Does it seem like almost every other day that there is a delay on trains to New York? Based on data from NJ Transit’s e-mail alerts, there have been delays, more often than every third day, reported to this rider, whose home station is Mount Tabor, on the M&E Line west of Morristown! In the 92 days from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, I received 49 delay alerts on 33 different days. The vast majority, 41 alerts on 27 days, affected Midtown Direct service. I believe that this is due to the sheer number of trains going through the two Midtown tunnels. At least 3 times, the Midtown tunnels were so jammed that all Midtown trains on the M&E were redirected to Hoboken.
Continue Reading A Hoboken Cure for the Midtown Woes
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State address on January 8, included a proposal for Metro-North service from the Bronx to New York Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge, a possibility that Metro-North and its parent MTA has been studying for years. Cuomo was unequivocal in his address, saying that it will happen, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (January 9). The proposed service would involve new stations to be built in the Bronx along Amtrak’s Hell Gate line, used by through trains between New York and New England, but without local service for many decades. Stations would be built at Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-Op City; the trains would apparently continue on to New Rochelle and points farther in Westchester and possibly Connecticut. Service could connect Bronx stations to Penn Station in as little as 30 minutes; the proposed line would not, however, connect with subway lines in the Bronx. Problems that would have to be overcome would include finding space for the new trains at Penn Station, already operating at capacity in peak hours. Some relief might be possible when the Long Island Rail Road starts diverting trains to Grand Central Terminal, but that is not scheduled to happen before 2019. Some Long Island legislators reportedly have looked askance at letting Metro-North trains from the Bronx and Westchester compete with Long Island Rail Road trains at Penn Station.
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Nearly 6 months after NJ Transit’s 7th Avenue Concourse restrooms at New York Penn Station embarrassed the railroad when their decrepit conditions were publicly disclosed, a 2-week renovation began on January 2 as the facilities were closed for the work. Temporary repairs had been made after NJ Association of Railroad Passengers President Albert Papp Jr. publicized broken faucets, cracks patched with duct tape, and toilet paper dispensers plastered to the wall by more tape.
Papp, a past president of the Lackawanna Coalition, took the action after his repeated private requests to NJT went unheeded. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 2), NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein said recently that the work will “provide customers with an improved facility at one of our busiest stations.” The 7th Avenue concourse area is the newest area serving NJT customers at Penn Station and is heavily used, yet seems to have aged rapidly; a “bridge” corridor connecting the ticketing area with the “elevator” concourse has been closed for some time and continues under repair, for undisclosed reasons, forcing handicapped customers and others who would prefer not to have to climb stairs into a lengthy detour to reach rest rooms and elevator access to the train platforms. While the rest rooms are closed, passengers have a choice of two other, even less attractive and often more crowded locations in Penn Station: the Amtrak rest rooms near 33 St and 8th Avenue, very far from the closed facilities; and the Long Island Rail Road rest rooms, reachable by escalators from the NJT concourse.
Fixing Penn Station in New York first requires cooperation among the 3 railroads that use it: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Rail Road. So says Robert W. Previdi, former spokesman and operations planner for New York City Transit, writing in the Op-Ed section of The New York Times. A new Penn Station, he notes, would take billions of dollars and agreements between multiple agencies in 3 states, as well as at least a decade to accomplish. However, Previdi says, simpler things could be done much faster.
A unified customer information and ticketing scheme would be a good start. The 3 railroads operate in different sections of the vast station and, says Previdi, “each rail line operates as if the other two don’t exist.” To transfer from the LIRR to NJT, you have to “navigate the subterranean labyrinth” and seek out a NJT ticket window or machine and then find your train—LIRR has one departure board and NJT and Amtrak have others. Airports, with dozens of airlines, have single information boards; why not Penn Station?
Another way to improve the Penn Station experience, says Previdi, would be better management of the retail stores, as is done at Grand Central Terminal and Union Station in Washington, D.C. Why can’t this be done? Previdi says that “territorial claims within the station run deep,” inhibiting cooperation. There are glimmers of hope, Previdi says: MetroCards work both on New York subways and buses and on the PATH trapid transit system; NJT sells tickets good on SEPTA connections to the Philadelphia area; and NJT runs through trains a few times a year to Connecticut for those coming to New Jersey football games in the Meadowlands. So, who should take the lead in improving the Penn Station mess? Previdi says the ball is in the court of the governors of New Jersey and New York to break down the barriers between the jealous public agencies.
One problem faced by NJT rail riders is finding clean restrooms before, during, and after their journeys. Few stations have toilet facilities at all, outside of major terminals; those that do are often closed outside of commuting hours; and toilets on-board trains are legendary places to be avoided if at all possible. Even some major terminals such as Newark Broad Street close their toilets at night, and Hoboken has made do with temporary facilities since Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
One place riders can count on finding an open restroom has been at New York Penn Station, where Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit all maintain restrooms—but how good are they? NJT has the newest restrooms, in its 7th Avenue Concourse, but the quality of those facilities was brought into sharp focus at NJT’s July 12 Board meeting by rider Albert Papp, Jr., who is director of the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers and past Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition. Papp first brought to the attention of NJT in June the deplorable condition of the NJT restrooms, citing missing soap dispensers, water in the sinks that doesn’t flow, and toilet paper dispensers held up by duct tape. Apparently, little or no action was taken, so Papp brought up the issue again at the board meeting, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli (Star-Ledger, July 12). According to Frassinelli’s report, both NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein and State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson were red-faced with anger and embarrassment at the report of the persistent problems. Weinstein vowed action, and Simpson, told that a third party maintains the facilities, said, “Well, fire the third party. Tell the third party that if this happens again—can them and find somebody else.” Rider Papp was not impressed, noting that NJT was going ahead with a plan to offer Wi-Fi access: “While you can go ahead and put Wi-Fi in the trains for the thumb people, it would help if some of the basic necessities of the human individual are attended to,” he said. And passenger Shelia Long, told that NJT has a person responsible for maintenance of the area, said, “I think he’s in Dunkin” Donuts.”
New Jersey Transit’s ALP-45DP dual-power locomotives ran into Penn Station for the first time last weekend. Because of maintenance on the wires that supply electric power to trains on the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line, the power was turned off between Maplewood and Morris Plains on Saturday and for some of the service day on Sunday.
Although Amtrak has expressed concern about allowing the units into Penn Station, the weekend service seemed to go smoothly, although with some delays. The locomotives, made by Bombardier, cost approximately $7.9 million each; roughly 3 times the cost of a conventional diesel unit. The use of these units to bring revenue trains into Penn Station could reopen the push by the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition and other advocates for a one-seat ride to New York City on nonelectrified lines such as the Raritan Valley Line or the southern part of the North Jersey Coast Line.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has announced the imminent start of the first phase of the expansion of Penn Station, a long-term project that will eventually reconstruct the main Post Office west of Eighth Avenue into the new Moynihan Station, mostly to be used by Amtrak. According to the Associated Press, published in the Star-Ledger (May 9), Port Authority chairman Patrick Foyle said, “From the point of view of NJ Transit Riders, this is going to be a significant advancement.” The first phase concentrates on improved access to the west end of Penn Station and will expand an existing concourse that today serves only Long Island Rail Road riders; the concourse is at the northwest corner of Penn Station and is actually under the Post Office. There will be new escalators and elevators and new street-level access to Eighth Avenue at 31th and 32t Streets. This first phase is due to begin this summer and be finished by 2016.
The Lackawanna Coalition is concerned that the existing access to NJ Transit trains at Penn Station, despite improvements over the years, remains inadequate and sometimes even dangerous as heavy passenger loads attempt to board and leave trains, sometimes simulataneously on the same platform. Access to the west end of the platforms, as planned by the new program, is particularly critical, given that many NJT off-peak departing trains inexplicably are positioned so that the only open cars are at the extreme west end.
The Amtrak plan would build new rail tunnels into the existing Penn Station, with new tracks to be built between 30th and 31st Streets, south of the existing station. The station itself would be extended southward to accommodate new platforms, which would terminate just east of Seventh Avenue. Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River would be replaced, and 2 new tracks would be built to Manhattan.
The Lackawanna Coalition considers this proposal a major step in the right direction, because Amtrak is not actively involved in proposing more rail capacity to the existing Penn Station. It is also a significant improvement over New Jersey Transit’s former proposal, because it does not include a “deep-cavern” terminal, disconnected from the existing station.
The Amtrak proposal in its present form does not present the entire solution to the region’s transit needs. New capacity is needed on the East Side, not on the West Side, which is already served from New Jersey. Amtrak also proposes essentially a new 2-track line, which would not have the operational flexibility that would be gained from expanding the existing line into a 4-track railroad.
The Lackawanna Coalition and other rail advocates in the region continue to push for the Affordable ARC Now – Not Later! alternative, which would bring 2 new tracks directly into the existing Penn Station. The line could be extended to the East Side later, when funding becomes available.
The Lackawanna Coalition calls for 3 elements of the Amtrak “Gateway” plan to be built as soon as possible: 2 new tunnels under the Hudson River for new tracks into Penn Station, a new 2-track line between the place where the M&E Line joins Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) line (Swift Interlocking, east of Newark) to Penn Station, and a new bridge on that line over the Hackensack River. We suggest the existing Portal Bridge be rehabilitated, rather than replaced.
Other elements, including eventual East Side access, can be built later, when funding becomes available. We believe that this project would provide the most cost-effective and least-expensive long-term solution to the Penn Station capacity constraints that prevail at peak commuting hours.
Now that NJT’s new trans-Hudson tunnel is dead, the Long Island Rail Road is planning to upgrade and modernize its passenger facilities in Penn Station. The LIRR had put plans on hold, expecting disruptions from NJT’s tunnel construction. According to Andrew Grossman, writing in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), “Penn Station’s warren of underground passageways and tracks connecting three railroads and the New York City subway system are difficult even for frequent users to navigate.” LIRR President Helena Williams said, “It’s a facility that’s showing its age. . . it’s cluttered visually, functionally.” However, progress will be hampered by the division of responsibilities among the station’s owner, Amtrak, and its tenants, LIRR and NJ Transit. Because of this, Grossman wrote, “the pace of change is often slow . . . all three systems maintain separate concourses, ticket offices, and signs. And getting from one railroad to the other can be tricky, especially for newcomers to the station.” Consultant David Gibson, who specializes in designing signage systems, added, “At the end of every corridor or somewhere along it is a secondary or tertiary way to get to some other place. The whole ensemble is so kind of pieced together.” Maureen Michaels, who heads the LIRR Commuters’ Council, an advocacy group, agrees on the need for modernization, but is not very optimistic. “These are shared spaces and they’re dysfunctional because it has been individual agencies doing their own thing,” she said.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that regional transportation would be better served if all the rail operators worked closely together, not only in station facilities, but also in operations, equipment procurement, ticketing systems, and capital investment planning.