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How Penn Station’s ‘summer of hell’ was avoided

Long Island Rail Road riders at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn spoke on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, about how the day after Labor Day, as many return to work, the commute wasn't as bad as many feared. With the "Summer of hell" repairs over at Penn Station, it was a day of minimal disruptions, transportation officials said. (Credit: Corey Sipkin)

With regular service at Penn Station restored on Tuesday, experts and officials credited better communication and a bevy of mass transit options for what turned out to be a rather heavenly “summer of hell.”

Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s warnings of commuter hell during Amtrak’s disruptive, eight-week long track renewal project, subway stations withstood the impact of Long Island Rail Road riders and commuters into the transit hub on LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak. Many found that their trips into Penn Station were either as reliable as normal or better.

Andrew Albert, an MTA board member and chairman of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said having outer-borough transit helped ease the burden on Penn during the repairs. Stations like Atlantic Terminal, Jamaica and Hunterspoint Avenue absorbed riders after the LIRR was forced to reduce morning rush hour service to Penn by 12 percent and evening peak service to Long Island by 18 percent.

“The options available to people — the buses, ferries, PATH and rerouting to subways — really worked well. That made a difference,” Albert said. “And the beauty of our subways and the Long Island Rail Road is that there are easy ways to reroute trains and go around trouble areas. Because there were so many options to send trains, it made our summer bearable.”

Cuomo credited the transit alternatives provided during the work and a shuffling of LIRR train cars. The railroad tacked cars onto certain trains and added trips during the outer fringes of the peak hours — a move that allowed the LIRR to maintain capacity at Penn even as it cancelled and rerouted trips.

“We worked with Long Island Rail Road to cancel overnight service that would have a minimal impact on commuters so we could move more trains across the system,” Cuomo, in a statement, said, “and backed up our plan with longer trains, new trains that hadn’t run before, discounts to alternate terminals in Brooklyn and Queens, buses and ferries, and free subway transfers.”

Amtrak’s repair work required the closure of three to five of Penn Station’s 21 tracks for most of the summer at what is the nation’s busiest rail hub. In a precarious state, both Amtrak and the LIRR positioned extra personnel and equipment — including “rescue” locomotives to tow away disabled trains — in key locations throughout the summer to deal with any unexpected service failures.

MTA chairman Joe Lhota said the MTA plans to keep some of these measures in place, like pre-positioned response crews and equipment, both for the LIRR and the subway system, as well as customer service “ambassadors” at key station platforms. He predicted that the reliable streak of service will continue even as normal schedules resume.

“We’re in a new normal,” Lhota said. “And what we experienced in July and August is going to continue for a long time — no — forever.”


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