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Amtrak CEO: How Penn Station got to the ‘summer of hell’

Decades of insufficient funding by federal and state governments and too few resources dedicated to critical infrastructure make this summer’s work at Penn a necessary step forward.

After repairs at Penn Station, a critical project

After repairs at Penn Station, a critical project is the proposed Gateway Program, including a new Hudson River rail tunnel. Its completion would allow the existing North River Tunnel under the Hudson, shown here, to be repaired. Photo Credit: Amtrak

What some are calling the “summer of hell” might be just a day away for Long Island commuters using Penn Station.

But the reality is that decades of insufficient funding by federal and state governments and too few resources dedicated to critical infrastructure in this country make this summer’s work at Penn a necessary step forward in not just maintaining — but saving — the transportation infrastructure of the region.

Each weekday, hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through Penn Station. If you are one of them, you know that all too often the station and its infrastructure, including tracks, signals, switches and power systems, don’t perform as they should. The reasons for these failures are simple — more people now use the station than it was ever designed to handle, and too little time and money have been invested in renewing and expanding the infrastructure as ridership has grown.

Today, the same station, with the same 21 tracks created in 1910, serves more than 940 trains each day. Passengers regularly put up with conditions that are unacceptable — delayed trains, station overcrowding and unreliable service. Unfortunately, it took two derailments in the spring to make crystal clear the urgency to do this work now and not push it off — again — to a later date.

Amtrak is taking significant steps starting Monday to address some of the challenges. The renewal work amounts to a major repair project in the heart of Penn. Amtrak workers will remove the equivalent of six football fields’ worth of track via narrow tunnels, then install new track and switches. The good news is Amtrak’s workforce has the training and experience needed to safely perform this very complex work on electrified rail lines, and Amtrak is committed as the owner of the station to ensure that it operates safely and reliably every day.

The other good news is that by completing the work by Labor Day, we will improve the reliability of these critical rails in a matter of weeks, rather than years. Major track renewal work like this is typically done piecemeal, over a series of weekends, to avoid service disruptions. This renewal project is just too big for that approach — and too urgent. This summer, we will have hundreds of crews and track engineers working around the clock. And when we are finished, passengers will ride on more-reliable infrastructure.

During this time, Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit will all run modified train schedules, allowing us to take various tracks out of service for replacement. The plan is to provide trains to get you where you need to go — but they will be less frequent and even more crowded. We are keenly aware that these modified schedules will make commutes more difficult. Amtrak has been working closely with the LIRR and NJ Transit on ways to support passengers during this period.

The work is part of Amtrak’s larger initiative focused on accelerating as much work as we can to make the services at Penn Station more reliable while laying the foundation for redevelopment opportunities in this region and across the country. But it is just one step, and we want to be clear that while absolutely essential, this summer’s work will not address all of the needs at Penn Station and its related tunnels. Reversing decades of federal, state, and local underfunding of this critical hub will take time before commuters see the kinds of significant improvements in the customer experience and service capacity they expect and deserve.

The other thing to be clear about is that to change the state of infrastructure, federal and state governments need to commit to funding this critical work. Moreover, it is absolutely essential that the trans-Hudson Gateway Program continues to advance. The new tunnels and bridges that make up the Gateway Program are the only long-term solution to improve the passenger experience and support the region’s economy for decades to come.

In this sense, we look at Monday as the start of Penn’s summer of renewal. With commitments from the federal and state governments, we can confidently say that better times are ahead.

Wick Moorman is president and CEO of Amtrak.