Power failure on aged tracks shows U.S. rail frailty in Northeast

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

NEW YORK — What's shaping up as a weeks-long service interruption on the Metro-North Railroad near New York shows how dependent the busiest U.S. passenger-rail corridor is on electric power and how easily a breakdown in single component can paralyze U.S. infrastructure.

"The demand for rail service in the northeast United States is increasing enormously," said Richard Ravitch, the former New York lieutenant governor who spent four years as chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North. "We do not have the capacity that we need. We need a modern rail system that half the countries in the world have that we don't have."

A Consolidated Edison power failure Sept. 25 stopped the New Haven line, Metro-North's busiest, which serves about 130,000 passengers daily in Connecticut and suburban Westchester County in New York. Con Edison and Metro-North have said they will try to restore full service by Oct. 8. The railroad is offering free park-and-ride spaces and shuttle buses today to help commuters reach their jobs in New York City.

The eight-mile outage north of Mount Vernon, N.Y., also hampers Amtrak, which operates on the line, because the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad has to substitute slower diesel engines. High-speed Acela service was to resume Monday, though in a limited capacity.

For commuters, trains running every half-hour accommodate half the New Haven line's typical ridership, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Metro-North have urged riders to work from home, carpool or find alternate means of travel. The governor said yesterday that the utility and railroad have taken a lackadaisical attitude toward repairing the breakdown, first saying a repair could take three weeks.

"I have been making it clear to Con Ed and the MTA that a delay like the one they initially proposed was completely unacceptable," Malloy said Sunday. "I want to re-emphasize that they need to alleviate this problem as quickly as possible."

Amtrak, based in Washington, is linking northbound trains with a diesel locomotives in Queens to get through the powerless section and switching again in New Haven, Conn., said Clifford Cole, a spokesman. That can cause 90- minute delays.

The New Haven line may need as much as $3 billion in repairs to improve reliability, said Amanda Kennedy, a director at the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research and advocacy group with offices in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

"Age is catching up to the railroad again," Kennedy, who directs RPA's Connecticut office, said in a phone interview. "Any time there is construction, that takes a part of the system out of service it limits our ability to handle the unexpected. There should be a recognition of the value of the system and the need to make sure that outages don't occur on a regular basis."

The multi-day closing of the New Haven line is the second this year, following one due to a May 17 crash involving about 700 passengers, all of whom survived the collision between two trains going opposite directions. When the crash occurred, the adjacent Metro-North line was out of service for improvements.

The National Transportation Safety Board has a hearing in Washington scheduled on the crash for Oct. 22 and 23.

In the new incident, an electrical fault cut power on a feeder cable while an alternate line was out of service for improvements.

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York said Sunday they want a federal audit and investigation.

"There is a backup power system for a reason, and we need to know why that backup system failed, throwing a wrench into the commute of tens of thousands," said Schumer.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. rail and energy infrastructure D+ ratings in a report this year. From 2007 to 2011, the number of significant power outages in the country rose from 76 to 307, according to the group based in Reston, Va.

"The electric system in general in this country is older and it is being used in a higher capacity," said Ruth Johnson, vice president of engineering at High Energy Inc. and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "It's not a dissimilar problem to bridges or roads or water pipes. It's an issue for the country in most of the infrastructure and facilities."

Metro-North tested its system with one working power feeder before taking the alternate cable out of service for maintenance. The cable that's offline is expected to be back in service by Oct. 7, said Adam Lisberg, a spokesman.

"When power lines fail, they fail instantaneously," Con Edison spokesman Mike Clendenin said.

The electric company has said broken pipes must be frozen, de-energized, cleaned, repaired and gradually returned to power, drawing out the restoration process.

Metro-North has said it's been improving infrastructure and that the utility is to blame.

"It's a very old, electrified railroad that Metro North has been steadily upgrading," said David Gunn, a former Amtrak chief executive officer who is not involved in the current situation.

After spending little on capital improvements in the 1990s, Amtrak plans to expand service in the Northeast by upgrading infrastructure and building new routes. The railroad, which receives assistance from the U.S. and state governments, hasn't gotten the $2.1 billion in federal support for capital projects it requested this year.

Schumer said in yesterday's statement that the situation is untenable.

"We can't have our entire transportation system ground to a halt because we have a failure in both a primary and backup power systems," he said. "There must be mandatory contingency plans approved by the government in place for these events."