Talks on Penn Station repairs continue, agencies say

Penn Station is seen in Manhattan. (Photo by Rickyrab via Wikimedia Commons)

Talks between transit agencies are continuing this week as Amtrak plans for repairs at Penn Station this summer that are expected to snarl commutes for weeks.

Amtrak, the national passenger railroad company that owns and operates Penn Station, has been meeting with representatives from the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey before finalizing repairs to the aging tracks, agency spokespeople said.

The agencies have yet to reach an agreement on a schedule. But news reports last week said a draft “New York Penn Station Project Work Plan” called for closing tracks at the nation’s busiest rail hub for a total of 44 days in July and August, requiring schedule changes for the railroads that use the station.

Mike E. Tolbert, an Amtrak spokesman, said the agencies will “provide clear and advance communication” of whatever schedule they agree to.

“In the coming days, we will continue to work together to develop schedules that will minimize disruptions and inconvenience for all of our customers who rely on us for service,” Tolbert said in a statement Monday.

Under the draft plan, tracks would be shut down for 19 days from July 7 to July 25, and another 25 days from Aug. 4 to Aug. 28 to replace signal machines and track ties, tear down concrete structures and pour new cement, Newsday reported last week.

Tolbert said he could not confirm the details of the plan as reported by Newsday and The New York Times.

It is unclear how exactly the repairs would affect train schedules, or when a final plan will emerge. But the draft plan says both proposed shutdowns would cause “significant impacts” to train service, Newsday reported.

“Our role in this process is to ensure that our riders’ best interests are represented and we are continuing discussions with Amtrak to make sure our voice is heard,” Beth DeFalco, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in a statement.

The repairs would follow a series of incidents in Penn Station and the Amtrak’s East River Tunnels this year that have caused major problems throughout the Long Island Rail Road system.

A minor New Jersey Transit derailment there in early April caused the LIRR to cancel and delay dozens of trains for an entire work week.

Most recently, on Tuesday, a disabled Amtrak train at Penn Station and signal problems in the East River Tunnels caused delays during evening commutes.

Local public officials have blamed the problems on Amtrak’s poor management and neglect of Penn Station.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) started a petition last week to get Amtrak to give up management of Penn Station.

And state Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) called last week for the LIRR to cut its fares while the repair project is active this summer.

“Amtrak improving Penn’s infrastructure is a necessary step, but those repairs will also mean even more delays, cancellations and service disruptions for Long Island commuters,” Phillips, a former LIRR commuter herself, said in a May 3 statement. “Passengers should not be charged the same amount for less service; if service is going to get cut, then fares should be reduced by the same amount.”

Larry Penner of Great Neck, a transportation historian and former Federal Transportation Administration employee, said Amtrak has put off maintenance for years, leading to the glut of problems today.

This summer’s repairs, which Penner expects to last into the fall, could be a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said — crucial staff could be diverted from the East Side Access project to build an LIRR terminal at Grand Central Station, causing further delays there.

Creating a final plan will be difficult because the prospect of major railroad disruptions is “extremely politically sensitive,” Penner said.

“They’ve procrastinated so long and now they’re going to pay this horrible price,” he said.

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