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New Jersey Lawmakers Criticize Amtrak Over NEC Power Failure

May 24, 2024

During Wednesday’s evening commute, a downed signal wire led to a loss of power along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) in the New York City region, halting service on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains between Penn Station and Newark, New Jersey, and stranding thousands of passengers trying to get make their way home.

The incident was one of sevaral NEC service disruptions to plague New York and New Jersey passengers this week, and New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy had harsh words for Amtrak, calling the power system failure an “unmitigated disaster.”

“As Governor of New Jersey, I refuse to accept these Amtrak infrastructure challenges as an inevitable part of operating integrated mass transit systems,” wrote Governor Murphy. “We can and must do better for our customers and constituents. Specifically, I believe Amtrak needs to make immediate short-term and long-term investments to address infrastructure vulnerabilities and updated emergency management plans to provide more robust alternate modes of transportation when equipment failure occurs.”

Amtrak hasn’t publicly discussed the sequence of events leading to the power outage, although Amtrak Executive Vice President Gery Williams did issue a statement saying the railroad will “implement any changes to avoid a similar incident like yesterday from happening again.” Still, it's not clear whether the blowout, caused when a signaling wire fell and struck a power cable, was caused by an acute failure in Amtrak procedures, or whether it should be blamed on the general state of disrepair that pervades much of the NEC.

Thanks to the surge in capital funding for passenger rail included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Amtrak is in the process of bringing its network into a state of good repair (see the following chart tracking capital expenditures, submitted by Amtrak to Congress as part of its Fiscal Year 2025 grant request). However, after 50-plus years of disinvestment, this work will take time to complete. In the meantime, these disruptions will continue to plague passengers.

Local lawmakers responded to the service meltdown by discussing the possibility of creating new mechanisms for providing oversight. New Jersey State Sen. Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson County) said he will introduce a bill to create an independent entity capable of serving as an official advocate for NJ Transit riders, reporting to the governor and state legislature.

"[The bill] would give them authority to actually conduct the investigation and the inquiries to do their job on behalf of commuters," Mukherji told CBS News New York.

It remains unclear how effective this kind of oversight will be in preventing future service failures that result from decades of underinvestment. However, a public accounting of these sorts of service outages would be welcome. Any bill would need to advance out of the budget committee before it can be considered by the full state legislature.