Crowded trains. Missed time with the kids. Navigating stations that seem ill-equipped to handle hordes of extra riders.
Those are some of the observations offered up by a group of commuters who agreed to help Newsday assess how well things were going during the “summer of hell.”
For the most part, their assessments were positive — probably reflecting the relative ease of the first week of the diversions and disruptions resulting from the summerlong repairs by Amtrak on a critical knot of tracks that lies at the western end of Penn Station. The work necessitates closing three of the 21 platform tracks at the nation’s busiest rail hub.
Officials with the Long Island Rail Road and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as Amtrak, have been also cautiously positive about the experience.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the panel of commuters gave the commuter railroad that serves as Long Island’s lifeline to New York City an average score of just over 6 for how it handled the first of eight weeks of track outages at Penn.
But, to a person, they also worried that there would be bad days ahead, however heavenly its debut might have been.
So, with seven weeks to go, here’s what Newsday’s panel of commuters had to say:
MARY CARR, 52, works for a nonprofit in midtown east, commutes from Mineola.
Regular commute: 7:06 a.m. train from Mineola to Hunterspoint where she catches a 7 subway train in the morning; the 4:18 p.m. train from Hunterspoint to Mineola in the evening. “I’ve been commuting at Hunterspoint Avenue for 11 years.”
“Summer of hell” commute: No change.
What happened this week: “There are far more people on my train now. And there are many more people at Mineola, where we have the intermodal transit center. I can still get a seat; I actually know where the train doors are opening and line up. But there are more people at Mineola than I’ve ever seen before.
“From my train, the next stop is Jamaica. It’s very easy. But at Jamaica there’s even more people getting on. On Thursday our four-car double-decker was short a car. The ticket taker couldn’t get through the people to check tickets.
“I will say the 7 for me has been pretty consistent. Every four minutes it’s going. On Monday, they were coming one right after the other. The MTA really stepped up the 7 train service.”
Carr conceded, however, that she had ducked the worst day this week. She worked from home on Wednesday, when “mechanical problems” on a 7 train led to the suspension of the subway line’s service into Manhattan for about 50 minutes in the morning, according to the MTA.
Considering any alternatives? Carr pondered taking the MTA’s ferry from Long Island City, near Hunterspoint, but ultimately decided the added transfers would lengthen her commute.
“My plan is to continue going to Hunterspoint and if some days there is heavy rain, or if there are problems with the subway, I’m going to take advantage of a work-from-home day here or there.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? Remove the bar cart from the platform at Hunterspoint, where thirsty riders can grab a beer during their commutes.
“There are people lining up the stairs to wait for the bar cart. It’s more crowded now and people can’t get through because the cart is really in the way. There’s a bodega nearby where people can buy a beer.”
LOGAN METZLER, 31, publicist, Rockville Centre to Times Square.
Regular commute: 8:33 a.m. train from Rockville Centre; usually the 6:36 p.m. train back to Rockville Centre in the evening.
“Summer of hell” commute: Her normal morning train was rerouted to Atlantic Terminal, but she’s taking either the 8:51 or the 9:12 to Penn, instead. “It would take me 40 minutes to get from Atlantic Terminal to Times Square, where I work,” she explained.
”Door to door, my [normal] commute is about an hour on the dot. This week it’s been longer, sometimes an hour and 40 minutes.”
What happened this week: “On the 8:51 a.m. train, everyone had a seat, but you were sitting close to others. The 9:12 a.m. was empty enough where you could sit alone — not a ‘summer of hell’ kind of train. I’m one of the lucky ones that their boss understands and lets me come in a bit later.”
At night, it’s been a different story. “My evening commute has been a mess. It’s, ‘Am I going to even get on a train? Am I going to have to wait?’ And the trains have been packed.”
On Monday, her train home arrived with just 10 cars, two fewer than had been expected.
“It was a nightmare. We were packed in like sardines. I couldn’t move. They also added stops. Normally it would go from Penn to Jamaica, but they decided to add in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. And even more people tried to get on at Jamaica.”
Considering any alternatives? “I’m trying different trains and taking each day as it comes and figure it out from there.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? The agency should rethink how it’s offering discounts to riders who go to LIRR stations in the outer boroughs as opposed to Penn. On the way home, the discounts become meaningless because those riders have to pay a full subway fare to get to the LIRR stations in Queens and Brooklyn.
“I would have taken a train to Jamaica — the E train gets me right to my corner — but they’re not cross-honoring in the evening. I’d get a reduced monthly ticket but then I would have to pay to get back to Jamaica.”
That failure, she said, in the reason why there has been overcrowding on trains leaving Penn Station during the afternoon rush.
“I’m sure more people in the morning change their commutes, but without the evening cross-honor, they just go to Penn after work.”
Rating: 8 for the morning commute, 2 for the evening (5.5 combined)
BRIAN CALLAGHAN, 58, senior project manager in finance, commutes from Malverne to Jersey City.
Regular commute: Morning rush-hour train to Penn Station, transfer to a downtown 2 subway train, then PATH to New Jersey. For the evening trip, Callaghan takes the PATH and transfers to a Brooklyn-bound 4 or 5 train, which connects him to the LIRR at Atlantic Terminal. From there, he takes the LIRR home.
“Summer of hell” commute: He is taking the LIRR to Atlantic Terminal in the morning, too. “I’m now going into Atlantic Terminal each morning instead of Penn because I’m getting the discount . . . It’s a difference that saves me $70.
“I usually get the 5:36 a.m. train out of Lynbrook, or the 5:43 a.m. out of Laverne if I’m lazy that morning. That gets me to Jamaica a little before 6 a.m., where I transfer to a train to Atlantic.”
What happened this week: “My commute went from an hour and 10 minutes to about an hour and 40 minutes. But I’m taking the trade-off — I’m senior enough where I don’t have to worry about when I come in. Plus in my business there is no such thing as a 9-to-5.
“Going to Jamaica and Atlantic is what’s adding to my commute in the morning. At Jamaica, there’s at least a 10-minute delay until the next train. There’s no Atlantic-bound train waiting. By the time I get to Atlantic, there’s not necessarily a 4 or 5 [subway] train waiting either. It’s a little extra time that adds up.”
Considering any alternatives? He is considering his options, including going back to Penn in the morning, but for the most part he is not letting the experience faze him.
“At the end of the day, it’s not something to have high blood pressure over . . . I wouldn’t want to do this for the rest of my life, but I can manage for the short time. Let’s hope Amtrak is telling the truth when they say this will be over in September.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? “They’ve been very cordial and directing everybody. When you get off the train at Atlantic, there’s a guy with a bullhorn telling LIRR riders where to go. They’re waving people through the subway emergency gate when you show your ticket. I can’t criticize them. I’ve seen them mess up in the past, but they’re doing a decent job.
“But they can improve the transfers at Atlantic and Jamaica if more people will be transferring there.”
CHRISTINE DESANTI, 39, legal secretary, commutes from Bethpage to midtown east.
Regular commute: Typically, the 7:01 a.m. from Bethpage to Penn Station; in the evening, the 4:51 p.m. out of Penn back to Bethpage.
“Summer of hell” commute: “I tried to commute into Hunterspoint and it was a disaster.” Now she’s going back and forth to Penn.
What happened this week: “On Monday [morning], I took my usual train but decided to transfer at Hicksville for a train to Hunterspoint instead of continuing on to Penn. I kind of panicked because of the media. They made it sound like it would be so bad and so disruptive, so I thought it would be worse for me to go into Penn.
“I read that Hunterspoint handled 6,000 commuters instead of its usual 3,000 that morning. You could tell. Everyone who got off the train from the LIRR filled the platform. It was very cramped with narrow spaces to get to the subway. I waited about 10 minutes just to get up the flight of stairs to the subway and thought, ‘This is just ridiculous.’ ”
Considering any alternatives? “My plan was to commute out of Hunterspoint in the evening on Monday, but it wasn’t worth it. It was such an unpleasant experience. So instead I took a train out of Penn and noticed no difference, no delays. It was seamless.
“I’m confident, based on this so far, that my commute will be OK if I continue as I normally do going in and out of Penn. I like the option of being able to walk to work from Penn to Grand Central. It’s has been fine — better than normal. I’m not confident, though, that this work will actually get done on time.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? “I have no idea what they’re doing, but if they keep it up I have no issue with Penn!”
Rethink the use of Hunterspoint.
MICHAEL TAUB, 39, works in accounting, commutes from Northport to midtown.
Regular commute: 8:11 a.m. from Northport to Penn; in the evening, the 7 train from Bryant Park to Hunterspoint, connecting to an LIRR train home.
“Summer of hell” commute: “I’m taking the 6:52 a.m. train right to Hunterspoint with a $76 discount.”
What happened this week: “I’m getting to work almost an hour and a half earlier. It’s a busy time of year for me and I can’t afford to be late. I’m giving myself the extra time in case there is a major delay.
“The thing is, I have three kids all under 6 years old. I don’t really see them in the morning now and at night, by the time I get back, I see them for a half-hour or 45 minutes at the most before they go to bed. I’d like more time with them.
“My commute is not terrible so far. It’s just gotten more packed. Usually the summertime is lighter. Taking the 8:11 a.m., I could get a seat with no one sitting next to me. Now on the 6:52 a.m. it’s totally packed. Every seat is taken and there are people standing.
“On Monday, there was an announcement being made that my morning train was running with one less car . . . They should anticipate the added ridership, but they’re running a short train.”
Considering any alternatives? “I’m going to try to stick to it . . . If there’s a signal problem I can’t afford to be delayed an hour and lose time.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? Rethink Hunterspoint.
“Hunterspoint wasn’t made for this high level of ridership. And that the train station there has no elevator or handicap access. So if you’re on crutches or in a wheelchair, that option doesn’t work for you.”
Run trains with the full number of cars.
Expand the discount.
“The issue with the MTA discount is that you still have to pay one way. So if you usually commute in and out of Penn, you’re not getting a discount. You’re paying the same exact thing you had been paying.”
JEREMY LIEBERMAN, 32, works in marketing, commutes from Plainview to TriBeCa.
Regular commute: Any one of four late-morning-rush trains from Hicksville to Penn; varying train from Penn home in the evening.
“Summer of hell” commute: No change.
What happened this week: Lieberman describes himself as a tough critic of the LIRR.
“The past year has been by far the worst year for the LIRR in my 10 years of commuting. I’ve been tweeting at them 100 times a day. I’m trying to get to work and make money and there are switch problems galore. I don’t even know what a switch is, but there are serious problems with them.”
But he said he was “impressed” by how the railroad has dealt with the past week.
“It’s the first compliment I’ll give the LIRR. They told us it would be the ‘summer of hell’ and everyone got planning. It’s been fine — even better, actually.
“At this point anything under a 15-minute delay is on time for me. The ‘summer of hell’ hasn’t had an impact on me at all.”
Considering any alternatives? “I’ll stick with this — I’m waiting for the next disaster on the LIRR to figure out my next career move.
“The Hicksville station is so close to my home. Any other option — buses or ferries — would be pretty far out of the way. Even with the HOV lane, I’ve seen the lane before and it’s not moving any faster. And I don’t want to be in a bus with all the people in an LIRR train.”
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? Be honest. “Tell us what problems there are when they happen and let us plan and adjust in advance. Give us the time.”
Rework the fare discounts. “The incentive[s] to get people not to go to Penn are a joke. They should do some sort of scaled discount . . . if someone commutes further off-peak, they get bigger discount. Or if they commute to certain stations at certain times, it could be adjusted to give people a better incentive to commute either off-peak or to a different station.”
TIANNI GRAHAM, 23, works as an archives assistant, commutes to Penn Station from Wyandanch.
Regular commute: “At least once a week, I’m late to work,” she said. She takes an 8:51 a.m. or 9:33 a.m. LIRR train from Wyandanch to Jamaica, then an E train into midtown in the morning. She aims for a 7 p.m. train at Jamaica to return home.
“Summer of hell” commute: No change
What happened this week: “I just let everyone I work with know that I’m coming from Long Island: ‘I have to take the Long Island Rail Road, so just be aware,’ ” she said. “It was actually OK, surprisingly.”
Considering any alternatives? “I don’t really have any alternatives. It’s the end all-be all,” she said.
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? Suggestions? She would like to see the MTA upgrade its older systems to handle the number of rail commuters today. “All the money that we pay, especially the fare raise, they should put that towards a new system. That would make a lot of sense.”
KARINAH HERNANDEZ, 28, a registered nurse, commutes from Freeport.
Regular commute: Her schedule varies and some days she is assigned to Queens and others Manhattan. A typical commute has her taking an 8:08 a.m. LIRR train out of Freeport to Penn. From there, she takes the subway to her assigned location.
“Summer of hell” commute: She chose not to take the LIRR out of fear it would be difficult, or worse. Instead, she drove into Queens and parked near subway stops in Corona or Sunnyside. “I was scared of everything that was going to happen, so I just took my car.”
What happened this week: “It was a lot of extra time,” she said. The roads were crowded, and she wondered if other people had come up with the same idea to forgo the train for driving. “I guess it was worth it. I’m just really trying to avoid the train. I don’t want to risk it.” She has been leaving around 7 or 7:30 a.m. to give herself extra time to deal with traffic tie-ups.
Considering any alternatives? She took one — driving in.
Suggestions for the MTA/LIRR? “I do understand why they’re doing this. I’d rather do this for a couple of months instead of thinking, ‘Oh dear God, will the train fall apart or derail this time going into Penn?’ ”
MTA chief’s view
MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota offered his own assessment of how the agency performed in the first week of the LIRR’s so-called summer of hell. Only one grade is appropriate, he said — “an incomplete.”
“It’s only week one,” Lhota said during a Friday afternoon conference call. “We’ve got another I-don’t-know-how-many more days . . . Every day is going to require vigilance to make sure we get people in as quickly and as safely as possible.”
Lhota said he did “appreciate” the high marks Newsday readers gave to the agency and said they “dovetail” with similar positive reviews he received in person during visits to Penn Station and Atlantic Terminal during the week.
“A lot of great planning went into making sure this could work,” Lhota said. “And it did.”
— Alfonso A. Castillo