Ten Years Ago: Hurricane Sandy Devastated Our Transit and More

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Sandy pounded this part of the country, bringing transit in New York City and New Jersey to a standstill. Sandy was one of the worst storms in history, causing $70 billion in damage and killing 233 people in eight countries, from the Caribbean to Canada. Sandy has often been compared to Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.

Even though Sandy hit the region on Monday, October 29, with barely hurricane strength, the unique configuration and the extreme extent of the region’s damage led local media and even the National Weather Service to dub the extra-tropical cyclone “Superstorm Sandy.” Low-lying areas were particularly hard-hit; among these were the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, the Jersey Shore, and Hoboken, and unexpectedly, some inland areas across the region. Millions were left without power, and millions were left without transit.

Transit Hit Hard

Transit came back in the Philadelphia area within a few days, and the New York subways came back over the course of a week, as did Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. It took longer in New Jersey, as New Jersey Transit (NJT) chronicled in a number of press releases, which can still be found on the NJT website.

Amtrak trains began to return to the Northeast Corridor late in the first week after the storm, and NJT trains to Trenton and on the Raritan Line returned shortly thereafter. The North Jersey Coast Line (NJCL) was devastated, as was much of the Shore. Photos of the line showed small boats and even a freight container washed up onto its track. River Draw, the bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy, was damaged and a replacement bridge is now under construction. The region’s damage was so extensive that county transportation agencies did what they could to provide food and mobility to the seniors and persons with disabilities who needed those services.

During the first few weeks, NJT ran shuttle buses during peak commuting hours from emergency park-and-ride locations to points where riders could get to Manhattan on ferries and PATH trains that had started running again. Later, the buses ran to and from NJT’s train stations.

The Morris & Essex (M&E) line was out of service for two weeks, returning on Monday, November 14. Limited service on the Main/Bergen, Port Jarvis, and Pascack Valley Lines also returned that day. The Montclair-Boonton Line came back two days later. The last line to return to service was the Gladstone Branch, which came back on December 1, after a five-week absence. Full pre-Sandy service did not return until January 14.

Sandy’s Aftermath Still Brings Controversy

One of the most-lasting parts of Sandy’s legacy was the flooding of about 400 pieces of rolling stock (locomotives and railcars) that were left in low-lying yards in Hoboken and the Meadowlands. Some of

that equipment was flooded beyond repair. Today, NJT’s “Sandy Resiliency Program” plans to build new yards for emergency purposes. Advocates question the cost-effectiveness of such projects, claiming that preparedness and good practices could have prevented the loss, noting that losses on the New York side were minimal.

One component of the program is the proposed NJ Transitgrid, which would be fired by natural gas, despite Gov. Murphy’s campaign promise that the state would not build new facilities powered by fossil fuels. Coalition Chairperson Sally Jane Gellert is a member of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which opposes the project. The controversial Transitgrid is outside the Lackawanna Coalition’s core purview area.

For more-extensive coverage of Sandy’s impact on our region and its transit, see my article, Hurricane Sandy, Ten Years Later , posted on October 27 on the Railway Age website.

NJT Management Shakeup Rumored

A week after NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein retired and was replaced by Veronique Hakim, rumors circulated about a “clean sweep” that would further shake up the agency’s  top management.  According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 5), the directors of NJT’s rail and bus operations are also about to be forced out.  Frassinelli wrote that sources said that NJ Transit was “going in a different direction.”

Continue Reading NJT Management Shakeup Rumored

Weekend PATH World Trade Service to Be Suspended

Weekend service on the PATH transit system to World Trade Center and Exchange Place, Jersey City, will be suspended entirely for most weekends in 2014, starting February 14.  The suspensions will begin around midnight Friday night; service will resume at approximately 4:45 a.m. on Mondays.  Additional trains will run on the 33rd St.—Journal Square (via Hoboken) route; Newark service will operate only as far as Journal Square. Exceptions to the suspension may be made on major holiday weekends.  The service suspension, PATH says, is necessary for work on the signal system, and security enhancement, and for post-Sandy flood resilience improvements.

More information can be found at:

http://www.panynj.gov/path/path-forward.html

New Brunswick Storage Yard Advances

NJ Transit, in efforts to avoid equipment damage such as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, on January 8th approved engineering contracts for its plan to build and expand storage yards in the New Brunswick area, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (January 9).  The Sandy disaster unfolded after NJT stored equipment in yards in Hoboken and the Jersey Meadows that proved vulnerable to storm-surge flooding; hundreds of cars and locomotives were damaged, and some have still not been repaired more than a year later.  The railroad had already activated plans to make safer storage locations available in Linden and Garwood.  The $7.64-million design and engineering contract will be for the County Yard, at the Jersey Avenue station south of New Brunswick, and the adjacent Mile Run Yard, not presently in service.  A recent report on the Sandy disaster, commissioned by NJT from the Texas A&M Engineering and Extension Service, concluded that NJT needed better flood protection models to predict storm impact.  Critics have said that NJT ignored reports that forecast the flooding that took place, relying instead on overly optimistic forecasts.  Phil Craig of the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers called the Texas A&M report “a whitewash, pure and simple.”

Hoboken Terminal Coming Back, One Piece at a Time

Hoboken Terminal is slowly coming back, following mold contamination due to severe flooding damage from Hurricane Sandy more than one year ago.  The waiting room, with its historic benches, reopened on November 18th.  Now, the ticket office and some of the eateries in the station have reopened, as well.  Some of the stores are still closed, and the customer service facility and station master’s office are still located in a trailerlike structure located on the concourse between the high-numbered tracks and the building.  We hope the rest of the building will reopen soon.

Hoboken Waiting Room Reopens

NJ Transit has reopened the historic waiting room at Hoboken Terminal; a visit on Monday, November 19 at 5 p.m. confirmed that the terminal has reopened.  The most recent reporting on the subject, just a few days ago, forecast the reopening before winter weather sets in; apparently, NJT has been able to beat those predictions.  The availability of the terminal, and its restrooms, has a checkered history following the flooding on October 29, 2012; the terminal had initially been reopened on November 18, 2012, a few weeks after the storm, but then mold was discovered and the terminal was closed again on December 19, 2012.  During the 2012-13 winter, riders had to rely on parked trains for heated waiting space and use nonflushable toilets.  In recent months, the terminal reopened but with the historic wooden benches still closed off, and temporary seating installed.  In the final stages of restoration, the terminal was again closed off, but restrooms were accessible through a side entrance facing Warrington Plaza at the north side of the building.  Some of the doors to the rail platform area remain out of service, as temporary ticket offices were built and block access to those doors.

Christie’s Sandy Remarks Questioned

NJT’s massive loss in Hurricane Sandy was caused by a bad decision by a low-level official, not by reliance on poor storm forecasts.  So said NJ Gov. Chris Christie, as reported by Karen Rouse in The Record newspaper (Oct. 3), after Christie met with The Record’s board that day.  The low-level employee “ditched” a plan that was in place to protect hundreds of cars and locomotives, all without the knowledge of NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, according to the article’s account of Christie’s comments.

Christie said that the unnamed employee was disciplined internally and not fired; Christie said the employee cannot be fired, as he is protected by Civil Service rules.  However, NJT officials said that NJT is not within the Civil Service system and none of its employees fall under Civil Service rules.  NJT and State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson either had nothing to add or did not return messages on the subject.

The controversy expanded on October 5 as Rouse filed a follow-up article to the effect that NJT internal e-mails show that multiple NJT officials, including Executive Director Jim Weinstein, were well aware of the plans to move equipment to what turned out to be flood-prone areas.  Weinstein has not yet commented on the latest stories, but during the months after the Sandy disaster he has repeatedly stated that the ill-fated plan was unfortunate but deliberate.  This is in apparent conflict with the governor’s assertion at the October 3 meeting with The Record; Christie said “it was a low-level official that made the decision on the cars that you”re talking about, where they were placed. It was a low-level decision that was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain.”

The story continued to have legs; WNYC aired an interview with Ms. Rouse on Monday morning, October 7, in which she recapitulated the details of her investigation and said that NJT has not revealed much about a new storm plan that NJT has promised, other than construction of some new rail yards to store equipment during a future storm.  On October 8, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairperson of the Assembly Transportation Committee, was quoted on a WNYC newscast as announcing hearings to determine just who was responsible for the decision to store equipment in flood-prone areas.

It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf

NJT to Sandbag Critical Facilities

Exploring yet another technology to protect its Meadows Maintenance Facility rail yards in Kearny from possible flooding, NJ Transit has announced its latest effort: sandbags.  Not just any sandbags, these will be pentagon-shaped bags called “TrapBags,” sloped on angles to form a 6-foot-high protective dam around critical electrical facilities, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Sept. 13).  The dam will protect electrical substations and generators; they are a temporary measure while the electrical equipment is raised above anticipated flood levels, which will take 2 to 3 years to complete.  The half-million-dollar sandbag project involves 3100 linear feet of bags and a reported 43,000 tons of sand.  Still, the announcement of the project was another reminder that 87 rail cars and 17 locomotives damaged by flooding in Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, remain out of service.  Other initiatives by NJT to protect its equipment from future flooding include establishment of track sidings and new yards at flood-proof locations.

Reports: NJT Didn’t Follow Its Own Storm Plan during Sandy

Following the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Transit has put more emphasis on flood-proofing its storage yards.  However, investigative reporting by WNYC and Karen Rouse of the Bergen County Record shows that the agency already had a plan in place to move equipment to higher ground in the event of such a storm, but did not follow this plan during Sandy.

Prepared 4 months before Sandy struck, the storm plan advised transferring commuter rail equipment to several upland sites.  What NJT ended up doing as Sandy bore down was not advocated anywhere in its plan: the agency relocated locomotives and railcars to a low-lying yard near water, resulting in millions of dollars of damage.

By contrast, The Record reported, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) prepared, and followed, a more detailed storm-preparation plan, taking into account the effects of global warming.  The MTA moved much of its equipment to higher ground in advance of Sandy, and lost only 11 railcars as a result.

Media Questions NJT Sandy Response Anew

A month-long investigation by New York public radio station WNYC, New Jersey Public Radio, and The (Bergen) Record newspaper has resulted in extensive reporting questioning NJ Transit’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the region on October 29, 2012.  The report contrasts the extensive damage suffered by NJT in comparison with the generally minor damage to other transit systems and attributes the damage to NJT’s ignoring warnings both long before the storm and as the storm approached; bad decisions regarding storing equipment; and NJT’s response to a public-information request (nearly all of the reply was blacked out).  The report was previously available at http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/transportation-nation/2013/may/13/njtransit-sandy.

Author Kate Hinds was interviewed on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer talk show Monday morning, May 13.  The segment replayed NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein’s testimony on NJT’s Sandy response; Weinstein had said that the models that NJT used in forecasting hurricane damage predicted that the probability that the Meadows rail storage yard would not flood was 80–90%.  This sparked pointed comments from host Brian Lehrer, who noted that 10–20% damage probability of billions of dollars in assets should have sparked immediate defensive action; Lehrer asked if you would get on an airplane if there was “only” a 10% chance of a crash.  Hinds noted that other agencies, such as Metro-North Railroad, used the same computer software to estimate storm impact, but seemed to have prepared their strategies in advance and did not input possibly faulty data into the software.  A U.S. Weather Service expert was brought in; he commented that the numbers used to predict the course of the storm, including its course and forward speed, were completely wrong.  Hinds and Lehrer also discussed possible political impacts on NJT’s actions: Hinds noted that planning for environmental disaster might not be a wise course in an organization that works for N.J. Gov. Christie, who has slashed funding for environmental preparedness.  She also noted that the relationship between NJT Director Weinstein and his boss, NJ Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, was frosty: “They don’t get along at all.”  Finally, she noted that although Gov. Christie has been getting high marks for the overall New Jersey response to the storm, there has been little public discussion of the experience of NJ Transit, which is part of Gov. Christie’s responsibilities.

Following legal action by The Record, NJT did release part of their storm planning document.  Apparently it was a very slim plan, nothing like the more comprehensive plans created by other railroads, which had much better experiences when Sandy struck.