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Amtrak still on the wrong track at Penn Station

Track maintenance workers walk along train tracks used

Track maintenance workers walk along train tracks used by both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains at Pennsylvania Station on April 26, 2017 in Manhattan. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The commuter horror will get worse before it can get better.

Amtrak, which owns and controls Penn Station, has been shamed into planning repairs to its tracks earlier than anticipated after recent problems pushed officials to act. Still, there is little hope anything will improve as long as Amtrak is in charge.

What’s not on the schedule is an emphasis on leadership.

The political and financial complexities involved in wresting control away from Amtrak, however, mean local and state officials have little choice but to work with federal officials. While Amtrak finally understands the urgency and is stepping up efforts to squeeze years of necessary repairs into a few months of track work, it’s too little, too late.

The troubles at Penn highlight another transportation hole in the region. If East Side Access were complete, many Long Island Rail Road commuters could use Grand Central Terminal as their Manhattan base, bypassing Penn until repairs are done. There are several reasons for the unfathomable project delays, but Amtrak shares blame for its inability to provide the time for construction work at the busy Harold Interlocking in Sunnyside, Queens, where the LIRR tracks will connect with the tunnel to Grand Central.

So this summer there will be no escape from Penn’s problems. And while commuters wait for trains, there is another pressing concern: security.

At any given time, up to six security forces patrol the claustrophobic station. Without coordination and clear direction, that’s a toxic brew. It boiled over April 14 when a Taser mistaken for a gunshot led to widespread panic and multiple injuries. What would happen in a real emergency? How can we respond effectively to chaos? They’re questions without good answers. City, state and federal officials have to find them.

Amtrak cops lead on Penn Station security. But Penn also hosts Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit police, because LIRR and NJ Transit trains terminate there. The NYPD’s transit division patrols the subways on another concourse. Then add the New York State Police and the National Guard, which also patrol.

There are questions about whether there are too few officers on duty, concerns the multiple agencies won’t have a coordinated response and can’t communicate adequately on available radio frequencies — all of which demands a central command center. And Amtrak also needs better ways to notify passengers in an emergency at Penn — through the public address system, social media or text alerts.

And then there’s the issue of who should be in charge.

State, city and Amtrak officials admit there’s work to be done, but they are quick to defend existing practices. While they say they’re reviewing what happened in April, no one seems willing to take responsibility for making it better. Should state law enforcement or city police take the lead from Amtrak? If multiple agencies must be involved, their personnel must have the same training and equipment, all overseen by a joint command center.

Penn Station faces long-term infrastructure upgrades, but its security needs are immediate. Delays on all these tracks are unacceptable. — The editorial board


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