Commuters were warned to expect hell going to and from New York City, but on the first day of disruptive repairs at the nation's busiest rail hub on Monday many said their rides were no worse than usual for the crowded, delay-prone transit system.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo had predicted the partial shutdown at Penn would cause a "summer of hell" for the 600,000 who ride the train in and out midtown.
Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road all converge at the station beneath Madison Square Garden. All three canceled some services, rerouted others, and warned travelers to expect delays throughout the duration of the repairs, which began Monday and are scheduled to be done Sept. 1.
The upgrades created disruptions that are expected to cost Manhattan employers about $14.5 million for each hour that commuters are delayed, according to an estimate by the Partnership for New York City.
But many commuters noted a relatively smooth ride to kick off the so-called "summer of hell."
"It was not that drastic," said reverse commuter Leadette Smith, 47, adding that her train was only a few minutes late.
Smith, who travels from East Elmhurst in Queens to Freeport on Long Island, said it normally takes about an hour and 45 minutes to get to work, but she's worried that if the Penn Station repairs cause delays or cancellations for the LIRR, more commuters taking the subway would worsen her commute.
“All of the lines are always affected in some kind of way,” Smith said. “A lot of the times if the LIRR doesn’t go to Penn Station, everyone converges on the E train. That is my normal commute, but now the train is packed.”
Some riders from New Jersey complained about lengthened commutes, while noting they were already used to delays after a string of derailments and stalled trains at the station this year that the repairs are intended to remedy.
One harried New Jersey commuter suggested that finding a way to work every day was a task best suited for members of a club for geniuses.
"It's like some Mensa test, just trying to figure out how to get there," David Weinstock, 51, said, referring to the Mensa International, a club for people with high IQs.
Weinstock, a public relations executive, moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, five years ago, lured by the convenient 35-minute commute by rail directly into Penn Station. But with nearly all trains on his line rerouted to Hoboken, New Jersey, he has had to piece together a makeshift plan to cross the Hudson River to Manhattan.
"It's going to become an almost two-hour commute each way, on top of 10-hour work days," said Weinstock, a married father of two young children.
By Monday evening, riders began to crowd in front of the LIRR board just before 4 p.m., with no delays reported. Some commuters, including marketing manager Adam Freidus, had opted to take an earlier train than usual in case the evening commute turned chaotic.
“I don’t usually leave this early, I’m just trying to change my hours if I can, even work from home,” said Freidus, 48, of Glen Head, who was taking the 3:49 p.m. train to Port Washington instead of his usual 5:30 p.m. train. “I’m just trying to be smart about it.”
MTA chairman Joe Lhota praised riders, saying "they did everything perfect today."
"Tomorrow is another day, we start afresh," he told reporters during the evening rush. "We're expecting thunderstorms in the morning."
Many riders and transit officials attributed the relatively smooth start to a successful public awareness campaign, including numerous station attendants who answered questions, handed out pamphlets and herded disoriented passengers.
"Tickets out!" one attendant bellowed at New Jersey's Hoboken Terminal, on the opposite side of the Hudson River from Manhattan. "This way to the 39th Street ferry!" shouted another.
Bill McLeer, who works in data analysis and was waiting in an unusually subdued Penn Station for a train home to Mount Laurel in New Jersey, called the governor's warning "completely overblown." And some commuters relished a free ride on a ferry that normally costs $9.
"It's my first time," said David Lawner, a database administrator from West Orange, New Jersey, as he marveled at the warm breezes of the ferry's open-top deck. "Isn't this relaxing?"
Another ferry rider, Kathleen Lynn, was less rhapsodic. "It's going to add 20 minutes," said Lynn, a Summit, New Jersey, resident who works in financial services. "Or an hour. Depends on whether everything hooks up."
Penn Station, an underground maze of low ceilings and mediocre dining spots built in the 1960s, serves about 95,000 New Jersey Transit customers and about 116,000 Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) customers on an average weekday, according to 2016 data.
On weekdays through Sept. 1, the following changes will be in effect.
Empire Service: Three round-trip trains (six total trains) will operate between Albany-Rensselaer and New York Grand Central Terminal
Northeast Regional Service: Three round-trip trains between New York City and Washington, D.C., will be canceled. Service between New York City and Boston will operate at currently scheduled levels.
Keystone Service: Three round-trip trains will operate between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, instead of between New York City and Harrisburg. One round-trip train will operate between Newark, New Jersey, and Harrisburg.
Adirondack/Maple Leaf Service: The Adirondack, between New York City and Montreal, and the Maple Leaf, between New York City and Toronto, will be combined.
Long-Distance Service: The Crescent, operating between New York City and New Orleans, will originate and terminate in Washington, D.C., daily during work periods. Connections will be provided on other Northeast Corridor trains.
There is a 20 percent reduction in train service, but there will be 36 cars added to existing trains, the MTA said. There will also be new ferry routes from Long Island to Manhattan to accommodate 2,300 riders, and 200 coach buses will be put into service.
About 7,400 customers will be diverted to Hoboken, New Jersey, every weekday morning, instead of being able to take a one-seat ride on the Morris & Essex Midtown Direct Line into New York, NJ Transit executive director Steve Santoro said. They will have to transfer either to another train or the ferry in order to get to the city, adding 30 to 45 minutes to their commutes.