"So where we are right now is we're basically under the Palisades under New Jersey, we're under Weehawken, here in the area of the Weehawken shaft in the North River Tunnel. As you go East, the tunnel continues under the Hudson River and ultimately into Penn Station. we have a real problem, quite frankly, with water infiltration, one of the most problematic areas here, and that's what we're working to remediate right now."
"Once every three days on average over the past several years, we're seeing some kind of a delay here. Signal problems, track issues, switch issues. The infrastructure needs to be fixed and we need to address it."
"So this is an example of the kind of corrosion that we have here in the tunnel, right. So this was actually proactively chipped out. When we have water infiltration that comes in on the crown of the tunnel, it'll freeze, it'll become an icicle, and then those icicles will fall down onto the 12,000 volts of the catenary."
10. Tight of catenary wire
11. SOUNDBITE (English) Dave Pittman, Amtrak Director of Facilities and Tunnels
"It's old. Yeah, it's being used in ways and volumes that I don't think were ever intended."
12. SOUNDBITE (English) Dave Pittman, Amtrak Director of Facilities and Tunnels
"I'm Dave Pittman, I'm the director of facilities and tunnels for Amtrak."
13. Various of workers in tunnel
14. SOUNDBITE (English) Dave Pittman, Amtrak Director of Facilities and Tunnels
"We're at the point now where we're applying band-aids. We know that just as a nation, our assets were formed at a certain point where they're all kind of reaching end of life at the same time. We have a lot of century year old infrastructure, so it's all coming due."
15. SOUNDBITE (English) Dave Pittman, Amtrak Director of Facilities and Tunnels
"What do you say, write your local congressman? Yeah, we need to get on this because the entire... All 50 states are are behind on state of good repair for America's infrastructure."
"You know, I think there is a lot of optimism at Amtrak recognizing what a moment we have here, what an opportunity we have to really prioritize the kinds of investments that we need to make to bring our system up to the standards that you talk about elsewhere in the world, whether it's Europe or Asia. You know, there's no reason we can't have a rail system, rail network like that in this country. We just have to commit to doing it. You know?"
Seven stories below street level on the edge of the Hudson River, a race against time is being waged, foot by painstaking foot.
At stake is the health of a crucial component of the New York region's aging and overburdened mass transit ecosystem: the 110-year-old North River rail tunnel, site of teeth-gnashing train delays for tens of thousands of commuters and a source of disruptions that can spread from Boston to Washington, D.C.
With a new tunnel potentially a decade away due to a funding dispute with the Trump administration, Amtrak, which owns the existing tunnel, has embarked on an aggressive _ and expensive _ program to fix the most pressing problems before they become intractable and force an extended shutdown.
Officials have estimated the work in the roughly three-mile span could cost as much as $150 million or more.
In a region that features a Civil War-era rail tunnel in Baltimore and other examples of infrastructure built in the early 20th century, building a second tunnel into New York, now estimated at roughly $10 billion, is considered a top priority.
"We're at the point where we know, as a nation, that our assets were formed at a certain point to where they're all kind of reaching end-of-life at the same time," said David Pittman, Amtrak's director of facilities and tunnels. "So it's all coming due."
The challenge is multi-layered. The work, mostly protecting the tunnel from the destructive effects of water leaking in, requires the shutdown of one tube on weekends and must be finished before the Monday morning commute.
On a broader scale, it must keep the tunnel operating reliably for years until a new tunnel is built and the old one can be closed for a complete overhaul.
The signs of age are everywhere.
Three-foot-wide bench walls that jut out from the tunnel's pockmarked walls are the original 1910 concrete and are chipped and crumbling, with metal plates covering some of the worst spots. These are the only ways for workers to get down onto the tracks. Some of the wiring and other fixtures date back 80 years.
Inside the bench walls is a network of cables that includes the 12,000-volt lines that power the entire tunnel _ and that can bring trains to a standstill if they malfunction.
That has happened more frequently since Superstorm Sandy inundated the tunnel in 2012, as the normal incursion of groundwater into the tunnel now activates saltwater deposits that can eat away at the concrete.
A 2019 study found that on average, rail travelers between New Jersey and New York experienced delays of at least five hours more than once per month in the previous five years, and that about three-quarters of the delays were caused by problems in the tunnel.
Against that backdrop, and as the funding dispute for a new tunnel dragged on, Amtrak commissioned a study last year to take a detailed look at problem spots in the existing tunnel and and what could be done immediately to mitigate them, beyond regular ongoing maintenance work.
The results were on display on a recent Saturday morning, as a jackhammer slowly broke up and moved chunks of the tunnel floor after rails, wooden ties and ballast _ the rocks on which the rails and ties rest _ had been removed. This was to help create an unobstructed path for a small pond's worth of standing water to be pumped out of the tunnel using additional pumps installed recently, prompted by the study's recommendations.
The standing water can degrade rails, ties and ballast and also wreak havoc on the tunnel's electrical systems, Pittman said, by creating a separate electrical path that saps power from the tunnel's third rail or sending a false signal that a train is on the tracks.
On this weekend, about 400 feet of track and 360 tons of ballast would be removed and replaced, and millions of gallons of water pumped out, in little more than 48 hours.
Over four weekends, about one-third of a mile of track has been earmarked for replacement. Crews also are injecting a special grout into the tunnel's side walls and ceiling that expands to provide a sealant.
Supporters of the project to build a new tunnel are optimistic that the funding logjam can be loosened under President Joe Biden, a longtime Amtrak rider and supporter of public transit.
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