Last week I got to tag along on a tour for local leaders of the North River rail tunnel that runs beneath the Hudson River and the other pieces of infrastructure that would be modernized or replaced as part of the Gateway Program.
We had come to see for ourselves the decay that was threatening this aging single point of connection for the entire northeast region, an area responsible for 20% of our nation’s GDP.
Guided by staff from Amtrak, we boarded an observation car attached to the back of a regular Amtrak train that was carrying passengers. The car is fitted with a rear-facing plate glass window and spotlights, allowing us to watch miles of rail infrastructure unfurl as the train advanced.
This wasn’t quite as close up and personal as Governor Cuomo got on his recent trip. If you want the full haunted tour experience you can see a snippet of his tour here.
The Hudson River tunnel was built over 100 years ago, an impressive feat at the time that involved two crews of racially integrated workers digging towards each other from opposite sides of the river, and miraculously aligning their work to a fraction of an inch.
But the tunnel was built through the Hudson’s mud and silt bottom. Today it sits 20 feet down in silt. Water inexorably seeps in. Compounding that daily drip, the tunnel was badly flooded during Superstorm Sandy (an Amtrak engineering report from 2014 goes into spooky detail on the damage which continues to compound today).
As we sped by we could see the signs of tunnel’s concrete deteriorating on the ceiling and bench walls. As the concrete decays it exposes rebar in the ceiling, and when the rebar gets wet, it expands, further damaging the concrete. Not good.
What we couldn’t see is even more terrifying. Inside the tunnel there are high voltage cables insulated by paper soaked in oil. When water gets in it can cause a short, which can ignite the ancient oil soaked paper, causing a mini-explosion, tripping breakers on both sides of the river, and delaying scores of trains and tens of thousands of passengers.
Our trip also carried us over Portal Bridge, built in 1910, and also part of the Gateway Program. It was built as a swing bridge, to allow ships to pass. Today engineers perform nearly daily maintenance to keep it swinging. And sometimes, five times this year so far, it gets stuck in the open position.
When this happens it delays passengers up and down the Northeast Corridor, not to mention tens of thousands of local commuters. Governor Murphy has put forward the local funds to rebuild Portal Bridge as part of the Gateway Program but so far the feds haven’t step up with their portion of the funding.
About twenty minutes after we embarked, our train pulled into Newark’s Penn Station. We had traveled nine miles, through, across and past eight pieces of infrastructure that are crucial to our region’s economy, and badly in need of repair.
As I disembarked I realized that I would never see those first few minutes of my train ride from New York Penn Station the same way again. I, and the other local leaders on our tour left ready to redouble our support of the Gateway Program.