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Crowded Penn Station platforms have LIRR riders on edge — literally

"I've seen people have panic attacks in front of me," said Trish Sparacia, a commuter from North Babylon who said she’ll sometimes pass on boarding a train at Penn Station if it arrives on one of the more narrow platforms, like Track 17.

Record ridership, more frequently canceled trains and construction work have combined to create severe crowding issues at Penn Station, say LIRR riders, who fear the shoulder-to-shoulder conditions inside the nation’s busiest transit hub could endanger their safety, as seen here on Thursday, Nov. 8. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo; Photo Credit: Kelly Bodami)

Record ridership, more frequently canceled trains and construction work have combined to create severe crowding issues at Penn Station, according to LIRR riders, who fear the shoulder-to-shoulder conditions inside the nation’s busiest transit hub could endanger their safety.

Photos and videos shared by Long Island Rail Road riders on social media capture the conditions at Penn during peak travel times: commuters bottlenecking at tight walkways near the subway station on Penn’s eastern end, obstructed by plywood barriers; rush-hour crowds teetering precariously near the edges of narrow station platforms; and train doors opening inches from temporary construction walls.

“I’ve seen people have panic attacks in front of me,” said Trish Sparacia, 46, a commuter from North Babylon who said she’ll sometimes pass on boarding a train at Penn Station if it arrives on one of the more narrow platforms, like Track 17. “It’s just too many people, and everybody’s in their own world, and now you’re dealing with the extra barricades . . . It’s not safe.”

Some 650,000 people daily travel through Penn Station. Amtrak, the station's operator, said it's working with other agencies, including the LIRR, to ensure riders' safety. The LIRR, too, said it has taken steps to help, including beefing up personnel at Penn.

Although train experts have pointed to various remedies to the crowding, ranging from technology that would prevent riders from falling onto tracks to limiting the amount of riders who are allowed on a platform, meaningful solutions have been elusive, in part because of the complex management structure at Penn Station. Amtrak owns and maintains the tracks and platforms, but the LIRR controls its own customer concourse area.

“You look at Penn Station — it was not designed to handle the volume that it does,” said Katharine M. Hunter-Zaworski, an associate professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University who has studied train platform safety. “Penn Station is so difficult. It’s historic. You’ve got all the different operators with different value systems there. But, I think, some of the solutions are very simple.”

Hosting three railroads — the LIRR, Amtrak and NJ Transit — and six subway lines, the century-old Midtown Manhattan train hub has seen its share of crowding issues, but a recent increase in riders, and decrease in space in some areas, have noticeably worsened the situation, riders said.

The LIRR has set modern ridership records in each of the last three years, and is on pace to carry about as many passengers in 2018 as it has in the last two years — 89 million.

Meanwhile, the average number of canceled LIRR trains each month has reached its highest level in at least a decade, according to a recent New York State comptroller’s report. Through September, the LIRR already had canceled 1,151 trains, an increase of 8 percent from 2017 — a year in which the railroad posted its worst on-time performance in 18 years. Canceled trains can result in extra demand for subsequent trains going to the same destination.

Making for an even tighter squeeze has been the unprecedented level of construction in and around Penn Station. MTA subway upgrades, work at the LIRR’s 34th Street entrance related to the state’s Moynihan Station expansion project, and Amtrak’s infrastructure renewal work at the station has resulted in several areas in the station being blocked off, including large portions of already-narrow station platforms.

The projects have various timelines, with some efforts, including Amtrak's modernization of a key switching location at the east end of the station, scheduled for completion later this year, and others expected to last years, like the Moynihan development, which is scheduled for completion in 2020.

A spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., which is heading the Moynihan project, said the agency is working with transportation providers at Penn " to minimize disruptions to the traveling public during the construction."

"Passenger safety is of the utmost concern for Empire State Development’s project team, its contractors and the railroads, which cooperate together on a daily basis to ensure a safe and secure working environment for workers and the traveling public," the spokesman said.

Last week, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams acknowledged "there is inconvenience during any construction" at Penn, but assured the public it has been working with the LIRR and Federal Railroad Administration to ensure appropriate walking clearances are maintained throughout the station. He also said the Moynihan work will result in wider and better-lit walkways and improved directional signage.

"Amtrak and LIRR have been jointly performing inspections and walk-throughs during construction to ensure that the walkway is in a safe condition," Abrams said. "We are also working together to relieve crowd congestion while the barricades are still in place."

The LIRR also recently increased the number of its “customer service ambassadors” at major hubs, including Penn Station, the railroad said.

Hunter-Zaworski, who authored a manual for transit providers for the National Academy of Sciences last year, said additional personnel helping direct riders on platforms can make “a huge difference.” Other solutions, she said, are far more expensive and unrealistic, like widening platforms, or constructing permanent sliding doors or gates at platform edges that only open when a train arrives.  

She said the most potentially impactful change that could be made at Penn is within reach, but could be unpopular.

“I think one of the solutions for them to explore is you don’t let people down to the platform. You limit access to the platforms. You hold them back,” said Hunter-Zaworski, who noted that such “metering” has proved effective in reducing crowding in other rail systems, including SEPTA in Philadelphia. “Basically, what you’re doing is you’re holding people in a safe environment and metering how many people go down . . . It takes the pressure off the platform.”

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s watchdog group, questioned the effectiveness of such a strategy, which he said would result in “a lot of angry people.”

Epstein added that some of the increased crowding is the byproduct of positive developments for the railroad: healthy ridership and booming infrastructure improvement projects.

He said crowding and many other commuter frustrations at Penn could be improved by providing better information for riders, including about the location, duration and purpose of construction work, about trains operating with fewer cars than usual, and about which areas to avoid. Whenever possible, the LIRR also should avoid announcing train track assignments when other trains are unloading passengers onto the same platform — resulting in what experts call “turbulent mixing” of commuters.

“I’m shocked that there haven’t been major injuries,” Epstein said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but communication is always something that should be the easiest part of it.”

The LIRR has said safety remains its top priority, and that it would consider any potential ideas. Recently, the railroad installed steel platform extensions at Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, doubling the platform space at the stations. The railroad spent $37 million to shrink the gap between station platforms and train doors after a 2007 Newsday investigation revealed the gap at some stations to be as wide as 15 inches.  

Twenty-year LIRR commuter James Bianco, of Melville, said that while platform crowding may be particularly severe in Penn, he has witnessed it in other locations. That includes his home station of Farmingdale, where he said ongoing renovation work also has disrupted the flow of passengers.

“There are so many people on the platform . . . People kind of hog the platform and there’s no room to move by if you want to go to the back of the train,” said Bianco, 67, who worries that the railroad’s efforts to further grow ridership, including through the construction of a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, will worsen the problem. “If you can’t operate with what you have now, how are you going to handle more?”

How to navigate

Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road recently launched initiatives to help riders navigate crowded Penn Station.

  • Amtrak last week said it has updated its “FindYourWay” mobile app for Penn Station travelers, including instructions on how to get around the LIRR and NJ Transit customers concourses.
  • The LIRR said it has been serving six times as many people with its LIRR Care program, which provides extra assistance to customers with mobility limitations at stations. Using a 24-hour hotline, customers can make arrangements to have assistance navigating Penn and boarding trains there. The program launched in August.

Source: Amtrak, LIRR

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