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Schumer: Penn Station Fire Underscores Vulnerability Of New York Subway And Commuter Rail Tunnels To Terror Attacks

Transformer fire that quickly brought City rails to standstill shows inadequate plans for rescue workers to get in or passengers to get out – only 2 of 6 tunnels sufficiently equipped for escape or ventilation

Schumer: this week's fire proved Feds have done a fraction of what is needed to protect commuters; fire should serve as a wake up call for the House and President to back McCain and Schumer’s plan for $570 million in security funding for NY's tunnels that unanimously passed Senate Friday night

In the wake of this week’s crippling transformer fire, US Schumer today warned that commuters using New York’s rail tunnels remain woefully unprotected and called on the House of Representatives and the President to quickly approve $570 million in federal funding for security improvements in New York’s tunnels which passed the Senate unanimously late last night.

These funds were part of a $1.2 billion rail security bill that Schumer, a leading member of the Senate Housing and Banking Committee which oversees Amtrak, co-authored with Senator John McCain. Schumer said that this week’s fire should serve as a wake up call for the federal government to provide the funds needed to modernize the tunnels.

"In May, the Madrid train bombings were our first wake-up call that we need to be doing a lot more to protect our rails. The Penn Station tunnel fires this week were the second. How many more warnings do we think we're going to get?" Schumer asked. "The Senate took the first step last night to send New York $570 million to upgrade our train tunnels this week so in case the unthinkable happens again and terrorists strike, rescue workers can get in and passengers can get out. Now it’s time for the House and for the President to do the same.”

On Monday, an electrical fire broke out in one of Amtrak’s East River tunnels. Smoke from the fire filled the tunnels and firefighters who arrived on the scene reported that their efforts were hampered by limited visibility and because they had to use the emergency exit to get to the tunnel floor which is located 90 feet down a spiral staircase. Fortunately when the fire broke, no passenger trains were far enough into the tunnel for passengers to be trapped and no serious passenger injuries occurred. However, the blaze did send five to the hospital for smoke inhalation and left at least a quarter million New Yorkers stranded.

The six rail tunnels, which include two North River crossings from New Jersey and four East River crossings from Long Island, are all owned and operated by Amtrak and an estimated 400,000 commuters pass through these tunnels every day. Schumer said that while some progress has been made in securing these tunnels, little has been done to make the tunnels safer in the event of an attack which could fill the tunnels with smoke or other airborne agents. Schumer said that this week’s electrical fire served to highlight the dangers posed by these tunnels, most of which are close to a century old. The spiral staircase, used by firefighters to reach the blaze, typifies the archaic state of the infrastructure, highlighting the fact that the majority of the tunnels still do not have adequate ventilation systems and exits should the tunnel fill with smoke or worse.

To date, only two of the exit shafts have had significant upgrades for their ventilation and evacuation routes since September 11, 2001. All of these tunnels must be equipped to provide exits and remove smoke in the event of a disaster. According to Amtrak, the Penn Station exit and ventilation shaft has been completed and plans to renovate the ventilation system and egress at the Weehawken shaft used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit have been accelerated and are now set to be completed early next year. However, the Long Island City exit shaft and the 1st Avenue exit shaft won’t be completed until 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Schumer said that these critical delays leave New Yorkers woefully unprepared in the event of an explosion or fire in any of these tunnels and cited a lack of funding as the primary reason the that the renovations have not been made. In a March 2001 report, Amtrak put the cost of modernizing the ventilation and exit systems of the six tunnels at $900 million. In 2003 Congress dedicated $100 million specifically for these renovations, but much more is needed.

Last night the Senate approved a measure that would authorize $570 million for New York’s tunnels as part of a $1.2 billion rail security bill that Schumer, a leading member of the Senate Housing and Banking Committee which oversees Amtrak, co-authored with Senator John McCain. Schumer today called on the House of Representatives and the President to act quickly to provide this surge in federal funding which would be dedicated specifically to provide ventilation, electrical, and fire safety technology upgrades, emergency communication and lighting systems, and emergency access and egress for passengers. Schumer said that the bill would also provide millions for the Homeland Security Department to assess security risks to freight and passenger rail and develop recommendations for securing them throughout the Northeast Corridor.

“The bottom line is if we won’t give Amtrak the funds to do this themselves, the only other option is to pay for the tunnel upgrades directly,” Schumer said. In addition to the Rail Security Act, the Senate also approved the Public Transportation Terrorism Prevention Act cosponsored by Schumer. The bill would authorize $3.5 billion in 2005 to subway and transit systems capital security improvements, training for transit employees, public awareness and canine patrols.


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