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Exclusive: New Jersey railway put trains in Sandy flood zone despite warnings

By Janet Roberts and Ryan McNeill and Robin Respaut

NEW YORK (Reuters) - 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 multi-level rail cars purchased over the past six years at a cost of about $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.

YARD IN A SWAMPY CROOK

Most of the avoidable damage came at NJ Transit's Meadows Maintenance Complex, a sprawling 78-acre network of tracks and buildings in an industrial area of Kearny that is surrounded by wetlands. The complex is the primary maintenance center for the agency's locomotives and rail cars, with both outdoor and indoor equipment storage; repair, servicing, cleaning, inspection and training facilities; and the agency's rail operations center, which houses computers involved in the movement of trains and communication with passengers.

The yard sits in the swampy crook where the Passaic and Hackensack rivers come together. Elevation maps show that it lies between 0 and 19 feet above sea level. The National Hurricane Center was predicting a storm surge of 6 to 11 feet along the New Jersey and New York coast on top of an unusual tide that already had the rivers running high.

Forecasts were that the storm would make landfall on Monday, October 29, somewhere along the New Jersey or New York coast. On Friday, October 26, executives from the New York City subway system and all of the region's commuter rail systems - NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Railroad - decided they would halt all service Sunday night.

NJ Transit's last trains left their originating stations at 11 p.m. on Sunday, and workers spent the next 12 hours securing equipment, said Weinstein.

At NJ Transit's emergency command center, reports streamed in from the governor's command center in Trenton, county emergency management officials and the National Weather Service, which provided frequent updates on the storm's progress. Monitoring those reports and advising the agency on what to expect from the storm was NJ Transit Police Capt. Robert Noble, who is well-versed and trained in monitoring storms, Weinstein said.

Noble said he monitored weather reports for all of the agency's bus lots and rail yards statewide. Flooding was predicted for virtually every corner of the system, he said.

"Based upon the information we had at that hour, the complex was not the highest-threat location that we had," he said.

Yet a Reuters review of information disseminated before the storm found detailed maps issued by the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, all warning that both the rail hub in Hoboken and the Meadows complex in Kearny would flood. Asked if NJ Transit executives saw those maps and factored the predictions into their decision-making, Weinstein said the agency considered the storm surge predictions but also relied on history and experience.

FORECASTS PROVED HIGHLY ACCURATE

The agency has been operating its Meadows complex since the 1980s, and it had never flooded, not even during Hurricane Floyd, which caused record flooding in New Jersey in 1999, said Kevin O'Connor, vice president and general manager of rail operations. Several former NJ Transit employees who worked there for decades said they could not recall any time it had flooded.

A map of the storm surge from Hurricane Irene in August 2011, prepared by the FEMA, shows water came within about 400 yards of the rail complex. O'Connor said employees had trouble getting to the complex during that storm because surrounding roads had flooded, but the water never encroached on the rail yard.

"Our experience and all of the information we had led us to conclude that our equipment was in the safest possible place," Weinstein said. "There was no reason for us to think that the kind of flooding that we actually experienced would happen there."

But this time, the weather forecasters proved right, and history proved wrong. Maps of the forecasters' predictions, compared with those of the actual storm surge, show the computer models were remarkably accurate. Tides added another 4.5 feet of water to the storm surge in the area, said Philip Orton, research scientist in physical oceanography and specialist in storm surges at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Given the value of the equipment stored at the Meadows yard during the storm, it is hard to imagine why NJ Transit executives gambled that history would repeat itself, said Alain Kornhauser, director of the Transportation Research Center at Princeton University.

Weinstein said he could not yet put a dollar amount on the damage. A Reuters review of Board of Directors meeting minutes and news accounts describing equipment purchases found the damaged locomotives and passenger cars worth about $900 million.

Kornhauser was especially critical that nine new dual-motor engines, which together cost more than $107 million, had been left in an area predicted to flood. Even if the risk of flooding had been infinitesimal, he said, the agency's newest, most expensive equipment should have been moved to higher ground.

"What do you do with your personal valuable assets when you hear a hurricane is coming?" he said. "You put them in your pocket and get out of there, don't you? You don't need to be a rocket scientist for that one, do you?"

NJ Transit's sister railroads in New York did move their rolling stock to higher ground on the Sunday night before the storm.

After consulting "slosh maps," which predicted which areas would flood, Long Island Rail Road moved hundreds of train engines and cars from its huge Westside Yard just west of Penn Station in New York City and other low-lying yards scattered across its system, said Joe Calderone, the railroad's vice president of public affairs. Much of the equipment was moved to a large rail yard at Jamaica, Queens. What wouldn't fit in yards deemed safe from flooding was parked on the main line and other high-elevation tracks.

No LIRR locomotives or rail cars were damaged, Calderone said.

None of New York City's subway cars were damaged during Sandy. The yards at Coney Island, the largest yard in the system, and the Rockaways were emptied before the storm, with equipment moved to other yards or parked on lines not vulnerable to flooding, spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.

Metro North was so concerned about the potential storm surge on the Hudson River that it asked National Weather Service forecasters to run computer models to predict whether certain yards would flood. Railroad executives then used those predictions to decide where to move equipment, said Howard Permut, the railroad's president.

"We had direct conversations with some of the forecasters themselves," he said. "They ran a bunch of models for that."

Some stock was exposed nevertheless. North of New York City, in Croton-on-Hudson, the storm surge from the Hudson River flooded Metro North's Harmon rail yard. There, workers had moved equipment to the northernmost point of the yard in an effort to keep it dry, said spokeswoman Marjorie Anders. Still, two locomotives and 11 passenger cars were damaged, she said.

SALTWATER, 5 FEET DEEP

NJ Transit's Meadows yard was particularly vulnerable. The National Hurricane Center's models from 7 a.m. on the Saturday before the storm predicted water would lap at its edge. By 7 p.m. Sunday, some models predicted most of the yard would flood. That night, NJ Transit began moving rail cars and locomotives there.

By 11 a.m. Monday, scores of locomotives and hundreds of rail cars awaited the storm in the Meadows yard.

NJ Transit has 203 locomotives and 1,162 rail cars, and 62 locomotives and 261 rail cars were damaged. That amounts to 24 percent of the fleet.

All but 15 percent or 20 percent of the damaged stock was flooded at the Meadows yard, said Durso, the NJT spokesman. The rest were in Hoboken, which also saw severe flooding. Durso said he could not provide specific counts of damaged equipment by location.

Weinstein and O'Connor were at the Meadows complex on Monday afternoon during the storm, Weinstein said, and they remained confident in their decision. "There was no reason for anybody to believe that the flooding was going to be anything close to what we experienced," he said.

By late Monday night and early Tuesday morning, it became clear they had miscalculated.

Water had surrounded the maintenance buildings by 10 p.m., Durso said. By 2 a.m., water had come inside, and employees called O'Connor to tell him about it.

The water was as deep as five feet in some of the complex's maintenance areas, Weinstein said. Out in the yard, it was deep enough to submerge automobiles. Salt water rose above the wheel wells of the locomotives and rail cars, engulfing brakes, electrical systems, heating and air-conditioning units, batteries and traction motors that help power the cars and soaking insulation panels and seat cushions.

Some of the equipment, Weinstein said, had already been taken out of service for repairs before the storm. Some of the repair work is already under way.

He said he could not yet estimate the cost or time to repair the equipment. Metro North expects to spend more than $100,000 repairing each of its damaged rail cars, Anders said. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority spent about $1.5 million repairing one locomotive and 12 passenger cars that flooded during Hurricane Irene, said Ron Hopkins, SEPTA's assistant general manager for operations. The work took more than a year.

Should NJ Transit's costs be similar, they would face a repair bill of more than $32 million.

Weinstein said all of his attention to date has been on restoring service, and he has not had time to reflect on lessons learned. But both he and Governor Chris Christie say there will be a review of the agency's response to the storm.

"You can prepare for a worst-case scenario, but the standard of preparedness was definitely raised by this storm," said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. "As we did post-Hurricane Irene, we will be evaluating how we did and where we can improve, and make changes for the future. But, again, this was a hit of historic proportions."

(Additional reporting by Melanie Hicken; research by Lisa Schwartz; Editing by Maurice Tamman and Michael Williams)

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