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New Jersey railway put trains in flood zone despite warnings

NEW YORK -- New Jersey Transit's struggle to recover from Superstorm Sandy is being compounded by a pre-storm decision to park much of its equipment in two rail yards that forecasters predicted would flood, a move that resulted in damage to one-third of its locomotives and a quarter of its passenger cars.

That damage is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars and take many months to repair, a Reuters examination has found.

The Garden State's commuter railway parked critical equipment — including much of its newest and most expensive stock — at its low-lying main rail yard in Kearny just before the hurricane. It did so even though forecasters had released maps showing the wetland-surrounded area likely would be under water when Sandy's expected record storm surge hit. Other equipment was parked at its Hoboken terminal and rail yard, where flooding also was predicted and which has flooded before.

Among the damaged equipment: nine dual-powered locomotive engines and 84 multilevel rail cars purchased over the past six years at a cost of about US$385 million.

“If there's a predicted 13-foot or 10-foot storm surge, you don't leave your equipment in a low-lying area,” said David Schanoes, a railroad consultant and former deputy chief of field operations for Metro North Railroad, a sister railway serving New York State. “It's just basic railroading. You don't leave your equipment where it can be damaged.”

After Reuters made numerous inquiries to state and local officials this week about the decision to store equipment in the yards, an unidentified senior transportation official told the New York Post that NJ Transit had launched an internal probe, the Post reported on Saturday.

NJ Transit Chairman James S. Simpson, the state's transportation commissioner, told Reuters on Saturday he knew of no such investigation. NJ Transit spokesman John Durso said the agency had not launched a probe but would examine its response to the storm, as “is standard procedure following any major incident.”

The Post said it stood by its story.

As of Friday, almost three weeks after the storm, the agency was still struggling to restore full service for its 136,000 daily rail commuters, running just 37 trains into New York Penn Station during the morning rush hour, rather than its usual 63. More service will be restored on Monday. The disruptions have caused long delays and crowded trains for Jersey residents who work in the biggest U.S. city.

James Weinstein, NJ Transit's executive director, said he did not expect the loss of equipment to have a significant effect on service in the coming weeks and months.

Sandy was a storm of rare ferocity, and some damage was inevitable. High winds and a crushing storm surge damaged every conceivable element of the rail system.

The massive, slow-moving storm, which came ashore near Atlantic City, sent boats crashing into a key rail bridge and gigantic trees toppling onto wires and tracks. A rush of seawater washed out miles of coastline track and a switch that directs some of NJ Transit's most heavily traveled rail lines into New York City.

Floodwaters zapped the computer system that guides trains and alerts passengers; damaged a substation that powers much of the agency's main artery into the city; coursed into one of the two tunnels that funnel its trains under the Hudson River; and left a major hub in Hoboken under nine feet of water and five feet of mud.

Still, some of the damage could have been avoided with better planning, railroad experts say.

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