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August 2003 Electric Power Blackout: Massive Disruption of All Transportation

Commentary by Frank S. Miklos – August 2003

Frank S. Miklos is current presdient of the Electric Railroaders' Association.

NYC blackout with power linesOne of the most dramatic effects of the recent record-breaking Northeastern USA and southern Ontario power blackout (which began late in the afternoon of 14 August 2003) was its impact on transportation. By and large, the mainstream news media focused almost exclusively on the shutdown of major electric transport systems – such as New York City's subway network, electrified regional systems like Metro-North, sections of the Amtrak system in the Northeast Corridor, and Toronto's subway and streetcar systems. The impact on motor vehicle transportation was all but ignored; on the whole, the motor vehicle system was portrayed as if it just continued normally, perhaps with more traffic jams than usual.
[Photo: AP]

In reality, it was not only the electric transportation system that was affected by the blackout: motor vehicle transportation was seriously disrupted as well. Particularly in the major cities hit, virtually all roadways became parking lots because the traffic lights went out and the intersections became gridlocked. Motor vehicle tunnels such as the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey also had to be closed because their ventilation systems are powered by electricity. Gas stations were rendered inoperable because the pumps are electrically powered. Driving after dark became more hazardous because of limited visibility due to street lights being out.

Cars awaiting fuelMichigan: Cars, SUVs, vans line up in gigantic traffic jam waiting for gas pumps to function.
[Photo: AP]

In the case of electric railway systems, reports suggest that the power supply for the operation of the trains was generally not affected because it is independent of the grid. However, the power for the signals and switches comes from the regular commercial sources along with the power for the platforms in the subway stations. According to newspaper reports, some rail service out of Penn Station to New Jersey was provided as early as 7:30 PM.

Peds on Brooklyn BridgeThere's another lesson from the blackout, at least in New York City. When the subways were shut down, the displaced passengers literally took to the streets. The volume of pedestrian traffic was too much for the sidewalks and bridge walkways, so pedestrians started to walk in the traffic lanes, thereby blocking motor vehicles. On TV, traffic helicopters showed thousands of pedestrians crossing the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges (connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn), occupying one of the traffic lanes because the walkways were a solid mass of people. The same was true for many of Manhattan's streets.
[Photo: R. Fremson]

Clearly, without the subways, New York City would have to widen the sidewalks and reduce the number of traffic lanes. in effect, the power blackout of August 2003 helped provide another example of how motorists would be worse off without good reliable public transportation.

Updated 2003/08/18


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