The rail terminal here is a relic from a different era, old enough to have seen the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, survive two World Wars and withstand the encroachment of the automobile.
It almost met its match in Hurricane Sandy.
More than a month after the superstorm forced the Hudson River over its banks and cascading onto underground platforms and tracks, service on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson line out of Hoboken remains suspended, even as other portions of the system have been restored.
It will be weeks before trains run again, PATH’s acting director said Tuesday.
Age and geography combine to make this one of the New York area’s more vulnerable pieces of infrastructure, as the hulking building squats mere yards from the river at the bottom of a gentle downslope.
In the wake of Sandy, officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said all existing infrastructure is being reviewed for possible flood mitigation. But there was the sense that even greater protective measures might not have been enough here.
“This was something that was larger than anybody ever expected,” PATH acting director Stephen Kingsberry said Tuesday. “We’re in Hoboken, where a lot of the above-ground parts were flooded. This station is underground. That’s the problem of the day. I don’t think any of the areas of Hoboken were able to escape this amount of water.”
Surveillance videos released recently by the Port Authority show water gushing down stairways and onto platforms, submerging turnstiles and ticket machines. Some tracks took on eight feet of water. Overall, the PATH system that serves Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken and lower Manhattan suffered $300 million in damage, Kingsberry said.
During a tour of the station and tracks on Tuesday, two workers were cleaning off a circuit box that is used to de-energize the third rail in one of the tunnels; farther down the tunnel another crew was working on two 12,000-pound pumps and other workers were busy reconnecting circuits in a nerve center that controls track switches. The nerve center filled with more than five feet of water, complete with floating rats, employees said.
The pumps interspersed along the tracks can pump out water at 700 gallons per minute, according to John Burkhard, an assistant superintendent in the way and structures division. Additional measures were taken as well, he said, but they were no match for the huge volume of water.
The actions of one employee may have lessened some of the damage.
Pump operator Tom O’Neill, who spent 10 days on-site even as his family’s house on the New Jersey shore was without power from the storm, submerged himself in the murky water to open a pump that was clogged. Kingsberry called him “our hero.”
“I know where the valves are at; I could feel them with my feet,” O’Neill said. “It was cold. You’re at that point where your adrenaline is flowing and you need to get that pump flowing. It is dangerous, and it might not have been the right thing to do, but the first defense was to get the water out. Then everybody else can do their job.”
It took about a week to get all the water out of the tracks and platforms. Then came the task of replacing and repairing equipment, some of which is 80 years old. Cables and other equipment have to be tested to make sure they can handle the amount of electricity coursing through the system.
Kingsberry said walls and stairways leading down to the station’s platforms are being shored up, and the nerve center’s walls will be reinforced and a water-tight door will be installed. Beyond that, the Port Authority said it is considering a host of additional measures.
“We are assessing existing PATH infrastructure to see what can be modified now to have greater resiliency,” the agency said in an email. “All capital projects going forward for PATH will incorporate storm surge and other mitigation including consideration of floodgates, balloons in tunnels and higher location for electrical, switching and communications equipment.”
The New York City’s massive subway system was also ravaged by Sandy. But within a week, 80 percent of service had been restored.
In the wake of Sandy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for improvement to old infrastructure and systems.
“We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination,” Cuomo said days after the storm. “And that’s one of the lessons I’m going to take from this, personally.”
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