TRENTON — The Morris & Essex line will bear the biggest brunt of the summer project at Penn Station New York, with reductions in both service and fares.

Gov. Chris Christie talks about the impact of Amtrak's Penn Station project on NJ Transit (Michael Symons, Townsquare Media NJ)

In a Statehouse announcement, Gov. Chris Christie said the repair work will effect "significantly" the Morris & Essex line, which will be diverted to Hoboken.

NJ Transit will release modified schedules the first week of June, according to Christie. The schedules will include enhanced ferry, light rail and bus service from Hoboken into New York.

Christie said NJ Transit will cross honor tickets all summer with ferries, PATH and NJ Transit and private carriers.

Fares will be reduced by 56 to 63 percent during the period of time when repairs are ongoing.

“People are going to be frustrated. What I hope they understand is we’re acknowledging that there’s a problem here and that they shouldn’t be paying the same amount of money for service that’s less," he said.

"I have no words. How miserable," South Orange commuter Michael Kasdan said, and will try to work from home as much as possible. He is also concerned about the effect the plan will have on property values. "This put a pall on our towns," Kasdan said.

Rider Justin Lew Block of Maplewood said he is glad only one line will be affected, "I am also angry that's the exact line I take to the city." He said he thought the delays would be spread out among all the lines. "Getting a discount in place of service just leaves me feeling hollow" and would like a better explanation at how details of the plan were reached.

Christie said three-quarters of NJ Transit riders, including those on the Northeast Corridor line, will not be affected by reductions in service and will have no schedule changes.

Christie said there will "obviously will be some delays in those trains based upon the work that’s being done on those other tracks." But he said there won't be diversions on other lines comperable to the ones on the Morris & Essex train.

"I am not happy about any of this. But the fact of the matter is that we're either going to make these repairs now or we're going to make them later. But the repairs need to be made," Christie said.

Amtrak shut down track 10 Tuesday morning, saying repairs were needed after an overnight inspection. Spokesman Mike Tolbert had said the repairs were made as soon as the need was identified, as with other repairs made during an ongoing spring track project.

At the press conference, Christie called Amtrak's honesty into question and called the closure of track 10 "sophomoric." He said Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman assured him a similar track closure would not happen again.

Citing a report by ABC 7 Eyewitness News in which an Amtrak engineer and a former conductor claimed the railroad ignored their warnings about tracks, Christie said "We know we can't trust Amtrak, and despite any agreement we reach with them we will need to be remain diligent and continue our demand that a private operator take over Amtrak."

Other concessions Christie said Amtrak agreed to include:

  • Daily updates from Amtrak on the progress of repairs in order to better communicate with customers
  • A new joint operations center to provide real-time information for riders
  • NJ Transit representatives will provide field reviews for the first time instead of depending on Amtrak

In a statement, Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman said Amtrak is determined to meet its own deadline to get most of the work done this summer. He announced Amtrak will hire the national infrastructure solutions firm HNTB Corporation to supplement the Penn Station project management and technical services for the track renewal work.

“We are going to do all we can to get this work done quickly and to minimize disruptions to passengers," Mooman said.

Amtrak also plans to increase its maintenance workforce and station staff, and strengthen operational coordination between the three railroads at Penn Station to increase preparedness and response capability during the summer work period, he said.

Christie said he is "heartened" by the decision to hire the HNTB, but said he still believes hiring a private company to manage Penn Station is the best way to go.

A final plan has not yet been released to the public.

New Jersey Commuters Action Network founder Michael Phelan was not impressed with Christie's announcement.

"Citing examples from last night's ABC News piece is laughable when NJ Transit has likely been well aware of the aging infrastructure within Penn and along the rest of the system," Phelan said. "Presumably the governor has been made aware of Penn Station and Amtrak's aging, failing infrastructure before this week, at the least as early as post-Katrina surveys of Penn.

"Frankly, despite what he said in today's statement, the paramount concern of this governor has never been 'the safety and reliability for NJ Transit customers.' There are literally no examples from last 7+ years where the governor's actions demonstrated such an urgency on behalf of NJTransit riders."

He questioned what measures would help make up for the losses of revenue NJ Transit would face during fare reductions. Christie estimated the loses at about $15 million, depending on summer passenger demand.

"It's easy for him to reduce fares on those lines in the final months of his term, but riders and taxpayers would also like to see him work to shore up the finances of the agency which he has long neglected and made a component in his budget shell games in recent years," Phelan said.

He called the plan to reduce fares and cross honoring appreciated, but a "no-brainer" after the problems of the past several weeks.

North Jersey Coast Line rider Carl Schellenberger said the Northeast Corridor and NJCL have had the most problems recently, but "only Morris/Essex gets (fare) relief."

Amtrak's preliminary plan called for a quarter of service at Penn Station to be curtailed during two multi-week periods in July and August during its Infrastructure Renewal Program, which compresses a year's worth of work into three months.

Christie said during Monday night's installment of "Ask the Governor" on New Jersey 101.5 that NJ Transit is still withholding payment from Amtrak, which operates and maintains Penn Station.

Some New York State legislators are proposing a bill that would withhold payment to Amtrak from the Long Island Railroad and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority through 2017 until 95 percent of trains using the station are running on time for at least one month.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.

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