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LIRR: Follow-up to ‘summer of hell’ planned early next year

Another Amtrak project at Penn Station will take tracks 15, 18 and 19 out of service for five months starting in January and affect rush hours, officials say.

Amtrak crews at work on Aug. 31, 2017,

Amtrak crews at work on Aug. 31, 2017, during the "summer of hell" at Penn Station. Photo Credit: Amtrak / Emily Moser

Amtrak’s follow-up to its “summer of hell” infrastructure renewal project at Penn Station is set to begin in January and will entail the total reconstruction of three tracks primarily used by the Long Island Rail Road — disrupting its rush-hour service for up to five months, the railroad’s president said Monday.

At the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee meeting in Manhattan, Patrick Nowakowski offered the first details of the project, which MTA officials emphasized will have far less impact on service than during Amtrak’s effort in July and August.

In that project, which lasted eight weeks during what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo predicted would be a ‘‘summer of hell’’ for commuters, Amtrak replaced track infrastructure in a portion of Penn Station not typically used by the LIRR. However, the LIRR, which carries more than 230,000 customers through the station daily, was affected because the railroad had to share tracks with Amtrak and NJ Transit that it usually has to itself.

Nowakowski said for its next project, Amtrak plans to completely rebuild tracks 15, 18 and 19 — all of which are used by the LIRR. Because Penn Station has extra capacity during off-peak periods, the round-the-clock work, which would be conducted one track at a time, is only expected to affect LIRR service during rush hours, when the railroad operates at maximum capacity and needs all of its tracks.

“While we’re not ready to identify what the service impacts will be . . . it will not be as much as we experienced last summer,” Nowakowski said. “We are doing the due diligence currently that we did during the summer service to try and accommodate as many riders as possible, as many trains as possible into Penn Station.”

In a statement, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein clarified that the volume of trains that would be affected “isn’t expected to be anywhere near what our customers experienced this summer.”

“We’re currently negotiating with Amtrak to ensure the minimal impact to riders as possible — but we expect no more than a few trains will be involved,” Weinstein added.

Nowakowski said he expected that some regularly scheduled Penn Station trains would have to be diverted to other stations during the project. Over the summer, the LIRR diverted some rush-hour trains to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens.

A source with knowledge of the plan said up to five trains each in the morning and evening rush hours would be affected by the work.

Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, later on Monday confirmed plans for a “series of track renewal projects” that would be carried out mostly on weekends, but would require having one of Penn’s 21 tracks out of service from Jan. 4 until May 28. The work would require “minor modifications” of weekday operations at Penn, according to Amtrak, which said it was working with the LIRR and NJ Transit to minimize “the impact to all New York Penn Station customers to the greatest extent possible.”

Although the work would begin Jan. 5, schedules wouldn’t be affected until Jan. 8, according to Amtrak.

“After a successful summer, it is essential that we continue to upgrade the infrastructure so that we can continue to improve the reliability of service for all the customers that use New York Penn Station,” Amtrak co-chief executive officer Charles “Wick” Moorman, said in a statement.

The prospect of another round of prolonged service disruptions at Penn Station caused concern among commuters and advocates, including Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who said the project will affect thousands of LIRR riders.

“If we do not want 2018 to become the ‘Year of Hell’ then Amtrak and the MTA must exert the same Herculean efforts that we saw over the Summer to give riders alternative service options,’’ Kaminsky said in a statement.

The LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, urged the railroad to publish an assessment of lessons it learned over the summer, and use those lessons in planning for the next project, which the group pointed out will come with “increased potential for weather-related . . . disruptions.”

“Our riders demonstrated this summer that they are adaptable and cooperative in dealing with service changes related to necessary repair work,” Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said. “But riders’ ability to adapt to service changes is dependent on realistic service plans and the riders having information that allows them to adjust their behavior to choose alternative travel paths.”

Amtrak began its aggressive efforts to modernize some of its aging track infrastructure in the 107-year-old Penn Station — the busiest railroad station in the United States — after a series of major service disruptions at the Manhattan hub in the first half of this year. That included three train derailments in less than four months at the station, used by about 650,000 travelers each day.

“It is an important project for the safety of our trains and our operations,” Nowakowski said of the upcoming work. “But it will be an impactful project.”

Comparing Amtrak’s infrastructure renewal projects:

Summer project

Lasted eight weeks when ridership is typically lower

Three-to-five tracks were out of service during most of the project.

The project centered on replacing one of the most complex assortment of switches at the station, known as Interlocking A, as well as Penn’s Track 10. The affected tracks were not typically used by the LIRR.

The work affected 15 LIRR morning rush-hour trains and 17 evening rush-hour trains.

Project beginning in January:

Expected to last 21 weeks

One track will be out of service for the duration of the project.

The project will include the demolition and reconstruction of tracks 15,18 and 19, according to the LIRR, and the replacement of other track infrastructure at the east end of Penn Station. The affected tracks are primarily used by the LIRR.

A source with knowledge of the plan said no more than 5 morning trains and 5 evening trains will be affected.

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