Despite inconvenience, Penn Station repairs start smoothly

As repairs began Monday, hundreds of thousands of daily commuters traveled on packed and slow trains. Despite the first day's confusion, commuters and repair officials are optimistic about the summer project's success. 

Andres Kudacki/AP
People navigate the arrival platform at Hoboken Terminal on Monday, July 10, 2017, in Hoboken, N.J. Amtrak began repairing Penn Station's tracks and signals on Monday. Repairs are expected to greatly impact railway traffic, routes, and arrival times over the next two months.

For hundreds of thousands of commuters heading into New York on Monday, the first day of disruptions due to extensive repair work at Penn Station, brought some confusion, some overcrowding, and some delays but, apparently, no major problems at the beginning of what figures to be an arduous two-month period.

As the crowd of rail commuters heading into the country's busiest train station grew, so did the confusion. Some seemed bewildered by a new routine devised to accommodate the major repairs to the station's tracks and signals.

"A lot of confusion and too many people gathered in one space," Lex Marshall of Morristown, New Jersey, said at New Jersey Transit's Hoboken Terminal. "Everybody's just bumping into each other, pushing each other, to get to their destination."

Jesse Krakow of South Orange, New Jersey, who transferred through Hoboken, described being packed "like sardines" on a Port Authority Trans-Hudson train that stopped several times between stations as it waited for other trains up ahead. He said his trip took about 45 minutes longer than normal.

Elsewhere, some took advantage of alternative modes of transportation put in place by the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit to accommodate overflow due to reduced rush-hour train service.

"It's something new," said banker Reid Pauyo as he prepared to get on a ferry in Glen Cove, New York. "We never tried anything like this before, and I'm looking forward to commuting a different way, so this could work for me."

The work was initially scheduled for nights and weekends over a few years, but two recent derailments and other problems that spotlighted the station's aging infrastructure convinced Amtrak to accelerate the work schedule.

For commuters on the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit – as well as Amtrak passengers who ride between Boston and Washington, DC – the Penn Station work means fewer trains during peak periods, the result of track closures to accommodate the repairs.

The station, which Amtrak took over in the 1970s, handles twice as many daily train movements, about 1,300, as it did then. Roughly 600,000 people pass through each day on the three railroads and on New York City subways.

New Jersey Transit spokesman Charles Ingoglia declared the morning commute a success but said there was room for improvement.

He pointed to one overcrowded train into Hoboken where up to 16,000 commuters are added to the 23,000 people who usually flow through the station each day, and said that nearly all of the people getting off trains were flooding into the same Port-Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) entrance, leaving a second one much less crowded.

He said some of the 150 volunteers directing commuters around will work harder in the future to steer people down both entrances.

"We're pleased with what we saw," he said. "Our customers seem to have done their homework."

Several commuters arriving at Penn Station said their ride was more crowded than usual but mostly on time.

"It's hard to imagine Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit doing a good job, but from my limited vantage point things seem to be running relatively smoothly," said Howard Bernstein, an attorney from Long Beach on Long Island who took the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan to transfer to a PATH train to his job in Jersey City.

Rhonda Freeman of Brentwood, also on Long Island, said she left earlier than normal to get to work and was able to get a seat.

"It was crowded," she said. "I felt bad for the regular people who had to stand."

Service was stepped up by trains, buses and ferries in anticipation of the busier commute. PATH trains were running every five minutes out of Hoboken rather than the usual seven-minute interval and additional NJ Transit buses were running from Hoboken to Manhattan as well.

The work is scheduled to last through the end of August. When it's completed, rail riders will benefit from increased reliability from the up-to-date equipment in and around the station, but will still fall prey to other problems, such as electrical wire failures in the tunnel between New York and New Jersey, and signal and track problems in northern New Jersey east of Newark.

Those problems will have to wait for the completion of the Gateway project, which calls for building a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River, repairing damage in the existing tunnel from 2012's Superstorm Sandy and making substantial improvements on the New Jersey side and in Penn Station.

That work is expected to take at least another decade to complete, although federal funding for the project is in question after President Trump proposed changing a federal grant program that was supposed to be used for it.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey called on the Trump administration to honor that commitment at a news conference near the spot on Manhattan's west side Monday where preliminary work has already begun.

Senator Booker said it's time for Trump to "put up or shut up."

While Monday's commute had gone about as well as it could for most, the real test for the "new normal" won't come until the weather, equipment problems, or police activity somewhere along the train line interrupts service.

"The measure is how good are you when things are bad," Mr. Ingoglia said.

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