A 21st Century NEC: The Top Four Failing Bridges that Must Be Replaced

>>Along the entire NEC, our crumbling bridges must be replaced in order to improve service and achieve a state of good repair.

Of all the investments we must make in order to bring the NEC to a state of good repair and expand capacity, bridges may possibly be the biggest one of all.

The NEC Master Plan recognizes these bridges as a top priority. The Plan's $14 billion in Phase 1 Priority Projects includes $6.3 billion specifically for bridges. According to the Plan, the NEC travels over 224 bridges that have reached their end of life and must be significantly rehabilitated or replaced. Constructed primarily in the early 1900s, these century-old bridges are unreliable, limit train speeds, create delays, and force Amtrak and the northeastern states to pay significant maintenance costs.

The story of these bridges can be found up and down the entire NEC. To understand how they impact our current services, it's helpful to take consider each bridge separately. With so many to look at, we've narrowed it down to the top four bridges most badly in need of repair. Without further ado, the top four:

View NEC Bridges that Must be Replaced in a larger map

1. Portal Bridge (between Kearny and Secaucus, NJ)

Perhaps no single piece of infrastructure is as representative of the current problems on the NEC as much as the Portal Bridge, a two-track span over the Hackensack River that carries NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak trains from Newark, NJ to New York Penn Station.


Portal Bridge

The bridge represents a serious obstacle to achieving a state of good repair. Completed in 1910, the structure's age has been responsible for numerous delays and service failures. Portal is a swinging, movable bridge. Except during peak travel hours, federal law requires that the bridge remain in the open position to accommodate maritime traffic. Normally, these openings are routine, but occasionally the bridge gets stuck open, delaying the 70,000 rail riders who rely on it every day.

In 1996, however, poor maintenance conditions turned a failed bridge opening into a disaster. On November 23, the 86-year old bridge failed to close properly, leaving its tracks dangerously misaligned. Upon entering the bridge, an Amtrak train traveling eastbound derailed, sideswiped a train crossing in the opposite direction, and tumbled off the bridge and onto the river bank below. Thankfully no one was killed, but 43 passengers were injured. In light of the bridge's serious maintenance conditions, federal investigators concluded that the bridge needed dramatic increases in inspection to ensure safe operations. (PDF of federal review of the 1996 Portal Bridge accident.)

The bridge is also part of a serious capacity bottleneck in Northern New Jersey. With just two tracks, the NEC between Portal Bridge and New York City is the most densely traveled length of rail in the nation. The stretch already operates at 100% capacity and has no room for additional trains during peak hours. To make matters worse, since the 1996 derailment, Portal Bridge is subject to a speed restriction of 60 mph, while the surrounding track is certified for 90 mph.

The precarious state of Portal Bridge underscores the sensitivity of the NEC operations. A single point of failure can bring the whole line down. In 2005, Portal Bridge caught on fire during the evening rush hour, after a train pulled down a sagging electrical wire over the bridge. In one moment, the only rail link between New York City and the southern half of the NEC was severed. According to George Warrington, NJ TRANSIT's head at the time, if the fire had caused structural damage, service to NYC could have been suspended for months.

As of 2008, the cost of replacing Portal for both intercity and commuter trains was estimated at $1.34 billion. The project began environmental review in 2006 and was approved by the FRA in 2008. Since then, the process of securing funding has been slow. In 2009, New Jersey received $38.5 million in stimulus funding to complete final design of the bridge's replacement. In 2011, Amtrak applied for $570 million in high-speed rail grants to begin construction, but failed to secure the money. At this point, there is no funding identified to complete the project.

2. Pehlam Bay Bridge (Bronx, NY)

The Pehlam Bay Bridge has not faced the same dramatic problems as the Portal Bridge, but still represents a critical investment need for the NEC. A uniquely beautiful span, the bridge carries Amtrak trains over the Hutchinson River in the Bronx. Like Portal, the Pelham Bay Bridge restricts travel speeds and serves as a critical link in the system. If it failed for some reason, New York Penn Station would be effectively cut off from the entire northern half of the NEC.


Pelham Bay Bridge

Constructed in 1907, the bridge is beyond its useful life and must be replaced. A new Pehlam Bay Bridge would increase speeds on the bridge from 45 to 110 mph. Unlike the current, low-level design, a bridge built at higher-levels would reduce the number of bridge openings and reduce service disruptions. A new bridge could also unlock future service expansion, including a proposed, new commuter service along the bridge's route from Connecticut to New York Penn Station.

Amtrak has already begun planning the replacement of the Pelham Bay Bridge. In 2009, the corporation used $10 million in stimulus funds to begin the rehabilitation of bridge's structure (PDF), but has been planning for its complete replacement. According to the NEC Master Plan, the replacement would cost approximately $500 million. In 2011, Amtrak applied unsuccessfully for funding to complete engineering and design for a new bridge, and the project is still awaiting funding (PDF).

3. Susquehanna River Bridge (Havre de Grace, MD)

Maryland is home to several major bridges that carry the NEC over the rivers that drain into the Chesapeake Bay. The longest of these bridges is the Susquehanna River Bridge. Completed in 1906, the bridge is ¾ of a mile long with a movable span in the middle.


Susquehanna River Bridge

The Susquehanna Bridge serves both passenger and freight rail operators. It supports Amtrak, MARC (Maryland's commuter rail service) and the freight railroad Norfolk Southern. Susquehanna is currently a major capacity bottleneck. With just two tracks, it forces the NEC to constrict down from four tracks to the north and three tracks to the south.

In May 2011, Maryland was awarded a $22 million federal, high-speed rail grant to support initial design and engineering for the Susquehanna Bridge replacement. Priced at $500 million, the bridge is the most expensive to replace in Maryland. The state and Amtrak are also pursuing the replacement of two other bridges: the Bush River and the Gunpowder Bridge. Like the Susquehanna, these spans are over a century old and limit capacity by constricting capacity to two tracks, down from three or four.

4. The State of Connecticut

True, this is actually many bridges, not just one. But in Connecticut, you would be hard-pressed to choose just one. Like Maryland, Connecticut is home to a large number of the NEC's bridges. While the line's route along the Long Island Sound provides beautiful views, it requires the train to hop over the many inlets and rivers that punctuate the coast line. Facing years of under-investment, these are troubled bridges over Sound waters.

In total, the state is home to a whopping ten movable bridges on the NEC, at least six of which need to be replaced.

The story of these bridges is the same, as sorry a tale as the others on this list. Built at low levels over a century ago, these bridges must be opened to accommodate maritime traffic. Old age and poor care in the past have driven up maintenance costs and damaged their reliability. Speed restrictions and curved tracks force trains to slow down.

The process of replacing these bridges is complicated by the line's split ownership, which is divided in half at New Haven: the state owns the portion to the west and Amtrak owns the portion to the east. The state and Amtrak are separately pushing forward to replace their major bridges. Amtrak completed the replacement of the Thames River Bridge in 2008 and, with the support of federal stimulus dollars, is currently replacing the Niantic River Bridge, expected to be complete in 2013. Its final major replacement, the Connecticut River Bridge, is estimated to cost $600 million.

Connecticut River Bridge

The state also has plans to replace the major removable bridges on its section of the line. After completing the replacement of the Pequonnock River Bridge in the 2000s, the state has no funding identified for its four remaining major bridges. According to the NEC Master Plan, the replacement of the Walk and Saga bridges would together cost approximately $600 million.


Although tens of thousands of riders travel across these bridges safely every day, we cannot take their reliability for granted. Each one of these bridges is a hugely critical link in the NEC system. Although passenger rail beats other modes in many categories, operational flexibility isn't one of them. If one of these major bridges were to fail, Amtrak and the commuter railroads cannot just drive around it. To lose one of these bridges for any period of time would throw tens of thousands of riders onto the roads.

And while the cost of replacing these bridges is a daunting figure, we must make this investment right now. As this list makes clear, our aging bridges create delays, slow service, limit capacity, and are major obstacles to achieving a state of good repair. We cannot create reliable service or meet future travel demand without bridge investments.

Portal Bridge: O Gauge Railroading Magazine
Pelham Bay Bridge: www.yonkersrail.com
Susquehanna River Bridge: Flickr - Mr. T in DC
Connecticut River Bridge: Hardesty & Hanover

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