Major service disruptions on the Long Island Rail Road this year — including those caused by two Penn Station derailments in less than two weeks — have exposed the vulnerabilities of the region’s aging and overused rail system, and most meaningful solutions remain far off, experts said.
Several big-ticket projects are in the pipeline to address the system’s capacity constraints, especially at its main bottleneck, Penn Station, but they are years away from completion.
Other moves critical to modernizing the region’s rail network are stymied by turf wars over control of Penn and other political obstacles — including, potentially, a new presidential administration that has proposed slashing transportation funding.
Shorter-term fixes could ease the pain increasingly felt by the LIRR’s 308,000 daily commuters, experts said, including changes in Penn Station’s complex management structure, overhauled maintenance practices and improved communication with riders. However, they too face logistical challenges.
Nothing short of the health of the region’s economy is at stake, experts say, but until more is done to bring the region’s antiquated rail network into the 21st century, the system will remain prone to crippling shutdowns caused by seemingly minor issues.
In just three weeks, weakened rail ties, mismatched pieces of rail, dangling overhead electrical wires, and other infrastructure failures at Amtrak-owned and -controlled Penn — the busiest rail hub in the nation — have riddled multiple rush hours with delays and cancellations.
Underscoring the interconnections and fragility of the regional rail network is the fact that, while many of those problems have originated in and around the Hudson River tunnels primarily used by NJ Transit and Amtrak riders, LIRR riders have been burdened most, experts say.
“I think what’s coming to light is the fact that this deterioration and underinvestment is putting a strain not just on NJ Transit and Amtrak, but on the Long Island Rail Road,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “If we’re not moving a lot of these projects concurrently, we’re really not going to seize on the full benefits of our regional network.”
Impact on region
Richard Barone, vice president of transportation for the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, said at the root of the problem is generations of underinvestment that has not kept up with the rail system’s growth. According to Amtrak, daily ridership at Penn Station has tripled during the last half-century, from 200,000 in the 1960s to more than 600,000 now. Yet, rail infrastructure typically receives far less federal funding than any other transportation mode, including highways and airports.
“It’s incredible that all of this traffic comes into these 100-year-old tunnels,” Barone said. “We operate so much at the edge. We don’t have that big buffer between something going wrong and the whole thing falling apart.”
That breakdown has consequences beyond commuters simply arriving late to work or home.
According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for mass transit, the Northeast rail corridor, from Boston to Washington, D.C., generates $3 trillion in economic activity each year.
“Our ability to compete nationally and globally is at stake here,” said Barone, who fears continued deterioration of the rail system could drive people away from the transit system, or from the region altogether. “The less reliable and less functioning our transportation system is, the less desirable and attractive the city and the region is.”
At the center of the system and its ills is Penn Station, originally built in 1910. Although the original station was demolished in the 1960s so Madison Square Garden could be built on top, much of the track-level infrastructure dates to the early 20th century.
The station is the primary Manhattan terminal for the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak. In addition to Penn, Amtrak owns the station’s adjacent tunnels.
The LIRR is by far the busiest user of Penn Station, moving hundreds of thousands of daily commuters to and from jobs in Manhattan.
Amtrak President Charles Moorman recently described the state of Penn Station’s current infrastructure as “fair.” His comment came days after an April 3 derailment at Penn, as the railroad recovered from one of its frequent infrastructure-related failures.
In the aftermath of the derailments, which snarled LIRR and NJ Transit service for days, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie heavily criticized Amtrak for its maintenance and repair efforts at Penn. In a joint letter to the agency, the governors said their “passengers and residents deserve better.”
The deterioration of the station and its adjoining tunnels was only accelerated by 2012’s superstorm Sandy, which flooded tracks with corrosive saltwater that engineers have said is still doing damage five years later. According to a new report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the number of LIRR disruptions caused by problems in and around the East River Tunnels have increased by 72 percent since Sandy — accounting for nearly a fifth of the increase in all of the delays and cancellations throughout the LIRR, which includes 700 miles of track.
Amtrak has plans for a $400 million repair project in the tunnels, but it could be years before the work commences. It will also require taking two of the four East River Tunnels out of service — each for one year at a time — further limiting the station’s already-strained capacity.
Other parallel efforts are also in the works to modernize Penn, including a $1.6 billion face-lift of the western Manhattan transit hub that could include skylights and a digitally imposed blue sky above the LIRR customer concourse, and an expansion into a new 700,000-square-foot train hall at the current Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue, which will be renamed the Moynihan Station. The new complex, as Cuomo has dubbed it, would give the LIRR a second customer concourse as well as new dining and retail options.
While the renovation could create more breathing room and conveniences for customers at the concourse levels, it would do little to address the overburdened and timeworn rail infrastructure below. For that, experts say, two multibillion-dollar megaprojects far off into the future are needed: Amtrak’s Gateway effort and the MTA’s East Side Access.
Gateway rose from the ashes of New Jersey’s scrapped Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, which would have built a new rail tunnel across the Hudson but was killed by Christie, who said the project lacked sufficient cost controls.
Like the ARC project, the $24 billion Gateway would build a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel as well as new tracks and platforms at Penn and upgrade much of its infrastructure. The project has support of state and federal officials in New York and New Jersey. Former President Barack Obama fast-tracked grant applications and environmental reviews for the effort.
But Gateway’s future became considerably hazier upon the election of President Donald Trump, who, despite promises to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, has proposed cutting transportation spending by 13 percent, including by reducing federal Amtrak subsidies and eliminating a grant program that would be key to getting Gateway off the ground.
“The bottom line is that the Gateway tunnel project is the most important infrastructure project in the country and would go a long way toward reducing delays for the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak riders,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has criticized Trump for taking the project off the fast track.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s largest capital project effort, the $10.2 billion East Side Access to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, could make a big difference by providing redundancy for the LIRR and providing commuters with an alternative to the cramped and congested Penn Station.
But the project has been plagued by years of delays — the most recent of which the MTA has blamed on Amtrak. The MTA needs Amtrak to provide workers and staged track shutdowns at a key construction site just east of the East River Tunnels, but Amtrak, which says it has been taxed by other construction projects in the area, has not provided the promised cooperation.
Change in Penn management
Others said the most critical change needed at Penn Station is not one of infrastructure but of management. Although Amtrak runs the fewest trains and serves the fewest customers of the three railroads operated there, it is in charge of the operation and maintenance of the facility, and has resisted attempts by the other agencies to become more involved.
With a rail network that stretches across 46 states, and federal subsidies that have averaged a meager $1.4 billion annually over the last decade, some experts have said Amtrak is far less equipped to run Penn than the LIRR’s parent agency, the MTA, whose current five-year capital program is $30 billion.
The MTA is already Penn’s primary tenant, serving 230,000 LIRR riders daily and operating half of all trains there, and has plans to expand its footprint at the station by linking Metro-North to it by 2023.
Short of a full takeover of Penn by the MTA, some have pushed for a middle ground that would give LIRR and NJ Transit more say in the day-to-day operations at Penn, possibly through the formation of a separate management corporation for the hub.
“All three agencies would pool their resources and be responsible jointly for management of the enterprise. Then you wouldn’t have the bad will,’’ said Martin Robins, director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and a former executive planner with NJ Transit and the Port Authority. ‘‘They’d all recognize if something went wrong, that they all had a part in it.”
He added: “Amtrak generally does a good job . . . they don’t do a perfect job. And considering the need here and what’s at stake, they need perfection or near-perfection.”
Amtrak, which is planning major projects in and around Penn, including Gateway, has indicated it has no intention to relinquish its grip on the station, even declining to include the LIRR and NJ Transit in a major review of its infrastructure and maintenance practices launched after the recent derailments. Moorman called the existing arrangement with the commuter railroads “a proven partnership.”
Some experts have said Amtrak’s struggles in operating Penn Station are due to its limited resources, and have urged the creation of a multiyear capital program that would allow the quasi-federal agency to better plan, and fund, long-term infrastructure improvements. “Congress created Amtrak to serve the nation, but is not funding it,” Vanterpool said.
Problems closer to home
While the LIRR may be able to distance itself from problems originating in Penn, Long Island commuters know the need to modernize the rail system extends beyond the Amtrak facility.
In addition to three train derailments on the LIRR’s tracks since October, Long Island commuters have suffered from near-daily reports of switch and signal problems, equipment troubles, and power failures — including a prolonged September 2015 outage that LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski blamed on a 100-year-old electrical cable.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen. You can’t expect a rail system that was designed to service a population of 100,000 people to serve 3 million without problems,” said Dave Kapell, consultant for the Rauch Foundation, a Garden City nonprofit planning group, and executive director of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition, which supports expanding the LIRR.
The LIRR has in recent years advanced several efforts to modernize and expand its 183-year-old commuter rail system — the oldest in the nation.
They include the ongoing construction of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, a proposed third track between Floral Park and Hicksville, major capacity improvements at Jamaica with a new track, platform and reconfigured switches. Also slated are new rail yards in Suffolk, a new fleet of electric trains, the installation of positive train control crash-prevention technology on trains and tracks, the elimination of seven Main Line grade crossings, and major renovations of several stations.
“You have to give credit where it’s due to the railroad and the governor for at least starting to make a down payment on some of these issues,” Kapell said.
MTA officials say that, together, the various efforts represent the largest investment in modernization of the LIRR in decades. However, most of the projects are years from reaping meaningful benefits for commuters.
Other critically important upgrades are barely on the drawing board, including the replacement of the LIRR’s antiquated signal tower-based train control system with a centralized, computer-based system as many railroads, including Metro-North, have long utilized.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who is vocal on regional transportation issues, said the MTA needs to do more to prioritize the most heavily used commuter railroad in the United States and its busiest station.
“I think there’s a lot of ways along the different points of the LIRR that things can go wrong. But I think there’s special emphasis now on how one small, little thing going wrong at Penn Station can mean disaster for commuters across the region,” Kaminsky said. “When someone says, ‘I missed my kid’s basketball game. I missed my kid’s school play. I wasn’t around to see so-and-so in the hospital’ . . . these are all awful things. If you have it happen once a month, it’s too much. Happening five or six times a month? That’s crazy, especially as you’re asking people to pay more fees.”
The LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, has also weighed in on the recent issues at Penn. in a statement, Council Chairman Mark Epstein said Amtrak and elected officials must be held responsible “for ensuring that Amtrak has the resources necessary to bring its infrastructure to a state of good repair.”
Possible short-term relief
While the MTA keeps chipping away at its long-term fixes, Kaminsky said there are immediate changes that could reduce the pain for commuters. They include an improved customer communication strategy to give riders more meaningful, and helpful, information during service disruptions.
And, Kaminsky said, more frequent preplanned track shutdowns that would allow crews to perform regular maintenance and repair work — similar to the “Fastrack” maintenance model adopted by the MTA’s subway system after Sandy.
MTA officials have defended their communications efforts, which include a large, and growing social media presence. And while the LIRR has said it plans to shut down some stations during midday hours for some construction work, MTA Board member Mitchell Pally said shutting down the 24/7, 365 rail operation for any length of time is unrealistic.
“The problem is, of course, you can’t just take out the Babylon line and say, ‘We’re now going to fix the Babylon line for the next week,’” said Pally of Stony Brook, who noted that even off-peak and weekend LIRR ridership has exploded in recent years. “There’s no good time now to decide, ‘OK, we’re going to take that out of existence.’”
With a growing awareness of the many challenges facing the region’s rail network, and several plans already underway to address them, experts said there is hope for a smoother commute in the future. However, with burgeoning development on Manhattan’s West Side and the LIRR on pace to break its modern ridership record for the third-straight year, things may get considerably worse before they improve, experts said.
“It’s going to get better. It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s going to get better once a lot of these projects move toward implementation,” Pally said. “But you’re always going to have a system that was built in the 18- and 1900s and was not designed for the number of people who want to go to the same place at the same time as we have now.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Regional Plan Association.
THE PENN PROJECTS
The $24 billion Amtrak project includes a series of major upgrades in and around Penn Station such as new tracks and the creation of a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan. The federal government, which would probably fund much of the project, has not yet approved it. Once it does, it’s expected to take a decade or more to complete.
East Side Access
The MTA’s $10.2 billion megaproject will link the LIRR to a new customer concourse at Grand Central Terminal via newly bored tunnels. It will provide a second Manhattan station for the LIRR, easing congestion at Penn and providing more alternatives for the railroad and for customers during unplanned service disruptions. The project has been plagued by delays, but it is currently slated to be finished by December 2022.
The Federal Transit Administration last year granted the MTA $432 million to make repairs to the two East River Tunnels that sustained the heaviest damage from superstorm Sandy, which filled them with corrosive saltwater. When the project begins, probably years from now, Amtrak plans to take each of the tunnels out of service for a year at a time — reducing capacity into and out of Penn by 25 percent.
Empire Station/Moynihan Train Hall Development
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in September announced a $1.6 billion plan to redevelop and expand Penn Station, including by allowing the LIRR to share space with Amtrak in the Moynihan Train Hall at the Farley Post Office complex across Eighth Avenue. The project includes a renovation of the LIRR’s existing Penn Station concourse featuring wider walkways, taller ceilings and a digital pseudo-skylight. It is expected to be completed by December 2020.