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(rshsdepot) Penn Station-New York

N.Y. terminal a traffic minefield

No room for error at Penn Station

Star-Ledger Staff

Nick Churus dreads the mornings his Midtown Direct train is running late.

When the train arrives in Manhattan on time at 7:15 a.m., it pulls into
track 11 at New York Penn Station and allows Churus and hundreds of other
riders to plod their way from the platform to the main terminal in a slow,
orderly herd.

But when Churus' train hits the station after 7:20 a.m., things get ugly.

That is because an Amtrak train normally starts loading its passengers at
the same time on adjacent track 12. The not-so-pleasant result is a
collision of commuters on narrow stairways and a 20-foot-wide platform.
Sometimes, a third train also is boarding riders.

"So on one train platform, there are one inbound and two outbound trains
with people all over the place, walking in opposite directions, bumping into
each other, and on occasion, I've seen tempers elevated," said Churus, who
rides from the Maplewood station. "It's only a matter of time before someone
gets hurt."

The scene typifies NJ Transit rail commuters' complaints about the way the
railroads maneuver trains at New York Penn Station. Riders say the system
seems poorly planned and often produces either helter-skelter stampedes with
last-minute announcements of track assignments for departures or platform
gridlock when too many trains are using the same boarding and unloading

"Commuting is frustrating enough as it is," said Harvey Davidson, who
travels to Manhattan on NJ Transit. "These kind of things just make it

Transportation officials said directing traffic through the busiest railroad
station in the nation is much more complicated than commuters appreciate,
with 982 trains per weekday from three railroads using 21 tracks and only
six tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers.

Running the station is like putting together a moving jigsaw puzzle,
railroad officials said, forcing them to fit departures and arrivals through
the station's web of tracks. The varying sizes of trains -- with eight, 10,
12 passenger cars -- and the different lengths of the platforms -- which
range from 650 feet to 1,190 feet -- complicate the task.

Railroad officials said the toughest thing about the Penn Station puzzle is
that the timing on fitting pieces together often changes, suddenly and
unexpectedly, every time a train gets delayed or breaks down.

"The dispatchers know in their minds where they want to put a train," said
Kevin O'Connor, NJ Transit's general superintendent for N.Y. Penn Station.
"Unfortunately, this place rarely works the same way two days in a row."

During peak periods, trains pass through the inbound and the outbound
tunnels under the Hudson River every three minutes. From 6 to 10 a.m., those
trains carry 44,000 New Jersey commuters into Manhattan.

"Why is there not consistency here? Because this is not a perfect
operation," said Walter Ernst, general superintendent for Amtrak's New York
Division. "We're operating this place at capacity at peak periods. There's
no margin when something goes wrong."

Amtrak owns and operates the station, and the Long Island Rail Road runs
more trains through the station than the other two railroads. In fact, the
LIRR now shares many of the responsibilities for operating the station with
Amtrak as a result of the $50 million it invested for improvements in the

NJ Transit basically has been Amtrak's tenant. That arrangement has left
state officials frequently shrugging their shoulders, saying they had little
sway over decisions made by the national railroad, even when they
inconvenienced New Jersey commuters.

George Warrington, the former head of Amtrak who took over as NJ Transit's
executive director last spring, has said he wants to carve a bigger role for
the New Jersey agency when it comes to the operation of New York Penn

"The facility is too important for us and for our customers for us to behave
like a tenant," said Warrington.

Originally built about 90 years ago, the basic rail infrastructure at New
York Penn Station has remained pretty much the same over the decades, even
as train traffic increased dramatically. As a result, railroad officials
say, they find it difficult to run things they way they would like.

For example, NJ Transit's policy is to announce which track the trains are
departing from 10 minutes before they leave. Officials and riders agree that
does not always happen.

"It would help if people were informed 10 minutes ahead of time instead of
three," said Douglas Bowen, vice president of the New Jersey Association of
Railroad Passengers

During evening rush hours, even with a 10-minute notice, commuters endure an
aggravating cattle call, as hundreds of riders grind their way
shoulder-to-shoulder through a handful of stairs and escalators leading down
to the platforms.

With less warning, the loadings becomes more frantic. No one wants to get
left behind to wait for another train. Veterans tell horror stories of
frazzled commuters trying to run down escalators that are moving up.

More than a decade ago, NJ Transit decided it needed new ways to get
passengers to and from train platforms. That decision produced a new 7th
Avenue Concourse, which opened last September, providing seven new stairways
and escalators.

"While the new concourse has helped somewhat, there is no and never has been
a silver bullet," Warrington said.

Warrington called the lingering problems "unacceptable."

NJ Transit riders are somewhat envious of their counterparts on the LIRR,
which assigns its trains to the same tracks at N.Y. Penn Station on a
regular basis. But railroad officials said there are several key factors
that allow the LIRR to do that, while NJ Transit cannot.

First of all, the LIRR spent money years ago to make its platforms at N.Y.
Penn Station the same length, and its trains have roughly the same number of
cars. Therefore, any train can fit at any platform.

Moreover, officials said, LIRR trains are less prone to the delays because
their routes are shorter than those covered by the NJ Transit trains.

NJ Transit acknowledges the difficulties faced by its riders. In fact,
officials said, the state agency is working with Amtrak to get workers
stationed at the N.Y. Penn's Terminal Operations Center, which would give
them better access to updates about train traffic so they can then relay the
information to commuters more quickly.

Within months, officials said, they will be able to announce track
assignments for some departing trains sooner than the current practice.

"We see room to shave the margins, but when you have a system that's so
complex, the amount of progress you can expect is limited," said Bowen, from
the passenger advocacy group. "Any expectations you have should be

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org


End of RSHSDepot Digest V1 #592

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org