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Busiest transit hub in U.S. rocked by delays as infrastructure breakdowns hit during heat wave

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Busiest transit hub in U.S. rocked by delays as infrastructure breakdowns hit during heat wave

Extreme heat coupled with strained infrastructure, malfunctions and mechanical problems on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit brought agony and massive delays for tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Northeast this week.

Rail service between New Jersey and New York’s Penn Station was suspended Thursday before the evening commute and again on Friday morning, with New Jersey Transit citing “AMTRAK overhead wire issues.”

While the root cause of the disruptions is still being investigated, they hit during some of the hottest days of the year so far, lengthening commutes amid an early-summer heat wave.

“Unfortunately, a unique combination of events recently caused major delays in the New York area, affecting travel along a significant section of the Northeast Corridor,” Amtrak President Roger Harris said in a statement Friday.

Harris added that on Thursday, a circuit breaker that powers the trains “experienced a catastrophic failure on one of the hottest days of the year and a serious brush fire also came close to our tracks.”

He said Amtrak is also working with New Jersey Transit “to understand and address recent disruptions associated with NJT trains operating on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure, which appears unique to the equipment and area.”

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains share one century-old tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey. It is the only passenger rail connection between Manhattan and the rest of the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

Extreme heat straining infrastructure

While no single cause has been identified for this week’s transit disruptions, rail experts noted that extreme heat has the potential to strain infrastructure.

Many trains use one long, welded piece of metal called a “continuous weld” to function, and when temperatures rise, it expands, creating stress and forcing the rail to buckle, said Curtis Morgan, the freight and trade division head and a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“It can cause a derailment,” he said. “Because of the additional stress on the rail, the trains are ordered to go at a slower speed.”

This week, Amtrak warned that high temperatures throughout the region forced some trains to move at slower speeds, resulting in hourlong delays.

Most Amtrak trains operate between 125 and 155 mph, but when temperatures near triple digits, trains are slowed to between 80 and 100 mph, said Gerhard Williams, executive vice president of service delivery and operations at Amtrak, adding that the extreme heat played a small role in train disruptions this week.

New York City is under a heat advisory until Sunday night, with the heat index at times reaching near triple digits, according to the National Weather Service.

Clinton J. Andrews, the director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University and an expert in engineering, urban planning and climate change mitigation, said the summer months will add pressure to rail infrastructure.

“Summer heat, like any extreme weather, tests our infrastructure systems, as well as our bodies. In the case of mass transit, especially fixed-rail transit, there are particular concerns,” Andrews said. “The first is that both the tracks, which are made of steel, and the catenary wires, which provide power to electric trains, tend to expand during a heat wave.”

Most of this week’s delays and cancellations in the New York City metropolitan area were caused by power and overhead wire issues, a malfunctioning circuit breaker and a disabled train at Penn Station, transit officials said.

Mona Hemmati, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University who specializes in climate physics, said the public can expect future delays and cancellations in mass transit based on extreme weather caused by climate change.

“It’s important to understand that high temperatures increase the risk of derailment. You have to consider the impact of high temperatures on steel, catenary wires and so on,” she said, referring to wires that provide power to electric trains.

“We are seeing more heat waves because of climate change, rising temperatures and the warming atmosphere. We should anticipate more prolonged periods of extreme heat,” she added.

New Jersey Transit didn’t comment on weather-related delays but said in a statement Friday that the impact its service had on customers this week was “unacceptable.”

“We are as frustrated as our customers,” it said.

New Jersey Transit operates 700 trains each weekday along hundreds of miles between Philadelphia and New Haven, Connecticut, but the large majority of disruptions occurred between New Jersey and New York.

Commuters frustrated

Many commuters who struggled this week said they hope the situation improves soon.

“I used NJT three times this week, and every single time I got screwed. I wrote a play, and I was almost two hours late for rehearsal on Tuesday,” said Roma Torre, a New Jersey resident and former anchor at local news channel NY1, who regularly rides the New Jersey Transit system. “The problem is shoddy service, though I fully understand we have infrastructure problems.”

Tina Palazzo, a lawyer who commutes to Manhattan via New Jersey Transit, said, “I’ve had issues every day this week. It took me more than three hours to get home yesterday, when normally I have an hour commute.”

Palazzo, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, said she took Tuesday off from work to make sure she wouldn’t miss her son’s high school graduation.

“It’s horrific, and communication is nonexistent,” she said of her commute this week.

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