Letter: No Room At Penn Station

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Proposals by some elected officials about relocating some Amtrak trains from Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal to support emergency maintenance repairs sounds great until you look into the details.

Up until 20 years ago, Amtrak Empire Service operated trains from Grand Central Terminal along the Hudson River to Albany and points beyond including Buffalo, Montreal or Toronto. Today, there are five morning rush hour (6 to 10 a.m.) and six evening rush hour (4 to 8 p.m.) scheduled arriving or departing Amtrak trains from Penn Station that could temporarily return to Grand Central Terminal. There are several hundred daily Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit trains operating out of Penn Station during the same morning and evening rush hours. Amtrak will require the cancellation of far more than 11 trains to support emergency repairs this Summer.

Don’t be surprised if this work continues into the fall and 2018. As the old adage goes, every little bit helps but Amtrak giving up 11 rush hour train slots for LIRR and NJ Transit is just a drop in the bucket.

There is no room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during either a.m. or p.m. rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections to Long Island. Three of four tunnels running inbound during a.m. and outbound p.m. rush hours have tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing during rush hours. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellation of trains.

There are a number of other competing new services looking for nonexistent rush hour Penn Station platform, track and East River tunnel capacity in coming years. Metro North wants to begin service at a cost of $700 million plus from the east Bronx via the Hell Gate Bridge and Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside Queens to Penn Station by 2023. Metro North also has future plans ($200 million) to run additional service from Poughkeepsie and other Hudson Line stations via Amtrak Empire Corridor Hudson Line using tracks on Manhattan West Side. The LIRR has invested $450 million to complete double tracking on the Ronkonkoma branch. Once Main Line Third Track is completed at a cost of $2 billion plus, the LIRR has plans to expand Ronkonkoma branch rush hour service to Penn Station.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also wants to provide new frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point station. Direct service from Grand Central Terminal to Mets Willets Point station will also be initiated once LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal is completed. Both new services will support his $450 million plus LaGuardia Air Train. Many Rockaway Queens residents want restoration of LIRR service on the old Rockaway Beach branch, which suspended service in 1962. Both Amtrak (Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston along with Empire Service north to Albany & Buffalo) and New Jersey Transit have future plans to expand service in and out of Penn Station.

A majority of the promised 24 trains a.m. and p.m. per hour peak service will be either diverted from Atlantic Terminal or new trains. Through service from destinations east of Jamaica Station to Atlantic Terminal will end. You will have to transfer to a scoot service operating between both stations which will also service East New York and Nostrand Avenue Brooklyn stations. There will continue to be a three way competition between Amtrak, LIRR and New Jersey Transit for rush hour access to Penn Station. A new operator, Metro North, will also looking for rush hour access to Penn Station resulting in a four way competition. Don’t be surprised if there are no changes to level of service rush hour to Penn Station in the foreseeable future.

—Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked in 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office).

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