Extreme Weather Hits Aging NEC Hard

>>Recent extreme weather exposes the need to invest in the NEC and for the line's different owners to coordinate their investments.


In late July, the Northeast and much of the country experienced an extreme heat wave that brought sections of the Northeast Corridor to their knees.

Failing Infrastructure

About one week ago, on July 22, passenger service on Amtrak and MetroNorth was halted in Connecticut, after a commuter train damaged the line's electrical system. According to various reports from the state, the issue was sagging overhead wires that supply power to the trains. As the heat rose to high levels, the wires expanded, causing them to droop perilously low. The train's pantograph (a metal arm on the top of the train that draws power) got tangled in the sagging wires, ripping them down and halting service.

Sadly, this incident could have been prevented. More modern technology, referred to as constant tension catenary wire, is designed to prevent the kind of sagging that caused last Friday's disruption. While Amtrak installed constant tension catenary on the line east of New Haven in the 1990s, the line west of New Haven, owned by Connecticut, has not yet been upgraded. And this problem can been seen on the NEC outside of Connecticut. Similar problems have recently occurred in NJ and Pennsylvania.

The Challenge of Split Ownership

This story offers two major lessons. The first is obvious: we must make investments to improve the line's overhead wires. The second lesson is more nuanced: planning on the NEC is difficult because the line's ownership is split among different parties.

While Amtrak owns the entire corridor south of New York City, the line north of NYC is more complicated. New York State and Connecticut own the line from New Rochelle to New Haven (splitting it at the state line) and Massachusetts owns the line in its borders, while Amtrak owns the rest.

Last week, an analysis by Transportation Nation explained how this situation affects riders. According to the article, the extreme weather hit NEC operations in Connecticut much harder than in New York State. While Connecticut's riders were stranded in trains with no power or air conditioning, New York's commuters traveled comfortably and on time. The difference was the result of state-level planning and investment; while New York has made investments on its portion of the NEC, Connecticut has been slower to improve the overhead catenary wire system. As a result, Connecticut's portion of the NEC is highly susceptible to these kinds of service disruptions.

The line's different owners have broader implications for the NEC than just uneven investment. The split ownership of the line makes it essential for the region and the operators on the line to coordinate plans for the NEC. It is no secret that Amtrak would like to expand service and improve reliability on its service from New York City to Boston, but its plans inevitably rely on Connecticut. New rail cars on the Acela service, for example, will do little to improve service if the overhead wires continue to fail.

Regional Progress

overhead_catenary_dc.jpgThe good news is that Connecticut already has improvement plans. In recent years, the state has been completing a major overhaul of its portion of the NEC, repairing bridges and replacing the overhead wires with constant tension catenary. Since the work requires taking entire tracks out of service, progress is slow. Over the next five years, the state will invest $400 million in the overhead wires, and work is expected to be complete in 2016.

For its part, Amtrak is also investing in constant-tension catenary wire. In May 2011, it received a $450 million federal high-speed rail grant to perform upgrades to the track and electrical system in New Jersey. These upgrades include the constant tension wires that enable faster speeds and minimize delays. Despite this progress, significant stretches of track south of New York City still need funding for their upgrades.

As for regional coordination, Amtrak and the Northeast states have already made significant progress. In 2010, they released the NEC Master Plan, which identified the projects that will achieve a state of good repair and expand capacity to meet the needs of all intercity, commuter and freight rail roads by 2030. For the line's owners and numerous operators, however, the challenge remains to get the projects identified by the Plan funded.

With funding, it's clear that the region should continue to explore new ways of working together. It's easy to place blame for service disruptions on a section's owner or specific operator, but that fails to capture the interconnectedness of the line. Since investments in Connecticut benefit all parts of the line, all northeastern states have an interest in seeing those investments happen.

Stamford Station: Karl Baron. Licensed under Creative Commons. Flickr User kalleboo.
Catenary Wire: K Tower at Washington Union Station. Licensed under Creative Commons. Flickr User jpmueller99.

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