Charles W. Moorman, the co-chief executive, said in an interview that he was not aware of any upkeep postponed at the station, though he acknowledged it could have happened before he arrived at Amtrak a year ago. He cautioned that managers who pushed for certain repairs or improvements to get priority might not have known about all the other issues that were considered more pressing. “I would not let anything ever be deferred in terms of maintenance that I thought would then create any kind of safety problem or operating problem,” Mr. Moorman said.
But, he added, Amtrak had long regarded disrupting weekday service as anathema, and that practice hampered its ability to carry out station improvement projects. “We just got to a point this year,” he said, referring to the summer shutdown of multiple tracks, where Amtrak “needed to accelerate the work inside the station, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Amtrak executives said that the summer repairs were a success — accomplishing in weeks what otherwise might have taken months or years — and hinted that the railroad might try that method again.
After full service at Penn Station was restored early last month, the chairman of Amtrak, Anthony R. Coscia, said a backlog of repairs might mean future shutdowns and disruptions. “We’ve got a lot more work to do, and there’s a lot to catch up on,” he said at a business gathering. “The work we’ve done is hardly the cure for everything that ails Penn Station.”
But the railroad will still have to balance competing demands. Because only a limited number of tracks can be taken out of service at once in Penn Station, any priority given to one project affects what can be accomplished on another.
Amtrak, which owns the station and leases space to other transit operators, regularly granted priority shutdown time in recent years for work on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $10.1 billion effort to connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal — a project that would ease the burden on Penn’s tracks. Amtrak also gave track time to Brookfield Properties, a private development company, as it erected a high rise.
On the west side of the station, the largest amount of shutdown time went to the conversion of the James A. Farley Post Office Building, near Penn, into the Moynihan Station passenger hall.
Contractors for the project were not working on the tracks themselves, but rails had to be taken out of service as they reinforced columns and girders for a new concourse and completed other tasks over or near the tracks. The project received about 2,200 weekend hours of track time affecting that area, a thicket of intensely used rails, from December 2013 to March 2017, according to a Times analysis of previously undisclosed Amtrak records. Amtrak’s crews got about 1,800 weekend hours.
Experts say the heavy repair jobs that keep a complex station operating smoothly require longer shutdowns — 24 to 55 hours during which crews of up to 20 work continuously. In the past three years, Amtrak got half as many of those work periods as the hall renovation did.
An Amtrak spokeswoman, Christina Leeds, said that the amount of track time given to the Moynihan project did not prevent Amtrak from working on Penn Station’s west side and that the railroad chose to focus instead on repairing other areas of the station.
At the same time, wooden ties at two key intersections on the station’s west side were becoming weaker. On April 3, one set of ties gave way under New Jersey Transit No. 3926, sending three 130,000-pound cars hurtling off the tracks, injuring three people and causing nearly $1 million in damage. The timbers that caused the accident had been flagged for replacement in September last year, Amtrak acknowledged. Ms. Leeds said Amtrak workers installed plates and fasteners — short-term fixes — to shore up the tracks, but did not anticipate that the ties would fail so soon.
On July 6, another set of ties broke under New Jersey Transit No. 3276, just north of where the April derailment occurred, disrupting traffic yet again and cementing the impression among commuters that Penn Station was falling apart. Records show that in November 2016, Amtrak had known that the steel and timbers in the intersection were worn and had planned to begin replacing the intersection on July 14 — eight days after the accident.
Representatives of the Moynihan renovation blamed Amtrak for not keeping up with maintenance.
“As Amtrak owns Penn Station, they are solely responsible for its tracks and platforms — and the failure to complete necessary and critical work is the symptom of decades of underinvestment and neglect, not the result of any one project,” said Amy Varghese, spokeswoman for Empire State Development, which is overseeing the Moynihan project.
‘Like No Other Place’
Penn Station is notoriously difficult to maintain. “It is like no other place I have ever seen,” said Mr. Moorman, the Amtrak co-chief executive. “It is the most complex and difficult place to work that you can imagine.”
Clearances are minimal around the 107-year-old track system, making it a challenge to replace worn timbers and steel. Some of the switches that route trains from one set of tracks to another must be custom made, taking a year or more. And the number of New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak riders who pass through Penn Station each weekday — more than 600,000 on about 1,300 trains — is triple the number it was designed for.
No part of Penn Station is harder to maintain than the snarl of tracks between the Hudson River tunnel and the station’s 11 platforms, an area known as Interlocking A. With a series of switches that guide trains between the station and New Jersey, the area is “basically a track maintainer’s job security or nightmare, depending on how you look at it,” said David B. Clarke, a veteran rail engineer who runs the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee.
After Joseph H. Boardman took over as Amtrak president in 2008, three derailments in Interlocking A and delays caused by other infrastructure failures led him to institute a program aimed at preventing future accidents. Beginning in 2014, workers cataloged the locations and replacement dates of hundreds of track parts in Penn Station and identified jobs that needed to be done, according to records and interviews.
“I didn’t want any defect that could derail a train,” Mr. Boardman said.
Crews had begun working through the list by the time he retired in September 2016, but had yet to replace major sections of track in Interlocking A.
The work would require four huge chunks of intersecting tracks to be removed and their replacements to be assembled outside the station, hauled in and installed using heavy machinery. The work would take much longer than the typical Amtrak repair job, but it was much needed, maintenance officials said. The engineering department planned to begin the work in January this year.
As contractors were finishing a new concourse in the former post office’s basement, Mr. Cuomo was intent on moving ahead with the project’s next phase: transforming the main level into a shop-filled atrium for riders of Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road.
Ms. Leeds, the Amtrak spokeswoman, said the Moynihan project was also important to Amtrak. “Our responsibility — after ensuring safety — is to do more than simply renew our assets; it is also to improve them,” she said. “And that the experience at Penn Station must be improved is one of the few universally held opinions of all New Yorkers.”
Mr. Boardman, who signed the original agreement prioritizing the renovation, said Amtrak officials had gone along with the project over the years but were “never that excited about it.”
He said he agreed to the work because it was pushed by the federal Department of Transportation under the Obama administration. Amtrak, with its quasi-public status and reliance on congressional appropriations, must remain attuned to politics, he said. “We understood we were beholden to everybody as Amtrak: the states, the federal government. If we didn’t work with them, we wouldn’t get the support we needed.”
In recent years, a high priority for Amtrak has been finding funding for the Gateway program — an infrastructure plan that would add a Hudson River tunnel into Penn Station and cost tens of billions of dollars — and the railroad has sought to enlist Mr. Cuomo’s help in securing the money. (The governor met with President Trump last month to push for the project and afterward described the session as “productive” but “inconclusive.”)
The first of the four major replacement jobs in Interlocking A wrapped up in late February. Before crews could begin on the second, Amtrak executives told them the work might have to wait. Managers overseeing the Moynihan project had asked for a significant amount of priority track time, the executives said, and Amtrak was thinking about giving it to them.
Amtrak’s engineering managers bridled, according to Mr. Holt and other former employees. The chief engineer, Rodrigo Bitar, argued with officials and vented his frustrations to his staff, Mr. Holt said. Mr. Bitar, who resigned in June, declined to comment.
In March, Mr. Keefe, the head of the track department, voiced his concerns to executives.
Mr. Moorman said no final decision had been made about delaying the track work for Moynihan before the derailments started on March 24. But he acknowledged the tensions with the engineering department. “I think they were concerned that at some point it would impede their ability to do safety-critical work,” Mr. Moorman said of the Moynihan project. “Which turned out not to be the case, but I think that was their concern, and a legitimate concern.”
It was a worry born of frustration, Mr. Holt said. “You can go back years and say the track department didn’t get what it needs to keep things up to snuff,” he said.
Competition for track time at Penn was sometimes so fierce it devolved into shouting matches, according to former employees who regularly attended weekly scheduling meetings. Engineering supervisors jockeyed for time for electrical, signal and track repairs, while also competing with contractors seeking time for development projects.
The officials who schedule trains are supposed to make the final decision. But sometimes the outcome is decided by a call from Washington. Scot Naparstek, Amtrak’s chief operating officer, said it was not unusual for managers of different projects to call Amtrak’s headquarters and plead their cases with him or other top executives. Representatives of the Moynihan project said that Amtrak executives rarely objected when pressed for more track time. Ms. Leeds said Amtrak “aggressively pushed back” on requests that the railroad considered unreasonable.
“Everybody believes that their project is priority,” Mr. Naparstek said. “Our goal is to try to do our best to satisfy everybody. In the end, we’re balancing.”
By January, the engineering department had scheduled station maintenance around the Moynihan project on 116 weeks. A Times analysis of weekend track usage records from the past three years showed that Moynihan contractors got about 400 more hours on the west side of the station than Amtrak engineering crews did. Contractors also did work affecting Interlocking A on at least 27 occasions when Amtrak did no work there at all.
During that time, records show, some maintenance tasks were not completed in the area until long after they were first identified. One document from February 2016 listed steel parts that were years past their initial replacement dates. Two were assessed as 5s on an Amtrak rating system described in internal engineering documents, meaning that they were in critical condition and at “risk of imminent failure.” Ten were assessed as 4s, meaning that they were in poor condition.
Ms. Leeds said inspectors often examine such parts and decide they are less worn than was expected, so their use is extended.
Early last year, after planned work on a complicated switch in Interlocking A was delayed, a manager in the track department, Tim Cochran, expressed frustration to Mr. Keefe and others. “If we don’t start getting work done in the station, we’re going to wreck,” he said, two people in the meeting recalled. Mr. Cochran, who left Amtrak this year, declined to comment.
Ms. Leeds acknowledged that contractors spent many hours working on the Moynihan project but added that the engineering department had other priorities than working in Interlocking A in recent years, such as fixing the East River tunnels that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Citing the derailments caused by broken tracks, Augustine F. Ubaldi, a railroad engineering expert who began his career inspecting Penn Station for the Penn Central railroad in the 1970s, said it was clear that Amtrak did not spend enough time working in Interlocking A. “There’s no way to deny that,” he said.
Amtrak wrapped up the emergency repairs to Penn Station on Sept. 5, but much work remains to be done, and the pressure to share time and work space is not going away. As the Moynihan project enters its second phase, maintenance crews at the transit hub will have to schedule work around it for at least the next two years.
Ms. Leeds, the Amtrak spokeswoman, said that the railroad was planning its repair work through next year and that it hoped to accomplish most of it during weekend shutdowns. Still, Amtrak executives have said that they would close tracks during the week as needed. “Amtrak will assume a much greater aggressive posture to address critical reliability issues at Penn Station at all times,” Ms. Leeds said.
Looking back, Mr. Boardman, the former Amtrak president, said the railroad probably tried to do too much at once inside Penn Station, juggling multiple development projects and the railroad’s repair work.
“Would we have prioritized it differently?” he asked. “Well, we would have.”
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