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LIRR disruption renews call for MTA to take over Penn Station

Commuters crowd the 34th Street entrance to Penn

Commuters crowd the 34th Street entrance to Penn Station in Manhattan on Monday, March 6, 2017, as a switch problem in one of the East River tunnels effectively reduced LIRR track capacity during the evening rush hour. Both Penn Station and the tunnels are owned and operated by Amtrak. Credit: Charles Eckert

Penn Station’s latest service disruption — which delayed tens of thousands of LIRR riders at the height of Monday’s evening rush hour — has reignited calls from a key MTA board member and the railroad’s watchdog group for the agency to take ownership and control of the Amtrak hub.

The Long Island Rail Road runs about half of all daily trains into and out of Penn, which also is used by NJ Transit and Amtrak. However, the station and its tunnels are owned and maintained by Amtrak, which runs the fewest trains of the three rail carriers.

Although LIRR crews are not allowed to work on Penn’s tracks or tunnels, the LIRR, as its primary user, foots the bill for most of the repair and maintenance costs.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitchell Pally said that with the state and federal government taking a renewed interest in improving the region’s transportation infrastructure, “now is the time” to consider transferring control of Penn to the agency that uses it most.

“The issue of the ownership of Penn Station and the surrounding tunnels should be a priority item to discuss because if it doesn’t happen now, it most likely never will,” said Pally, who said he believes Amtrak, which has tracks and stations across the country, will never give Penn and LIRR customers the attention they deserve.

“When something happens at 5 o’clock, it affects 50 or 100 of our trains. Maybe it affects one of theirs,” Pally said. “I’m sure they do the best they can, but the 5:15 from Penn Station to Ronkonkoma is not their problem.”

In a statement Thursday, Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods did not address the issue of Penn Station’s ownership and control, but she said Amtrak officials “value our partnership with the commuter rail lines and work to facilitate a safe and reliable travel experience” for all rail riders in the Northeast.

Woods said that “years of underinvestment by all users” of Penn, limited windows of time to perform maintenance in and near Penn, and Amtrak work crews’ other obligations make the LIRR vulnerable to unplanned outages.

“Amtrak has every incentive to keep Penn Station working as well as possible, both because we take seriously our role as host to the various commuter railroads that use our assets and because it is our busiest and most important station,” Woods said.

On Monday, a problem in a switch interlocking in one of the East River tunnels into and out of Penn effectively cut the LIRR’s track capacity in half during the evening rush hour, resulting in nearly two dozen canceled trains, a suspension of all westbound service, and lengthy delays. At one point, MTA police closed off access to Penn because of crowding.

In a statement, LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said railroad officials understand “our customers’ frustration this week.”

“We will be speaking with Amtrak about the handling of these issues in the East River tunnels and the approach to Penn Station,” Donovan said.

Monday’s service problems marked the latest dust-up in the complicated and tense relationship between the LIRR and Amtrak, which took ownership and control of Penn Station from the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Co. in the early 1970s.

The LIRR has said “third party operations,” including Amtrak, were to blame for 1,463, about 8 percent, of the LIRR’s 17,951 delays last year. That was significantly less than the 2,605 third-party-caused delays in 2015.

Amtrak-related delays have worsened since 2012’s superstorm Sandy, which flooded two of the four East River tunnels with corrosive saltwater that Amtrak officials have said has continued to eat away at the structures.

It was immediately after Sandy — when Amtrak initially declined to let LIRR workers assist in emergency repairs to restore service to and from Penn — that the LIRR Commuter Council first pushed to have the MTA take over the busy Manhattan rail hub, through which more than 600,000 passengers travel daily.

On Thursday, Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said he still supports such a change, as long as Amtrak helps cover repair and maintenance costs at Penn.

“Absolutely, we’d like to see it done. I just don’t want to see the financial burden fall solely on the MTA,” Epstein said. “We are the ones that use that system more than anybody else.”

Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, which represents about 500 LIRR signal workers, said the railroad is better suited to respond to problems that affect its customers directly.

“There’s no sense of urgency at all,” Natale said of Amtrak’s response to LIRR service problems. “Having control over that property — and having us being able to maintain it and control the maintenance and upkeep of that property — is really kind of paramount to the railroad at this point.”

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which represents Amtrak employees, declined to comment.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said that regardless of who runs Penn, the LIRR should take responsibility of its service “from the beginning of the line to the end of the line.” He noted that much of riders’ frustration during disruptions have to do with the LIRR’s poor communication efforts.

“I’m not satisfied with the answer that, ‘Look, it’s Amtrak. We just lease space here,’ ” Kaminsky said. “It’s the LIRR’s job to get taxpayers and fare payers from point A to point B with the quality of service that is commensurate with what they’re paying.”

A brief history

  • Amtrak took over ownership and control of Penn Station from the failing Penn Central Transportation Co. in 1971.
  • In 1988, Amtrak and the LIRR reached a “joint facilities agreement,” under which Amtrak would be responsible for the maintenance and repairs of Penn and its tunnels, and the LIRR, as the primary user, would cover most of the cost.
  • Amtrak operates 141 trains into and out of Penn Station each weekday. The LIRR operates nearly 500.
  • In 2016, about 8 percent of all LIRR delays were due to “third party operations,” including Amtrak.

Sources: Amtrak, LIRR


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