Fixing LIRR problems means fixing Penn Station, too

The constant major LIRR service disruptions into and out of Penn Station speak to the many challenges facing the century-old rail hub – the busiest in North America.

Although several plans are underway to address Penn Station’s strained capacity and crumbling infrastructure, it could be a long time before commuters see meaningful results. In the meantime, the problem is getting worse by the day, experts said.

The station

New York Pennsylvania Station was built in 1910 and underwent a major reconstruction in the 1960s that included the demolition of most of the original station so that Madison Square Garden could be built on top of it.

Penn Station is the primary Manhattan terminal for three major railroads—the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak. Six MTA subway lines also operate through Penn Station. Burgeoning development on Manhattan’s West Side and increasing ridership continues to put added strain on Penn.

The problem

While use of the station has soared, investments in its infrastructure, including its connecting tunnels across the East River and Hudson River, have not kept up, experts say.

And superstorm Sandy in 2012, which flooded those tunnels with tens of millions of gallons of corrosive saltwater, only hastened the deterioration of the concrete, tracks, switches and electrical components.

The increase in the number of LIRR disruptions caused by problems in and around the East River Tunnels since superstorm Sandy

Complicating matters further is Penn’s management structure. Although it runs the fewest trains and serves the fewest customers of all the railroads there, Amtrak has owned and operated Penn Station since the mid-1970s.

The LIRR has said “third party operations,” including Amtrak, were to blame for about 8 percent, of the LIRR’s 17,951 delays last year.

But while the LIRR, which runs about half of all trains into and out of Pen, covers much of the cost of maintaining and repairing the tracks it uses, only Amtrak is allowed to do the actual maintenance and repair work. The arrangement has led to frequent infighting among the three railroads when something goes wrong.

Long-term solutions

There are some long-term projects in the works that will ease some of the infrastructure problems surrounding Penn Station.

The Gateway Project

The $24 billion Amtrak project includes a series of major upgrades in and around Penn Station including the creation of a second rail tunnel across the Hudson River.

By adding new tracks and station capacity at Penn and modernizing its rail infrastructure, the project would also reap benefits for LIRR rider.

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.

Superstorm Sandy repairs

The MTA plans to make repairs to the two East River Tunnels that sustained the heaviest damage from superstorm Sandy.

When the project does begin, Amtrak plans to take each of the tunnels out of service for a year at a time–reducing capacity into and out of Penn, potentially forcing the LIRR to reduce rush-hour service during the project.

Empire Station/Moynihan Train Hall development

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in September announced a $1.6 billion plan to redevelop and expand Penn Station.

The plan will allow the LIRR to share space with Amtrak in the long-planned 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, but would not increase actual track capacity.

A new Penn Station management structure

Some MTA officials, advocates and elected leaders have pushed for the MTA to take over Penn.

They reason the MTA has more resources to run the station and would make it a higher priority than Amtrak, which operates in 45 other states.

As an alternative, some have called for the LIRR and NJ Transit to take a more active role in the operation of Penn Station, including potentially as part of a separate management agency representing all three railroads.

Shorter-term solutions

Although most of the major projects planned to improve Penn Station are still years away from completion, some observers have pointed to nearer-term changes that could reduce the frequency and severity of service disruptions.

They include overhauled maintenance practices and more pre-planned service shutdowns to perform work on tracks.

Some have also called on the LIRR to improve its customer communications so that riders get more accurate, timely and helpful information during service problems, including about travel alternatives.

It’s going to get better. . . 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.
– MTA Board member Mitchell Pally

However, with the LIRR on pace to break its modern ridership record for the third-straight year and growing use of Penn Station, things may get considerably worse before they improve, experts say.