News from New York.
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Report: NYC train tunnels at risk
Publication date: 2000-12-10
NEW YORK, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- As the Big Apple prepares to put an $800 million
polish on Penn Station and the Manhattan Post Office, a soon-to-be-released
federal inspector general's report indicates that the subway system's
tunnels are rotting at the core, putting the city's 300,000 passengers a day
"It is not that they haven't done anything to address the pressing life and
safety needs in the tunnels, but they still have three-fourths of the work
to do and there is no money identified to do it," Mark R. Dayton, director
of rail programs for the inspector general, told The New York Times. "You
would hate to be the person in charge if there were a fire and we knew all
along it could happen and we didn't do everything possible to identify the
funding to move forward."
New York City officials are preparing to lay the cornerstone for the Penn
Station expansion and renovated post office next month, but only a small
portion of the $800 million earmarked for the project is devoted for fire
and safety projects for 16 miles of aging tunnels.
More than 750 trains carrying 300,000 passengers use the 90-year-old tunnels
every day. However, if a fire occurred in a tunnel, emergency access is
through 2-foot-wide spiral staircases, some of which are ten flights high,
according to the federal transportation inspectors' report.
"The staircases are so inadequate that firefighters and paramedics would be
unable to enter the tunnels at the same time passengers were being
evacuated," the report said.
In addition, none of the tunnels have modern ventilation systems that would
simultaneously remove smoke and pump in fresh air and the tunnels have only
limited water standpipe connections for fire suppression. Transportation
officials said the ventilation system was designed for ridership 90 years
ago, which was a fraction of what it is today.
Amtrak, the federally subsidized railroad that owns Penn Station, said that
its operations in the tunnels were safe, noting that there have been no
major incidents, The Times reports.
But Amtrak acknowledged that the problems were critical and that "more needs
to be done as quickly as possible," according to correspondence between
George D. Warrington, the president of Amtrak, and a congressional
subcommittee that ordered the inspector general of the Department of
Transportation to prepare the report on the tunnels.
Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, who is chairman of the House
appropriations subcommittee on transportation, is concerned that safety is
taking a back seat to the renovations of the station and post office.
"It is like saying we have flooding in the basement and wiring that might
make a fire, yet we are decorating and putting hardwood floors in the living
room," Wolf told The Times. "These are not separate issues. If the fire
starts in the basement, it is going to burn your new floors."
An Amtrak consultant said the railroad had begun designing ventilation
systems and access shafts, but building them is costly. For example, a
proposed ventilation shaft at First Avenue and 33rd Street, one of three
under design, would cost $109 million, according to the consultant.
Amtrak's entire fire and safety budget for next year is $31 million.
The three railroads that share the city tunnels: Amtrak, the Long Island
Rail Road, and the New Jersey Transit, have spent about $160 million on
underground safety improvements over the past 25 years.
However, the ventilation systems and escape routes have been repeatedly
delayed because they are so expensive. About $654 million is needed for fire
and smoke control systems, ventilation, communications, and access shafts
into the tunnels, according to federal transportation officials.
Based on current financing levels at Amtrak, the officials said, it will
take until 2014 to complete the work, at least nine years after the new
train station is projected to open.
"If you had a serious tunnel fire, the existing systems they have for
evacuation aren't ones you or I would like to contend with," Kenneth M.
Mead, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, testified in
March at a hearing on Amtrak's finances before Wolf's congressional
According to some transportation analysts, Amtrak has been reluctant to push
for the funding for safety projects in Washington because there are many in
Congress who have wanted to end or reduce federal subsidies to the railroad.
Amtrak made a promise to Congress to become operationally self-sufficient by
"Fiscal Year 1999 was a record-breaking year for Amtrak. The corporation's
revenue reached an all-time high of $1.84 billion," Tommy G. Thompson,
chairman of the Amtrak Reform Board told Congress in March. "Revenue growth
helped Amtrak exceed the bottom-line target set in the corporation's
business plan for the second straight year, this year by $8 million, keeping
us not only on track, but ahead of plan, to achieve operational
self-sufficiency by 2003. And total ridership exceeded 21 million in 1999."
Copyright 2000 by United Press International.
Publication date: 2000-12-10
© 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.