Photo of Entrance to NY Penn Station
The 31 St./8 Av Entrance to Penn Station

Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman, interviewed June 16 on the Brian Lehrer show on the New York public radio station WNYC, explained and defended Amtrak's plans to fix the infrastructure at New York's Penn Station. Amtrak's planned intensive work program in July and August has caused service changes in July and August which will inconvenience thousands of local and long-distance riders; see story below.

History explained

Moorman's introductory statement noted that Penn Station today is at capacity; it was designed in 1910 mostly for long distance travelers, not commuters, with narrow platforms not well suited for high-capacity suburban trains; and the capacity has not increased since the original design. Moorman said the infrastruture is good, but needs "renewal," which is a difficult job: Moorman said that in his 40 years of experience on freight railroads, he had not encountered the difficult working conditions in the restricted areas at NY Penn.  Moorman said that while Amtrak had "taken the lead" in renewing the infrastructure, the traditional program of doing the work on weekends has been insufficient; "we need to move aggressively to get the work done."  Hence, Amtrak has scheduled the intensive work program which will cause service disruptions in July and August.  Moorman noted that there has been "a substantial period of underinvestment" in Penn Station, not only by Amtrak but also by the commuter railroads (NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road) that use Penn Station.

Who should pay?

Host Brian Lehrer noted that New York Gov. Cuomo has said that taxpayers ought not to have to pay for the repairs, and while their use of the station is restricted during the work, should not have to pay the normal fees that Amtrak collects from the commuter railroads. Moorman reviewed how the users of Penn Station, and the Northeast Corridor tracks, contribute to the costs of running the system.  He said that historically, the fees paid to Amtrak were not sufficient; a 2008 law corrected this, and since 2015 the increased fees that Amtak is collecting have put the system on a better footing. Moorman noted that more than 40% of the traffic at New York Penn is from the Long Island Rail Road, with NJT's traffic almost as much, so Amtrak's usage is only a small portion of the total.  Nonetheless, Moorman said, Amtrak has funded about 70% of the capital improvements; in any case, he said, "the last thing to do is to take money out of Penn Station."

Will the work be finished on time?

Moorman said that the infrastructure work program will definitely be finished by the September completion date.

Should management of Penn Station change?

NY Gov. Cuomo has proposed that management of Penn Station should be taken out of Amtrak's hands, and entrusted to an independent organization, perhaps the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Moorman did not agree, but repeated a plan he has previously proposed, in which the management of the passenger concourses could be taken over by an independent organization; he likened this to airports in which an authority runs facilities used in common by a number of airlines. In this case, Amtrak, NJT, and LIRR would be like the individual airlilnes.

Amtrak's Future and the White House Budget

WNYC's host Brian Lehrer noted that the proposed White House budget would slash Amtrak's long-distance funding and funding for the Gateway capital improvement program, which would expand Penn Station and build new tunnels under the Hudson.  Moorman said that the final decisions are up to Congress, and emphasized Amtrak's good relationship with both political parties; he said that while ideological differences exist, he doesn't see that as a problem.  As for Gateway, Moorman said it's essential to add capacity at New York Penn and to build the new tunnels, and expressed confidence that the funding for Gateway would be secured.