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Long IslandTransportation

After ‘summer of hell,’ Penn Station repairs face first test

Penn Station commuters say the LIRR operated well

Penn Station commuters say the LIRR operated well during the so-called "summer of hell" while repairs were made. July 27, 2017. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Tons of freshly poured concrete have dried, thousands of feet of new rail are in place and hundreds of workers have moved on to other projects. The summerlong repair work at Penn Station is finished, well within the schedule Amtrak set when it closed down a big chunk of the nation’s busiest transit hub.

That improved version of Penn Station undergoes its first major test today, as full service is restored and thousands of commuters return to what is still a stressed and fragile Manhattan train terminal.

William Henderson, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said that while he predicts today will be “by and large. . . a normal day” for commuters, he acknowledged bringing back Penn Station to full capacity has its risks.

“Obviously, there’s going to be more trains going into Penn Station, so that presents the potential for more issues if there’s something stuck in a tunnel,” said Henderson, who noted that three major railroads share the terminal. “If Amtrak or NJ Transit sneezes, a lot of times the LIRR catches a cold.”

Henderson said he’s confident the MTA learned important lessons over the summer that should improve the chances for a smooth commute. He also said he expects Long Island Rail Road will benefit from Amtrak’s improvements, even though they weren’t done on tracks typically used by the LIRR. LIRR service was affected because the railroad was required to share with Amtrak and NJ Transit tracks it usually has to itself.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota has promised a more responsive LIRR going forward. But he could not guarantee the strength of the infrastructure at century-old Penn Station, owned and maintained by Amtrak. “My hope is . . . that it will be a better Penn Station,” he added.

For commuters, the resumption of full service at Penn holds the potential for a return to normalcy in their commutes after a summer of altered schedules and diversions to other stations. But many LIRR riders said they fear the end of the improved service they experienced in July and August, when the LIRR performed better than it has all year, despite having fewer tracks available at Penn during the rush hours.

“I expect to have a lot of the same problems that occurred in the past,” said LIRR commuter Mitch Simon, 58, of Merrick, who doesn’t recall the railroad ever running as smoothly as it did during the past two months. “It might be a little better than it was, but I don’t think it will be as good as it’s been over the summer, which is kind of ironic, because it was supposed to be the summer of hell.”

On Thursday, Amtrak announced it had completed its eight-week infrastructure renewal project, which was concentrated at a particularly troublesome junction at Penn Station known as “A-interlocking,” where three derailments occurred in less than four months. The work necessitated taking three to five of Penn’s 21 tracks out of service throughout the summer, forcing all railroads at the station, which moves 650,000 people a day, to reduce service there.

Amtrak has stood by its work, which co-chief executive Charles “Wick” Moorman said in a statement last week “will result in greater reliability in the future” for all of Penn Station’s railroads.

Much remains to be done to bring the infrastructure in and around Penn up to snuff. For instance, elements of the signal system that controls train movements at the transit hub date to the 1930s.

To compensate for the reduced capacity necessitated by Amtrak’s summer repair program, the MTA embarked on a $58 million mitigation plan that included enhanced communication with customers, extra trains outside the rush hours, special bus and ferry service between Long Island and Manhattan, and discounted fares for alternative terminals in Queens and Brooklyn.

The plan was successful, for the most part, with the LIRR reporting fewer delays in July and August than any other months in 2017.

“I would say I could count on one hand, but I think I could count on two fingers, the number of times I was delayed this summer,” said Syosset commuter Julia Perl, who is not sure what to expect when full service resumes today. “I’m going to go into this with a lot of optimism, because they really did a great job this whole summer.”

Lhota has promised that the LIRR’s improved performance over the past two months is “the new normal” and that the improved communications and quicker decision making that customers have witnessed are here to stay. “In many cases, what happened this summer was a laboratory for us to allow to better evaluate how we meet the needs of customers,” Lhota said.

Here’s a look at some changes in LIRR service Tuesday:

  • Full train service is restored at Penn Station, including trains that were canceled during the rush hours and overnight. However, the schedule will not be identical to that before the summer, in part because of planned track work. New timetables are available at mta.info/lirr.
  • The extra rush hour trains to Atlantic Terminal and Hunterspoint Avenue over the summer will not operate, nor will Penn Station trains that were added just outside the rush hours.
  • Express buses between Long Island and Manhattan have ceased, as has ferry service to and from Glen Cove.
  • The NYC Transit subway system will no longer cross-honor LIRR fares at Jamaica, Hunterspoint Avenue and Atlantic Terminal.
  • Discounted fares to stations in Brooklyn and Queens, and discounted tolls for trucks traveling overnight, have ended.

— Alfonso A. Castillo

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