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Penn Station tunnels are safety risk: Feds

A state senate committee has complained that Amtrak has spent millions on such projects as high-speed trains while delaying repairs on deteriorated Penn Station tunnels serving trains carrying thousands of Queens commuters.

The 90-year-old tunnels are in a state of such poor maintenance that the possibility of passengers safely evacuating the tunnels in time of emergency would be compromised, firefighting and government authorities say.

The repairs have been estimated to cost as much as $980 million and take more than 10 years and Amtrak, the federally funded national passenger railroad, is so short on money that it has mortgaged parts of Penn Station.

The New York State Senate Standing Committee on Transportation, which issued a report on the matter, also asked that U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) make an effort to obtain federal funds to help repair the tunnels, published reports said.

The six tunnels — two beneath the Hudson River and four under the East River — are all a little more than two and a quarter miles long and are used by the Long Island Rail Road and the New Jersey Transit System as well as Amtrak. The tunnels, like Penn Station, are owned by Amtrak.

The senate report said Amtrak had spent vast amounts of money on the new Acela high speed train to Boston as well as Washington and conversion of the James A. Farley Post Office at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street to a new railroad station rather than fixing up the tunnels.

The tunnels have been adjudged sound, but the escape hatches are 10 stories deep with stairways only 24 inches wide, posing the unlikelihood that firefighters and rescue workers could get into the tunnels at the same time. Critics also say ventilation of the tunnels is inadequate, particularly in case of heavy smoke and the tunnels need water sources in case of fire.

An estimated 400,000 train passengers from New York, including thousands from Queens, and New Jersey use the tunnels daily.

“While we accept the sincerity of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor administration’s commitment to improve safety, it is clear that Amtrak has invested a great deal more effort in glamorous projects,” the state senate report said.

“It Is clear that Amtrak has sacrificed accelerated tunnel infrastructure improvements for these services expansion and economic development projects.”

Amtrak has set aside $20 million for work on the tunnels this year.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136

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