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New Jersey residents fight nightmarish commute with no quick fix

By Janet Roberts and Melanie Hicken

HOBOKEN/MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey commuters who headed back to New York City to work on Monday found a chaotic landscape of long lines, jammed buses and rail cars and lengthy waits to get through tunnels due to the impact of superstorm Sandy.

And while transit officials forecast relief in the days ahead, it will take weeks at least to fully repair the damage from the storm, which killed at least 113 people in the United States and Canada and downed power lines in the region. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses are still without power.

Many saw typical commutes of 40 minutes or less stretch into two- and three-hour ordeals, as commuters from inoperable train lines scrambled to board buses, ferries and different trains that could get them into the city.

"It's just demand exceeds supply. That's all there is to it," said Joshua Crandall, who operates Clever Commute, a service that commuters use to alert one another of service disruptions. "Anyone who thought they could get up and wing it had a painful reality check. A lot of people just gave up and went home."

New Jersey Transit transported 15 percent more passengers by bus and rail into New York City during rush hour on Monday morning than they do on a typical weekday, said spokesman John Durso Jr.

Part of the reason is that the PATH rail system, which sees more than 260,000 passenger boardings on an average day, remained shut down because of storm damage. Partial PATH service resumes Tuesday, which should alleviate some of the load.

About 25,000 people got to the city by train, Durso said, which is about half the normal rush-hour load. Another 126,000 made it to Manhattan or New Jersey ferry terminals by bus - 36,000 more than on a typical day.

Only one of the two Hudson River rail tunnels has reopened, limiting the number of trains NJ Transit can run into Penn Station. The Hoboken Terminal also remains closed because of flood damage.

"This is going to be a long recovery," Durso said. "Service is not going to return to normal overnight. Service is not going to return to normal for weeks."

NOT ENOUGH BUSES

Commuters who normally ride trains on NJ Transit lines that are shut down because of Sandy found there simply weren't enough buses to get to work. Scott Greenstone, who normally rides the Morris and Essex line from South Orange to New York Pennsylvania Station, got to the South Orange station at 6:25 a.m., but this time to board a bus.

"The line was already 200 people long," Greenstone said. "By the time I got on the bus at 7:43, the line was probably 500 people."

To alleviate the bus shortage, the Federal Transit Administration said it was working with other federal agencies - FEMA and the U.S. General Services Administration - to secure about 350 more buses. It was not clear when the buses would arrive to be put into service.

Getting on a bus or train wasn't a happy experience, either.

"The trains were so packed everyone was standing, people opened the doors up and were even standing in the bathrooms, " said Michael Marvin, who spent nearly three hours navigating from his home in Maplewood, N.J., to his office in lower Manhattan.

North Jersey Coast Line service, which started at Woodbridge and travels through the large Metro Park Station, was suspended shortly after 7 a.m. because there were not enough trains to meet demand. Woodbridge Station will remain closed on Tuesday.

Service also was suspended at Newark Penn Station because of crowding. NJ Transit dispatched buses to pick up stranded customers, Durso said.

NJ Transit monitored the demand and intends to expand park-and-ride and bus service in areas where it is greatest, Durso said. Ferry service has been expanded too.

Some PATH service will resume on Tuesday, easing some of the pressure on NJ Transit.

Service will run from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. from Journal Square in Jersey City to 33rd Street in Manhattan but will not make all stops. Hoboken Terminal remains closed.

Meanwhile, Connecticut and Long Island commuters are having an easier time getting to work. Metro North has resumed full service on all of its East of Hudson lines. Long Island Rail Road is running 10 of its 11 lines.

NJ Transit is struggling on three fronts. Several heavily traveled lines have severe damage, including track wash-outs that will require lengthy repairs. Flooding left one of its heavily used endpoints - Hoboken Terminal - out of commission. And 35 percent of its locomotives and 23 percent of its rail cars were damaged during the storm.

Sixty-five locomotive engines and more than 250 passenger cars were damaged by salt water that flooded train yards, Durso said. Water did not engulf the cars, but damaged gear boxes, wheels and traction motors.

Durso said the equipment had been moved before the storm to what was thought to be safe ground. But it did not prove to be safe enough.

"This was record-breaking flooding," he said. "Greater flooding than that area had ever experienced or ever could have anticipated."

All of the engines and cars can be repaired, he said, but parts will have to be ordered. He had no time estimate for getting the equipment back in service.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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