Penn Station repairs: 3 tracks to be closed

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An Amtrak signal maintainer applies a railhead bond on Track 7 in New York Penn Station. (Amtrak)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Three tracks at a time will be closed at Penn Station as part of extensive repair work there that is expected to inconvenience thousands of rail commuters this summer, an Amtrak official said Thursday.

Michael DeCataldo, the national passenger railroad's vice president of operations, offered details on the repair work, which Amtrak announced last month after two derailments and other major service disruptions highlighted the station's aging infrastructure.

It isn't known yet how train schedules will be affected since final details haven't been released. Amtrak has been negotiating with the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit, which combine to carry hundreds of thousands of people into and out of the station, the nation's busiest, each weekday.

This week, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a plan to divert some of NJ Transit's lines to Hoboken, while Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has predicted a "summer of hell" for commuters.

The bulk of the work will focus on an area just west of the passenger platforms known as A Interlocking, a crisscrossing series of tracks where trains emerge from a tunnel under the Hudson River. It's the spot where dispatchers route trains to the station's 21 tracks via switches, essentially movable pieces of rail.

Penn Station handles about 1,300 train movements per weekday, twice what it did in the 1970s, according to Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman.

Both recent derailments, one on March 24 and another on April 3, occurred in that general area, though they were unrelated and caused by different factors, Amtrak officials have said. The April derailment, caused by aging wooden cross-ties underneath the rails, knocked out eight of the station's 21 tracks for several days, causing extensive service disruptions.

Three tracks will be taken out of service at a time because two are needed for staging and removing old equipment while work proceeds on a third track, DeCataldo said Thursday. He added that the replacement of track switches will have a greater effect on service because it limits dispatchers' flexibility in routing trains.

Christie has been particularly harsh in his recent criticism of Amtrak, saying this week that the railroad couldn't be trusted because of its "duplicity, dishonesty and their inability to keep infrastructure in a state of good repair."

The replacement of aging tracks and other equipment, much of which dates to the 1970s, initially was scheduled to be completed over a two- or three-year period, mainly on nights and weekends. But the recent problems prompted Amtrak to condense the process to include weekdays.

A preliminary plan obtained by The Associated Press this month called for weekday work to be performed during six weeks spread across July and August.

"We are very confident in our time frame," DeCataldo said Thursday. "We recognize how much of an inconvenience this is going to be and wish there was another way we could do it, but the reality is this work has to be done. The idea of doing this in a compressed time frame is that we'll get it done much more quickly."