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Amtrak plan to fix Penn Station to give LIRR riders headache

The entrance to Penn Station at 7th Avenue

The entrance to Penn Station at 7th Avenue near 34th Street has been closed by MTA Police due to crowding Tuesday, April 25, 2017, after Amtrak reported a power problem in an East River tunnel. Credit: Vin Barone

Amtrak is planning repairs to the aging Penn Station infrastructure that will disrupt commutes for LIRR riders, who on Tuesday once again endured a miserable evening rush hour.

Amid mounting pressure from transit providers, New York and New Jersey elected leaders, and commuters to address the failures at Penn that have resulted in a spate of recent service problems, Amtrak announced Tuesday it is putting together a plan to “renew the infrastructure at New York Penn Station that will result in some delays and cancellations.”

Amtrak owns and operates the century-old station, and the tracks and tunnels leading to it. Two recent derailments at the Manhattan rail hub in less than two weeks triggered headaches for hundreds of thousands of LIRR commuters.

“This renewal effort will replace and rejuvenate the selected infrastructure, providing needed updates, and is different than the ongoing repair work in New York Penn,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said Tuesday.

Officials who were briefed on the plans were told the repairs could include closing tracks for a lengthy period, The New York Times reported.

After the most recent derailments, Amtrak announced it was conducting a joint inspection of all of Penn’s infrastructure along with the Federal Railroad Administration, as well as reviewing its maintenance practices. It has separately been replacing some components of its East River Tunnel tracks since 2011.

“We’ll have more on the plans in the coming days and will be working with Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit to schedule this work and minimize service impacts,” Woods added.

Beth DeFalco, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR’s parent agency, said the MTA “will thoroughly review the plan once it is presented.”

“We expect Amtrak will coordinate with the MTA and LIRR as they’ve committed to do to make the improvements necessary while minimizing impact to riders,” DeFalco said.

No timetable was given for the plan’s rollout.

The latest problems have prompted some critics to press the MTA to wrest control of Penn Station from Amtrak.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who is vocal on regional transportation issues, said in a tweet Tuesday, “These delays and cancellations have gone on long enough, control of #PennStation should be taken from Amtrak.”

In just three weeks, weakened rail ties, mismatched pieces of rail, dangling overhead wires and other infrastructure problems caused numerous delays and cancellations for the 600,000 people who travel through Penn Station every day.

On the same day Amtrak announced its infrastructure renewal plan, an “overhead electrical system issue” in one of the East River tunnels leading into and out of Penn Station caused widespread delays and cancellations for the LIRR. Crowding at the station became so heavy that police temporarily restricted access.

Amtrak and the LIRR said the repairs should be done before Wednesday morning’s rush hour.

LIRR Commuter Council Chairman Mark Epstein said LIRR riders recently have been playing “commuter roulette” every time they enter Penn Station.

“Riders are at the end of their rope. We can’t go one week without delays and problems,” Epstein said. “If indeed the cause is Amtrak, then considering our most recent fare increase, the Council is calling on the MTA to seek reimbursement from Amtrak to provide to affected commuters. We pay to commute, not commiserate.”

LIRR passengers at Penn Tuesday evening vented over the chronic delays.

“It’s out of control. . . . This is every week,” said construction worker Jesse DiBenedetto, 29, fuming as he waited for a train to Long Beach. “They’re stealing our money. I pay $300 for a monthly ticket to Long Beach. That’s more than my car payment. And this is what we get.”

On Monday, MTA officials revealed they are exploring legal options to hold Amtrak accountable for the recent issues at Penn. The announcement drew immediate support from some lawmakers, including Kaminsky, who called it “a welcome development.”

“Any action that leads Amtrak to pay more attention to the LIRR and its commuters is a positive step forward,” Kaminsky said.

With Vin Barone


April 25: A problem with the overhead electrical system in one of Amtrak’s East River tunnels resulted in widespread cancellations and delays for the LIRR and a temporary suspension of westbound service.

April 14: A power problem in one of Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels caused 1,200 people to be stuck on a disabled NJ Transit train for three hours in Penn Station, and spurred residual delays for the LIRR.

April 3: An NJ Transit train derailment caused by Amtrak track problems caused a week of major service disruptions for the LIRR, which relinquished four tracks at Penn Station to allow Amtrak and NJ Transit trains to operate.

March 24: An Amtrak train derailed and sideswiped an NJ Transit train, causing major disruptions for the LIRR, which relinquished four tracks at Penn Station to allow Amtrak and NJ Transit trains to operate.

March 6: A problem in an Amtrak switch interlocking in one of the East River tunnels 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.

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