It's become a ritual for travelers on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line between Boston and Washington, D.C., revived this week: Train service is suspended and the line's pre-World War II electrical system is fingered as the culprit.
But Thursday's disruptions, during the early morning commute and again during the evening rush, couldn't be blamed on an aging infrastructure that Amtrak continues to spend millions of dollars to upgrade. Instead, they were isolated to a computer meltdown at an electrical substation in the Philadelphia area that was upgraded less than 10 years ago.
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said Friday that the main computer system and a backup system that controls the substation went down, causing a voltage dip that left trains without enough power to operate. He said Amtrak has "experienced a small amount of computer related problems" recently but said he was unaware of any other similar malfunctions that involved a primary and backup system.
Cole said Amtrak officials were still determining what caused Thursday's computer problem
Trains were held at stations for about 90 minutes at the start of Thursday night's rush hour, causing delays for the next few hours. Service was suspended Thursday morning for about 45 minutes. Any Amtrak service disruptions also wreak havoc on NJ Transit commuter trains, which operate on the same tracks between Trenton and New York City.
The two separate service outages brought New Jersey's total to eight since the middle of March. All but one have been the result of problems with overhead electrical wires or dips in voltage.
Some travelers are used to the delays and take them in stride. Cielo LaFlor took a PATH train from New York to Newark on Thursday, then searched for a bus to her home in Montclair.
"This is out of my way, but I think everyone's pretty much used to this, because it's been like this all week now," she said.
In an unrelated incident Tuesday, trains sat idle for several hours because of a transformer fire at a substation in New Brunswick.
Since 2002, Amtrak has spent millions to upgrade 82 outdated substations between New York and Washington, D.C., _57 of which are more than 30 years old _ and has replaced 91 of 144 transformers along the corridor. Last month, the Department of Transportation awarded Amtrak $450 million, part of which will be used to upgrade electrical systems and overhead wires in New Jersey to support faster high-speed rail service.
Cole said even with the upgrades, it's impossible to completely prevent problems from occurring.
"No matter where we are with these projects, it's a case of aging infrastructure and these things will happen," he said., "The overriding sense is that we still consider these instances to be rare, but when they happen more frequently in a time frame such as the last month, it comes back to the forefront."
Amtrak is a private corporation but depends on federal subsidies. Last month, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., proposed taking control of the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and soliciting bids from private investors for high speed rail service.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., an Amtrak supporter, said Thursday, "While some in Congress are trying to derail improvements to the Corridor, we will continue working to modernize it so New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains are on time and best prepared to serve commuters."