley effort with NJT’s own troubled-yet-nonetheless-advancing effort to build a new tunnel under the Hudson, terminating in a deep, controversial, commuter-only station, and discussed the all-New York cabal behind Amtrak’s decision to rejoin the project in September 2009.

I provide the above summary to ensure that you, gentle reader, come to this week’s announcement with a full sense of the last few years’ developments as they relate to the Farley/Moynihan effort.

On Tuesday this week, New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the Moynihan Station project had received $83 million in grant money from Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). Grrr. Further news emerged from the Friends of Moynihan Station group, run by the late Sen. Moynihan’s daughter, which explained what the grant covered: building two new entrances to Penn Station’s platforms from West of Eighth Avenue through the corners of the Farley Building; doubling the length and width of the West End Concourse; providing 13 new “vertical access points” (escalators, elevators and stairs) to the platforms; doubling the width of the 33rd Street Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse; and other critical infrastructure improvements including platform ventilation and catenary work.

In comments quoted in the New York Times, Sen. Schumer went further: “The money is there for phase one, and every major hurdle has been cleared. This was the last step, not the first step.”

Really, Chuck? This project has been percolating since 1994, has seen its scope go from roughly $450 million to $1.5 billion, and you believe that a grant that amounts to approximately 5% is the last step? The New York Department of Transportation has pledged $14 million to the project, and apparently the Port Authority has committed to some as well. There’s still going to be a lot of passing the hat ahead of them for these agencies to get from well under $200 million to the full $1,500 million for which they are aiming.

Still, Wednesday saw Governor Patterson charging the Empire State Development Corporation with managing the project, and heralding a signed memorandum of understanding with Amtrak president Joseph Boardman. Just what Amtrak and the state of New York understand was not clear from the Governor’s statement, but it seems to cover cooperation with the construction involved in Phase I.

I should not let my skepticism confuse the fundamental issue here, which is that I think this is a good project that should proceed. I just marvel at the pace, cost, and political nature of this effort. Yes, how could it be otherwise in the heart of New York city – I know. Yet doesn’t it take more nerve than you thought anyone actually had for Schumer to look at this tiny down payment and declare it the “last step?”

Here’s hoping he’s not just arrogant, but prescient, as well.

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Terrific New Jersey ARC Tunnel Commentary

(Yes, it’s been ages since I posted – sorry about that. I am still pondering what I want to do here.)

Excellent commentary from the North New Jersey Record on the flaws in the current plan to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. The article is here. Attentive foamer that I am, it came to my attention via the NARP blog here, and it’s worth noting their comments are worth reading as well.

I have covered the pros and the cons of this tunnel here before. While I respect the pro argument made by Don Phillips, I am inclined to think this current plan is a mistake and it is not at all clear that changes will be made in time to fix it. That is a shame.

Don Phillips on NJT’s ARC Tunnel

For years now, I have followed the plans to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan with genuine interest (Wikipedia article here). I find large scale public projects interesting for all sorts of reasons, and watching this one in particular has shown off the many ways in which America’s planning processes have overwhelmed our ability to make any progress. Of course, these tunnels are not unique in this regard – I have covered the trials and tribulations of New York’s Moynihan Station/Farley Post Office makeover, which also bears the burden of a planning process that overwhelms any chance of progress.

This past February I read a column (Rail tunnel plan to N.Y. is a dead-ender) criticizing the tunnel plans in a number of damning ways. It is the most concise discussion of the project’s flaws I have seen, and I have been hoping to see a counter-argument at some point for the sake of balance. I now think I have found it, in the form of an article written by Don Phillips. Mr. Phillips was a Washington Post writer for years, and then he wrote for the International Herald Tribune, before now writing for Trains magazine. In the course of those assignments, he has shown himself to be one of the few mainstream wirters in America with a comprehensive grasp of the political, business, and operational concerns surrounding passenger rail in America. Along with the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Machalaba, I find their coverage to be qualitatively better than the rest of the press, which usually cannot tell the front of a train from the back.

I received the article by email, and am republishing it below with permission, as it is not available elsewhere on the web.

THE BATTLES OF MANHATTAN RAILROADING ARE DIFFERENT TODAY

POLITICS NOTWITHSTANDING, NJT’S NEW TUNNEL IS BOLD

Some momentous events have a way of sneaking up on us. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that only now is it dawning on me that a historic event is unfolding in Manhattan: the first contract to build the first rail tunnel into New York from the west in a century.

Frankly, I have been thinking of New Jersey Transit’s tunnel project as more of a political brouhaha than anything historic. However, let’s keep in mind that trains first entered Manhattan from the west in 1910 (though a trans-Hudson subway line had opened in 1908). The twin tunnels and the massive station built in Manhattan in those early years were a “bet the company” project carried out under the Pennsylvania Railroad’s legendary president Alexander Cassatt. New York Central had already entered Manhattan from the north into Grand Central Station, and the Pennsy was at a competitive disadvantage.

The controversy surrounding NJ Transit’s new tunnel is fairly simple: many believe it should be connected directly with the current Penn Station track complex by a spur tunnel. However, as planned, the only connections between Penn Station and NJT’s new Manhattan station under 34th Street will be pedestrian tunnels and high-speed escalators. If the new rail tunnel goes deep, as planned, a connecting spur to Penn Station will not be possible. Also, because the new six-track station will be dead-end, at least for many years, it will be of marginal benefit to Amtrak, today’s owner of the Pennsylvania tunnels, if a wreck or some other disaster occurs.

As with many massive construction projects, the story is far more complicated than that. Politics and civil engineering sometimes do not mix. “We live in an imperfect world. You’ve got to live with your current reality,” says Arthur Silber, chief of the Trans- Hudson Express Tunnel project.

The reality is that Manhattan is not built on solid granite, as many thought years ago. The first few dozen feet of subsurface rock are cracked and cannot allow for a solid tunnel bore without much more expensive construction. A more shallow tunnel also would be so close to the bottom of the Hudson River that the under-river portion of the tunnel would be more complicated and more expensive, too.

Then there’s the question of effects on surface buildings and parks from more shallow construction, presenting even higher costs and the certainty of public protest. Running north-south in the area is also the new No.7 subway line extension, which the NJT line has to get over or under. If the subway line could be moved, it’s possible there could be some compromise plans to get a rail tunnel into Penn Station, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has nixed that idea with a statement that effectively says over my dead body. Besides, the No. 7 tunnel was originally built deeper to make way for a NJT tunnel over the top in the days when a connection to Penn Station had been envisioned.

Silber says he too would prefer a more shallow tunnel with a spur into Penn Station, but years of consideration proved that the expense would be too great, the delay too long, and the political and environmental arguments too heavy. Instead, the solution was to dig deep and also do the initial preparation to allow Amtrak some day to dig new tunnels parallel to the NJT tunnels, sending trains perhaps into a new lower level of Penn Station itself.

Then there is NJT’s final ace in the hole: Within a few years, it will be possible to build east from the new station, allowing through train service to Grand Central Terminal and/or east under the East River to connections for Long Island and the Northeast Corridor to Boston.

The reason this can’t be done immediately is that Manhattan’s major water tunnel is immediately east of the new station, and water authorities won’t allow even soil and rock testing in the area. However, a new water tunnel is scheduled for completion in about 2013. At that time, water authorities will drain the old tunnel to search for leaks. That will open the area to rock testing and construction.

Amtrak has now dropped its opposition, signing an agreement with NJT. However, several opponents are far from satisfied.

“At the end of the day, Penn Station will be paralyzed” if something happens to the current twin tunnels, says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Capon points out that one of the old tunnels will be closed every weekend for years for ongoing construction. Furthermore, Capon, who speaks for a number of passenger rail advocates in the New York area, says the capacity of NJT’s new station is not adequate, especially since it was designed with no tail tracks to get trains out of the way.

Capon says that if NJT had the political will to do it, other agencies could be brought along, with the help of a sympathetic federal government. “NJT is not playing straight with the public,” he says.

It is still possible, though less likely every day, that NJT’s decision will be overturned. Some federal officials still have misgivings, although they did not want to speak on the record, but they acknowledged they needed more current information before making a final determination. (The tunnel is projected to cost $9 billion.)

We can’t lose sight of the fact that passenger traffic is rising rapidly all over the country, and especially in major cities like New York. Once again, railroading is suffering from growing pains rather than a nostalgic goodbye. Growing pains are much more painful, so to speak, than they were in Alexander Cassatt’s day. Mr. Cassatt was able to rip out blocks of downtown Manhattan to build his line to Penn Station, and never faced environmental rules or red tape.

I can’t help wondering what Mr. Cassatt would think today if he could return to Manhattan. Personally, I think he would laugh and wonder how life got so complicated. He might also wonder if all the extra expense would have allowed him to build the first tunnels.

DON PHILLIPS, a newspaper reporter for more than four decades, writes this exclusive monthly column for Trains.

Working on the railroad, in winter, in Ruso, ND

On Saturday, January 24, two Canadian Pacific diesels and a wedge plow operating between Ruso and Benedict, North Dakota derailed when they struck a twenty foot drift of snow. While this may not be the definitive answer to what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, it does come pretty close.

The local news station, KXMC out of Minot, covers the story here, with some small pictures and video. They report that one man was treated at a local hospital and released.

While this may be a small story in the scheme of things, I think the following pictures are vivid reminders of how hard some people work in this country to keep our economy moving in the face of very harsh conditions. Despite boasting an average temperature of 1° Fahrenheit, Ruso was a chilly -11° F that day. Years ago, Senator Bob Dole used to quip about his father’s advice on looking for a job – to find something indoors that requires no heavy lifting. Clearly the work of keeping the rail lines open in a North Dakota winter fails that suggestion on both counts. We are all the beneficiaries of the efforts of these railroaders.

Here are the pictures of the derailment:

Also, a few shots of the units involved in better (and warmer) moments:

Soo plow 900182 – I have not learned anything about this unit’s origin or age.

Lead engine, unit 5926. A 1979 EMD SD40-2. General SD40 information here.

Trail engine, unit 4423. A May 1979 EMD GP38-2. General GP38 information here.

Rescue engine, unit 2016. A 1966 EMD GP40. General GP40 information here.

All pictures attributed via link – please click on them to see larger images and a full attribution.

Amtrak chooses Boardman as new, temporary, CEO

Amtrak announced, almost two weeks ago, the departure of Alex Kummant as CEO. No explanations were given, and some suggested he was making way for an Obama pick, while others suggested a dispute with the Board over refinancing of Amtrak’s burdensome debt. (For Paul Weyrich’s take, read this.) In a surprising move (to me, anyway), Amtrak announced today the selection of Jospeh Boardman as their next CEO.

Joseph Boardman, 59, who has led the Federal Railroad Administration since April 2005, succeeds Alex Kummant, who resigned from the passenger carrier on Nov. 14. Boardman will serve for a year as Amtrak searches for a “permanent” chief, Chairwoman Donna McLean said today in a statement.

Read his DOT bio here. With talk of infrastructure improvements, Mica’s ill-defined plan, and Kerry’s new bill, this is a singular time to take the helm of Amtrak. I wish him clear signals.

Before and after

While it is true that Flickr is chock’a’block with great photographs of airplanes, it does also have terrific shots of other things – like trains. I wanted to pass along the following pair of pictures of the same engine, 16 months apart, both taken by Flickr user hunter1828.

Before

A former Southern Pacific EMD SD45, unit number 7544, sits on a siding in Livingston, Montana in June 2007, within a month of its fortieth birthday and looking every day of its age, and then some. Delivered as SD45 8906 to the SP in May 1967. The SP rebuilt it first in either 1979 or 1980 as an SD45R, and then again in 1985 as an SD45-2. At some point it was renumbered as 7544, and under that number joined Montana Rail Link still wearing its faded SP colors, when this picture was taken. A casual observer would not be too much at fault to assume this machine was on its way to the scrapper.

After

Fast forward seventeen months to Great Falls, Montana, and one can see what some heavy maintenance and a session in the paint booth can do for forty year old diesels. Now a casual observer would assume he was seeing a new unit at the start of a forty year life. Amazing rebirth for this old veteran.

My thanks again to hunter1828 for his photography.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Starting in the spring, the news has carried a series of stories about Florida Representative Mica’s ideas about the private development of high-speed rail in America. Building on those stories, please see the following from Progressive Railroading today:

Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Today and tomorrow, U.S. Rep. John Mica R-Fla. will conduct briefings with high-speed rail stakeholders to review pending U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue a request for proposal for high-speed passenger-rail service.

Last month, President Bush signed into law legislation that enables private sector participation in the development, financing, operation and maintenance of high-speed rail service in the United States. Originally proposed as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 H.R. 6003, the legislation — introduced earlier this year by Mica and other Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members — was included in the Rail Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 H.R. 2095/S. 1889.

The bill requires the USDOT to solicit project proposals by Dec. 15 from the private sector for the 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Governors and mayors, freight and commuter railroads, labor organizations and Amtrak will evaluate the proposals for each corridor.

Briefing participants will include representatives from financial investment firms; train and railroad equipment manufacturers; federal, state and local governments; private rail operators; labor groups; and Amtrak.

I have covered this idea in several previous posts. Given Mica’s initial briefings which spoke about pursuing such an idea in the NEC, I began with some basic questions about scope and practicality here. After that, I turned to a discussion on train speed on the NEC (including Mica’s consistent lies about Amtrak’s top speeds) here. The train speed post was extended with a comparison to HSR speeds in France here. Still an unanswered question is how Mica’s efforts will mesh with those oh Sen. Kerry. For more on Kerry’s plans, see this post, Kerry’s letter to his colleagues, and this recent update.