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LIRR riders brace for new round of Amtrak work at Penn Station

People wait for their tracks to be announced

People wait for their tracks to be announced at the Long Island Rail Road mezzanine in Penn Station, Manhattan, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Credit: Charles Eckert

Long Island Rail Road riders, who last summer weathered service disruptions due to major repairs at Penn Station, are bracing for the next installment in the ongoing effort to renovate the aging Manhattan rail hub — a new round of work that starts Monday, with winter kicking into high gear.

Amtrak is reconstructing as many as three tracks at Penn Station that normally serve LIRR riders, and will also rebuild a “turnout” — an arrangement of rails and switches — at the eastern spur of the tracks feeding the 107-year-old station.

The LIRR has altered schedules to accommodate the work, diverting eight rush-hour trains that usually terminate or originate at Penn Station to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn or Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens.

Amtrak said the new project at the nation’s busiest rail hub would run until May 28, twice as long as the work it completed over July and August, during what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dubbed the “summer of hell” for commuters.

However, Amtrak officials said this project would have far less impact on riders. It will take place mostly on weekends and off-peak hours and only one track will be out of service at any time as the work proceeds, as opposed to three or more during the summer, agency officials said.

The LIRR’s service changes are also more limited than during the summer, when the number of diverted trains totaled more than 30 a day.

But worries persist among riders and their advocates, who note that this installment of the Penn repairs comes when fewer riders are on vacation and the system is already stressed by winter weather issues. They also note that the LIRR has not included other options, such as buses and ferries, in its plan this time around as it did in the summer.

“That was summer. This is winter. In the wintertime there are always other problems going on — snow problems, track problems,” said Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, a rider advocate group. “We see already a slew of broken rails this year. You have to be prepared for the unexpected. And we haven’t seen that.”

Sarah Armaghan, an LIRR spokeswoman, assured that the railroad was properly prepared for the work and stressed that the repairs would only affect a small fraction of its 184 rush-hour trains.

“The men and women at the LIRR are committed to getting everyone where they need to go,” Armaghan said in a statement. “Our crews work diligently to ensure a safe and reliable system and the LIRR is confident that service will run as planned.”

In addition to the eight diverted trains — five in the morning and three in the afternoon — the LIRR is also combining two canceled trains with others that depart within 11 minutes and serve all affected stations.

The LIRR, which carries more than 230,000 riders through Penn daily, will also add five trains on either side of the rush hours, providing a net increase in trains running to and from the west side of Manhattan.

With fewer trains affected than during the summer, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR’s parent, will not offer fare discounts and free subway transfers, as it did in the summer. (A full list of the LIRR schedule changes can be found here.)

Ravi Thakore, a pharmacist who commutes into midtown from Mineola, echoed Epstein’s concerns. Because he is already seeing numerous delays, Thakore said he tends to leave 30 or 40 minutes earlier for work and plans to continue throughout the Amtrak work if necessary.

“There are delays already. That’s happening every day due to equipment problems,” said Thakore, 28, who relies on either the Ronkonkoma, Oyster Bay, or Port Jefferson branches. “It’s super-crowded now and with the delays there is extra crowding. Forget about finding a seat — you can’t even find a place to stand.”

The MTA has also scaled back the public-awareness campaign about the service changes from what it did last summer.

Some LIRR riders were either unaware the work would take place or dismissed the need to pay close attention after experiencing a relatively problem-free summer. Riders who had heard about the construction said they intended to stick to their schedules, with some mentioning tentative plans to take a slightly earlier or later train if service suffers.

“For me it was a non-issue,” said Michael Ehrenperis, 62, a certified public accountant who commutes from Port Washington, referring to the summer work. “And I’ve talked to other people on other lines and it was a non-issue for them, too. Surprising, right?” He said he was aware of the coming Amtrak work but made no plans to alter his commuting habits for Monday.

Lisa Itty of East Meadow also hadn’t made plans to change her schedule, though she was disappointed there wouldn’t be other options, such as buses and ferries, like last summer.

“Because we had those alternate solutions, my train was actually less crowded and I could actually get a seat for once,” Itty said.

Running buses and ferries, and reducing fares, cost the MTA $58 million last summer. LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said at a recent LIRR committee meeting that the agency would be able to save significant money by not providing the same services during what he has described as ultimately a “small disruption.”

“We are committed to providing our customers with exemplary service and travel options,” Nowakowski said in a statement announcing service changes last month. “We are maintaining capacity by lengthening select trains and adding trains just before and just after rush hours when we have available time slots.”

Over the next four months, Amtrak will begin working on Track 15, then switch over to reconstruct Track 18 and then potentially move to expand the project to Track 19 as well, according to MTA and Amtrak officials. Crews began this past weekend to prepare Track 15 for the work.

Jason Abrams, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the railroad collaborated on planning for the work with LIRR and NJ Transit “to the greatest extent possible,” emphasizing that Amtrak’s winter construction project is on a much smaller scale than the summer one. The bulk of the work will take place on weekends, he said.

“Compared to the 2017 renewal work, the project will have less construction hours, less track work and less trains out of service,” he said.

Nevertheless, Epstein believes the everyday problems of the railroad — however small — could exacerbate delays and problems for commuters.

“Although people say it may have not been the summer of hell,” he said, “I can tell you, as a rider, we are still living in purgatory.”

Things to know about Amtrak winter work at Penn Station:

Differences from ‘‘summer of hell’’:

--Project to last 4 months: Jan 8, 2018, to May 28, 2018

--No buses or ferries

--No fare reductions

Other impacts:

--Penn tracks out of service at any one time: 1

--Trains impacted: 5 (morning rush hour), 3 (evening rush hour)

--Tracks at Penn impacted: Tracks 15, 18 and potentially, 19

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