Fred Frailey Blog

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It is fun to watch you folks have at it (and each other) in (mostly) good-humored fun. But I want to chime in again. Several of you chastised me for my criticism of Amtrak’s complete Northeast Corridor shutdown Sunday night. And upon reflection, I think, those of you critical me on this point were absolutely right. It was the right thing for Amtrak to do. In light of subsequent events, it was also Amtrak’s only sensible option.

Amtrak may (I don’t know) end up relatively undamaged. I can tell from published accounts that New Jersey Transit is in shambles. A picture of Transit’s Hoboken terminal under three feet of water was sobering; see for yourselves on the right. And what of Conrail, the switching railroad for both CSX and Norfolk Southern. It has got to be suffering mightily. I read a report somewhere of freight cars blocking the New Jersey Turnpike! I'll update you on Conrail if I can learn more.

So, just to be clear, my apologies to everyone at Amtrak for shooting from the hip. — Fred W. Frailey

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  • NewsWire reported that 2 of the LI tunnels under the East River were flooded (which are used by Amtrak NEC trains) so Amtrak didn't go unscathed.

  • The freight cars on the Jersey Turnpike turned out to be empty Intermodal Tank Containers that floated from a nearby Kinder Morgan terminal. Amtrak's Empire Corridor will be affected by problems on MetroNorth's Hudson Line (Cabin Cruiser on the tracks at Ossining, ballast washed out from one track at Cold Spring, NY), but the only information I have seen on the New Jersey side has concerned New Jersey Transit, but I would be surprised if they didn't have problems too.

  • Amtrak's operating plan for tomorrow has been released, the NEC will end at Newark's Penn Station for an indeterminate time, the Hudson River tunnels, NY Penn Station, and the East River tunnels have flooded. No estimate of the damage will be available until they get the water pumped out.

  • Good to see Amtrak up and moving again so quickly.  All the eastern LD trains are running again, too, although not all the way to NYP.

  • Could it be that some of us are too hard on the best writer TRAINS has ever had?  I remember the flak he took after his piece, HUNTER HITS THE GROUND RUNNING.  That criticism was entirely wrong.  Critics opined that Harrison was doing routine stuff expected from every CEO.  If that were true, why didn't Fred Green get the job done?  Now Fred has apologized (I'm not sure that was warranted), so let's get on with it.  This is supposed to be fun and informative - and it is.  Let's keep it that way.

  • Let's not quibble over whether Fred should have apologized or not to Amtrak for his too-quick criticism of its decision to shut the NEC.  He obviously believed that was appropriate and did.  End of discussion.

    Related, there was a bit of back-and-forth yesterday about whether rail operating people "try" hard enough or whether railroaders of the past were more focused on maintaining operations.  My charming spouse, who is not a rail maven in any way, but who does have good management credentials, pointed out that railroaders of the past did not have access to the kind of information one really needs to be able to decide whether to suspend service or not.  The culture of the past dictated that you dispatched trains and kept them moving as long as possible.  Of course that meant trains frequently were halted out on the road by trees across the track, etc.  Perhaps more obvious and important, this Sandy superstorm simply has not happened in the past (that's why it is considered historic) so harkening to the past to compare Amtrak operating people with their forebears simply is unfair and unproductive.  That they have resumed operations is all we need to know.  Obviously, they protected their equipment and their system.

  • It's going to be interesting to see how the railroads deal with switch machines, the motors that run crossing gates, battery chargers, batteries, and other electrical equipment damaged by salt water.  There does not appear to be a fast, effective solution.  Counting Amtrak, Metro-North, NJDOT, PATH, and the subways, the number of damaged units must be huge--probably beyond the ability of suppliers to replace quickly.  Inter-railroad cooperation may help somewhat, but how many keep large numbers of replacements for thirty-year-old switch machines on hand?  Even electricals that are merely rain-soaked need to be looked at.  If Amtrak's shutdown was used to move some precious stuff to higher ground, then it was time well used.

  • I doubt that Amtrak will wind up "relatively undamaged."  Both the North River tunnel and the East River tunnel are full of salt water which has gotten into the electrical system.  Perhaps the lack of power between New York and New Haven is a fairly minor problem or problems.  Perhaps not. Amtrak is planning to restore partial service between New Haven and Boston which is very good news.  The tracks in New York Penn Station are far below street level.  I hope they are safe but subway tunnels at a similar level are flooded.  

    24 empty tank cars floating on the the New Jersey Turnpike suggest to me that the water was fairly deep.  Any electric wire for any reason is now soaked in salt water.  Roadbeds may be washed out.  The freight lines are in trouble here too.  

    For New Jersey Transit it isn't just Hoboken Terminal although that is certainly bad enough.  West of the Terminal for several miles the track run through the meadows, a swamp.                                        

  • I doubt that Amtrak will wind up "relatively undamaged."  Both the North River tunnel and the East River tunnel are full of salt water which has gotten into the electrical system.  Perhaps the lack of power between New York and New Haven is a fairly minor problem or problems.  Perhaps not. Amtrak is planning to restore partial service between New Haven and Boston which is very good news.  The tracks in New York Penn Station are far below street level.  I hope they are safe but subway tunnels at a similar level are flooded.  

    24 empty tank cars floating on the the New Jersey Turnpike suggest to me that the water was fairly deep.  Any electric wire for any reason is now soaked in salt water.  Roadbeds may be washed out.  The freight lines are in trouble here too.  

    For New Jersey Transit it isn't just Hoboken Terminal although that is certainly bad enough.  West of the Terminal for several miles the track run through the meadows, a swamp.                                        

  • FRED;  I admire your journalistic integrity.  When you decide that maybe another opinion is warranted you take the heat and say so.  That is in a sad contrast that most media types will do.  Keep up the good work and I imagine that the reporting "Sandy" afermaths will go on for months and years.  

    One question do you follow the commuter rails as well?. If you do the possible problems ( especially NJ TRANSIT ) will be fertile investigative gardening.

  • I am glad you retracted your previous comments.  I initially felt the same way.  But I can only imagine the horror, much less the investigations and finger pointing that would have happened, if an Amtrak, NJ Transit, PATH, LIRR, or Subway train had gone into one of the tunnels gotten trapped in the rising water and then completely overcome by the flooding.  While hindsight is always 20/20 or better, the main warning I saw was for record storm surges which ended up exceeding the forecast by several feet.  So it turns out to be a good thing everyone was 'overly' cautious.  

    The big question is what happens to prevent such an inundation of basic infrastructure from happening again in the next 100 years.  It appears NJT needs to create a more robust control center, maybe the Class One's could provide some tips on this.  And how do we keep the tunnels from flooding in future storms?  It is one thing for a waterside station such as Hoboken to flood in a storm, but to have a through station like Penn Station shut down in midtown Manhattan is a far worse problem that hopefully can be prevented from happening again.  It seemed the fixes after Katrina held in New Orleans when challenged by another storm several years later.  Can we design a solution to do the same for New York City?

  • Recently someone posted on a "Trains" magazine forum an account of an incident in which Union Pacific moved a railcar thousands of miles just to get it to a destination that was a relatively short distance away. Immediately, a half dozen readers fell over each other to dispute the implication that UP had chosen a ridiculous routing: lacking any specific information, they all asserted that there was surely some good reason, that we simply didn't know it, and that we shouldn't question the people who did. I amused myself by imagining what would happen if one substituted "Amtrak" for "Union Pacific" in the same paragraph. I suspect some of the same readers would have assumed without question that Amtrak had been stupid, and asserted that this was yet another example proving that government always operates inefficiently whereas business always operates efficiently.

    What strikes me about Mr Frailey's postings regarding the hurricane Sandy closures is not so much the question of whether Amtrak was right or wrong, but the lack of criticism of any freight railroad. The first article I saw on the subject via the AAR newsbrief was headlined "CSX closes 4-state network; Amtrak suspends service." So why did Mr Frailey give CSX a free pass, but not Amtrak? Is it because we in the "Trains" community don't really believe deep down inside that freight railroads still have customers who care about timely service? Or is it a blind spot among "Trains" writers and readers, who (despite evidence like the widespread support for Fred Green over a period of years) don't believe that business can be just as stupid as government, and should be equally deserving of our skepticism?

  • ecoli raises some very interesting questions.  Rail pundit suspects the answers really are "all of the above."  Trains' audience is largely made up of rail fans, although that category includes many who are employed in the rail industry.  Trains always has had a bias toward passenger service in its coverage of the industry.  Fred may have jumped the gun a bit in his comments on Amtrak's performance during and just before the Sandy superstorm, but the freight companies performed as they usually do.  They are geared to protecting the system and their customers' freight, and they operate accordingly.  Some of us remember how all of the railroads serving New Orleans were back in service before the first FEMA truckload of ice arrived.  If you don't operate your trains you don't get your revenue, and then you're really in the soup.  

    I don't think Fred is guilty of having given the the freight guys a free pass nearly so much as he is guilty of having been premature in his criticism of Amtrak.  There were several comments condemning Amtrak for not "trying" hard enough to maintain service.  These were from people who do not seem to understand that the days when big, hairy operating guys dispatched trains into the eye of storms is gone and they ain't coming back.  Communications technology allows dispatchers and their supervisors to know what they are going to be dealing with, a luxury their fathers didn't have.  As for freight, the old saw that "freight doesn't vote," isn't heard so much anymore, but the reality is that the people who pay real money to have their freight moved from where it is to where they want it to be don't hesitate to make life miserable for freight railroad marketeers if it isn't done according to the arrangements made.  The freight people don't shut down prematurely very often, but when they do, they are in a position to resume service very quickly, which Amtrak seems to be doing, too.

  • fred; --  Have you acquired any information on the North ricer tunnels and if they ever had flood doors and if so why they did not work ?  

    If I remember correctly the east river tunnels were protected by sandbagging during Irene. evidently sandy had a much higher storm surge and flooded tunnels 1 & 2. were 3 & 4 completely spared or were pumps abe to keep them dry?  

    maybe you can ask AMTRAK what it will take to place flood doors at the ends of each of these tunnels ?the ./

  • I too was upset when the NY MTA halted all service, like they did in Irene. In hindsight I have to admit it is a good idea in order to prevent casualities and protect the  equipment and infrastructure. I would ask in the future if they could postpone closure for perhaps another 8 or 12 hours. PATH and NJ Transit operated until midnight while the NY MTA closed earler and with very short notice. I know that after service stops, much needs to be done: move trains to high and dry ground, remove crossing gate arms, remove switch machines and other vulnerable devices in low lying area, etc. And last, but also important, give employees time to get home and make arrangements for their safety and their families' safety, especially if they need to evacuate.

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