News & Politics

The Three Words The MTA Doesn’t Want Frustrated LIRR Riders To Remember

East Side Access

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New York City’s crumbling infrastructure treated commuters to yet another failure during rush hour on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, this time along the Long Island Rail Road, which was brought to a complete standstill by a failure in the East River tunnels. It’s almost as if running hundreds of trains a day through a century-old tunnel is a less-than-ideal situation.

According to the MTA, at some point this morning between 7 a.m. and 7:15 a.m., Amtrak experienced a problem with a third rail in one of its four East River tunnels, leaving two trains — the 6:13 from Massapequa and the 6:12 from Babylon — stuck in the tunnels for hours. The Massapequa train was able to unload its thousand passengers at Penn Station by 8:26 a.m., while the Babylon train had a rougher go of it: Passengers weren’t able to get off the train until it was towed back to Hunters Point Avenue in Queens at 10:18 a.m.

The disruption of service caused a backup of trains that stretched well into Queens:

In an email to the Voice, Amtrak said the disruption was caused by a “failure of a third rail component just outside of line #2 of the East River tunnels.” Amtrak was “still working to determine a root cause.”

In social media postings about the stalled trains, the MTA repeatedly went out of its way to make clear that Amtrak, and not the MTA, is responsible for the upkeep of the East River tunnels. This is in keeping with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s insistence that the maintenance issues that have dragged down commuter rail service in New York City are the responsibility of Amtrak, which plans to shut down several tracks this summer underneath Penn Station to do emergency repairs. The East River tunnels impacted today are not part of those repair plans.

“If you look at the past track record with Amtrak, they almost always take longer than they say they’re going to take,” Cuomo said last Monday, hammering the agency that both the MTA and NJ Transit pay rent to in exchange for the use of Penn Station and its connecting tunnels. “Why the heck are we paying rental payments when the ceiling is collapsing? Really, these are deplorable conditions.”

Amtrak’s missteps have been a cudgel that Cuomo has used to deflect criticism of the failings of his own transit authority, the MTA. If you’re wondering why the MTA doesn’t just build its own tunnel underneath the East River to host LIRR trains, it has been — for the past eleven years.

The East Side Access will eventually create a tunnel to bring LIRR trains into Grand Central Station. The project has been beset by so many delays that right now the MTA, when it does deign mention the project, says it will be completed by December 2022, with service beginning in 2023. The project is now thirteen years behind schedule and, at an estimated $10.2 billion, more than double its estimated cost. There were several mistakes made in planning East Side Access, including building a massive terminal far below Grand Central Station, but the MTA insists that the true reason construction hasn’t been on schedule is — you guessed it — Amtrak.

According to the MTA, because Amtrak has not been curtailing service through Sunnyside Yard, it is impeding the work that the MTA can do on the tunnel. In the absence of a work-around, the MTA has singled out Amtrak for all its own problems. 

Just last week, Cuomo called for the federal government to hand over control of Penn Station to either a private company or the governor himself, which would give Cuomo no one to blame but himself for what’s plaguing New York City commuters. But like a dog who finally catches the car he’s been chasing, Cuomo would have zero idea what to do with Penn Station. Without a rudderless federal government to point fingers at, he’d actually have to take some responsibility for his embarrassing mismanagement of the MTA, which badly needs money to upgrade signals system-wide.

Cuomo claims to have delivered the money to the agency with the largest capital plan ever. Not so.

Instead, what the governor has done is increase the MTA’s debt load to an unsustainable amount, so much so that even if he were to finally install East River tolls to help fund his transit authority, over half of that money would go immediately to debt service.

So it’s Amtrak’s fault that it’s providing too much service for work to be done, while also providing too little service over the summer, if you follow the MTA’s reasoning. It’s Amtrak’s fault, because if it wasn’t, it would be Andrew Cuomo’s. And it couldn’t possibly be his fault, right?