Amtrak’s plan to take several tracks out of service for weeks at a time at Penn Station this summer could reduce train service there as much as 25 percent, the agency’s leader said Thursday in Manhattan.
At a specially convened hearing of the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Amtrak and the LIRR were taken to task by Albany lawmakers for “failure upon failure” at the aging terminal.
Charles “Wick” Moorman, president of Amtrak, which owns and operates Penn, provided more details on the agency’s proposed summer track work, which he said will begin July 7 and last until Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day.
“Penn Station is the single most difficult and complex place to do track work that I have ever seen and could ever imagine,” Moorman told the panel of Assembly members. “We do understand that this is going to create some significant impact on service levels this summer.”
However, he said he expects the work to eliminate the possibility of track-caused disruptions “for a good, long time.”
Meanwhile, the governors of New York and New Jersey, in a statement released Thursday night, called for Amtrak to turn over full control of Penn Station and the planned repairs to a “professional, qualified, private station operator.”
“The situation at Penn Station has gone from bad to worse to intolerable,” the governors wrote. “Intense and immediate repairs are clearly necessary but they are not enough: longer term changes in the management of these assets must go hand in glove with the emergency repairs.”
The weekday work this summer, concentrated at a particularly complex portion of tracks at the 117-year-old station’s western end, will occur over two prolonged periods lasting 19 days and 25 days, respectively, Moorman confirmed. He said he expects Amtrak and the affected commuter railroads to release full details of their service plans next week, allowing riders about six weeks to prepare.
Amtrak officials later said a preliminary schedule could run from July 7 through July 27, and from Aug. 4 through Aug. 28. The officials cautioned, however, that the schedule was subject to revision.
Another round of weekday track shutdowns will probably be coming next year, but will be shorter and less severe than the summer disruptions, Amtrak officials said.
Moorman predicted that, even at the height of the disruptions, 75 percent or more of trains would continue operating into and out of Penn Station, which carries about 600,000 train riders a day — about half on the Long Island Rail Road.
While the planned work is not “the absolute cure-all” for Penn Station — the busiest in the nation — it will provide more reliable infrastructure requiring less-disruptive maintenance for years, he said.
Completing the planned work, which was originally supposed to be carried out over weekends for the next several years, will also free Amtrak to carry out other important maintenance work at Penn and help advance other projects in the area, including the LIRR’s East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal.
Moorman also clarified that the planned upgrades of track infrastructure will include neither the East River tunnels leading into and out of Penn nor the station’s problem-plagued signal system.
That signal system was originally blamed for Wednesday’s evening rush-hour chaos at Penn, which saw the LIRR cancel 86 trains and police restrict access to the station for hours. But Moorman acknowledged Thursday that the problem was “not a mechanical failure,” but a “routing issue” involving an Amtrak dispatcher working out of Penn Station’s off-site central control center.
A source close to the situation said an LIRR train was errantly sent through a signal, sparking a chain reaction that resulted in a train blocking access to a tunnel and Penn’s signal system, halting all other trains.
Amtrak’s plans and explanations were met with skepticism by some state lawmakers in attendance, including Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) who held up printed photos that she took during recent Penn service disruptions of dangerous crowding in the station and on trains. “It’s like the running of the bulls,” Solages said. “Failure upon failure. It’s an embarrassment.”
Responding to growing calls for Amtrak to relinquish its control of Penn Station, the agency also proposed at the hearing hiring an outside, private “master developer” to manage the hub’s concourse areas as a separate entity that would be jointly governed by Amtrak, the LIRR and NJ Transit.
“To get a big change there, which is what everyone desires, you’ve got to bring these entities together and create a common platform for us to work in a more collaborative way,” Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner said. “Because there’s no way for any one party, frankly, to solve all of the problems.”
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who first requested the hearing, called the plan a “stunning admission” that Amtrak is not equipped to manage Penn Station itself, and reiterated his call to have the LIRR take over the station from its “negligent landlord.”
“The burden was on Amtrak today to convince me that they should be in charge of Penn Station. They clearly should not,” said Kaminsky, noting that he represents tens of thousands frustrated LIRR riders. “This is not an inconvenience. This has become something that turns their life upside down.”