'Summer of hell' starts Monday at Penn Station, nation's busiest rail hub
It's difficult enough in normal times to commute into and out of New York's Penn Station, a maze of narrow stairwells, obstacle-filled platforms and forlorn shopping plazas that was not built to handle the 650,000 subway and train riders who pass through every day.
Now things are about to get a lot worse.
Monday begins what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called "the summer of hell" at North America's busiest rail hub, as Amtrak, its owner, embarks on emergency repairs. More than 1,300 trains run by Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road travel on the station's 21 tracks each day. That volume will be sharply curtailed for the repairs.
The effect during rush hour will be like jamming gum into a bottleneck, forcing commuters to find alternate ways into and out of Manhattan and further crowding highways and subways. Some will opt for a boat.
"We're all dreading it," NJ Transit commuter Maura McGloin told The Associated Press. "I'd rather have my teeth pulled out."
Seasoned commuters know what to expect. They've been tested by a rash of problems in recent months ─ derailments, crashes, floods, equipment malfunctions ─ that have forced them to seek new ways to work. The most recent occurred Thursday night, when a NJ Transit train derailed near Penn Station.
Delays of up to 30 minutes have become routine on some morning NJ Transit rides into New York.
But this time, the delays will be longer, and will continue for two months ─ assuming the $40 million in track repairs are finished by Sept. 1, as officials have promised.
The disruptions will coincide with a crisis affecting New York's 112-year-old subway system, which has an ancient infrastructure that is also buckling under increased ridership, causing power outages, massive delays and one derailment.
The breakdowns have led to a public backlash against elected leaders in New York and New Jersey. Riders accuse them of failing to invest in the railroads as ridership grew. Politicians, in turn, have blamed each other or accused Amtrak of neglect.
The single century-old tunnel available for Amtrak and NJ Transit trains crossing under the Hudson River ─ one track in, one track out ─ is falling apart as well, damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. Repairs there will require another long stretch of reduced service sometime in the near future, officials have said.
Starting on Monday, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road will reduce the number of trains into Penn Station. They've urged riders to switch to the subway, buses and ferries, and discounted some fares to help ease the pain.
On Sunday, Cuomo announced that all non-emergency construction work would be halted from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and that all lanes on major New York City roadways would be open before Monday.
NJ Transit focused the disruptions on one train line, the Morris and Essex, which will be diverted to Hoboken, where passengers will be able to jump on a ferry, bus or the subway line run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Hoboken station was badly damaged in a crash last year and is still under repair. Yellow-vested workers will be there to help riders navigate the transfers.
"We're doing the best we can with what's under our control," NJ Transit spokesman Charles Ingoglia said.
For those zen enough to think beyond summer, there is reason to hope.
There is a $1.6 billion plan underway to change Penn Station, built in 1965 to replace a soaring but underused Beaux-Arts building. But the new version will not accommodate NJ Transit riders.
And preliminary work has begun on a new tunnel under the Hudson River, a project that was canceled by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 but has since been revived. Construction of the new tunnel requires funding from the federal government, but the Trump administration has proposed cutting a grant program originally designated at the source.