The Horrible Future Of New York’s Mass Transit Is Here


New York commuters are fuming about the latest train derailment that has canceled countless trains and left Penn Station packed with frustrated people. No, not the one from two weeks ago. Or a few weeks before that. The one that happened Monday, and has caused such a disruption to commutes that service underneath the Hudson will be severely limited until at least Thursday.

This particular catastrophe began when a NJ Transit train derailed, with three cars coming off the tracks and one losing a wheel in the process. Because of Penn Station’s crowded and completely deficient infrastructure, one disruption cascaded into many, demonstrating how one transit system that is suffering through deep neglect can drag down the entire network. Penn is shared by Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit, so commutes are now bungled across the entire Eastern Seaboard as the derailed train damaged a switch machine, cutting service at eight of twenty-one tracks at Penn Station. So instead of having a single line disrupted, the busiest train station in the United States has seen its service cut by more than a third during the middle of a work week.

The recurrence of derailments is indicative of the metropolitan area’s decrepit transit infrastructure, one that badly needs federal funding for another tunnel underneath the Hudson, so that the current tunnel can be repaired (from Sandy, which happened in 2012) and service can keep up with the growth of the New Jersey waterfront. There’s supposedly help on the way, but it’s not coming anytime soon. At some point, officials say, in the next ten years, LIRR trains will be able to go to Grand Central, providing an alternative for stranded Long Island residents and alleviating some track congestion at Penn. But that project is billions over budget and years behind, with the MTA and governor scarcely mentioning it over the past several years. For practical purposes, it might as well not even exist.

The true silver bullet for sparing New York City from decades of transit madness would be a new cross-Hudson tunnel, something that the Obama administration embraced and the Trump transition team seemed to support. Senator Chuck Schumer appeared ready to sell his soul for that much-needed tunnel, but it looks like he won’t even get the chance. The Trump administration has slashed federal infrastructure grants, and Democrats have embraced a “resistance” politics that has thrown any earlier overtures toward cooperation completely out the window. But it’s not like Trump is offering the money anyway (or would do anything that Democrats could take credit for).

So in a moment of deep transit dysfunction, where a third of commuters at Penn Station are caught in a hellish cycle of delays, where are the politicians? Handing out moist towelettes to aggrieved commuters?

Governor Andrew Cuomo is up in Albany finalizing a budget in which he tried to slash $65 million from the MTA’s funding (it looks like the legislature is putting that money back in), Mayor Bill de Blasio is in Seattle raising money for his legal defense fees (and re-election campaign), and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is helping shape Trump’s plan for confronting the nation’s opioid epidemic, and otherwise keeping a low profile while his former Port Authority lieutenants get sent to prison.

Cuomo’s most recent plan for Penn Station does nothing to increase track capacity, meaning that even when shovels might soon appear in the ground at Penn, they are instead building a better mall for commuters as they wait interminably for their trains.

Everyone in the New York area knew this day was coming, when its transit would begin to completely collapse without federal intervention. They just thought it would take a little longer. For once in New York’s transit world, things seem to be running a bit early.