Railgram

The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

It was supposed to be the “Summer from Hell” for commuters into Penn Station, New York, due to a large-scale track work effort by Amtrak at the 21-track station. Amtrak owns the station, even though the riders on New Jersey Transit (NJT) and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) who use it greatly outnumber Amtrak’s.

Nobody disputed that the track work was needed. Weather-related incidents, derailments, and a host of other problems plagued the station and its riders all spring and into the summer, beginning with a particularly rough March, which we called “March Madness on the Railroad” in the April-May issue of the Railgram.

The madness continued, and NJT planned to reduce train capacity at Penn Station by 25% to accommodate the work. As far as NJT was concerned, their solution was simple. Riders on the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line and its Gladstone Branch were sent to Hoboken Terminal for 40 weekdays. It resembled commuting as it was before 1996, when Midtown Direct service from the M&E to Penn Station began; except the new riders that direct service to Penn Station had attracted were commuting to Hoboken, too. NJT ran four early-morning trains into Penn Station; all arriving before 7:00. For the rest of the day, all inbound trains went to Hoboken. For the entire day, all outbound trains left from Hoboken. Other lines kept their full access to Penn Station, a situation about which this writer and other advocates complained. Weekend service was not affected.

It was not as bad as many had feared. Based on expected ridership numbers, we did not expect that the planned PATH service could handle the additional Hoboken commuters at the peak arrival time in the morning. While the PATH trains were very crowded, they managed to move all the regular Hoboken riders, along with the temporary ones. The ferries provided extra capacity, and many riders said they enjoyed the ferry ride as part of a “civilized” commute. Whether they will continue to enjoy it when the weather gets cold and they have to pay a fare is another question.

Even though the M&E Line was the most profoundly affected, there were residual effects that stretched to Long Island. Because several tracks at Penn Station were out of service, NJT and Amtrak needed to use some (high-numbered) tracks normally reserved for the LIRR, which forced some Long Island commuters to go to Brooklyn or Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens, instead. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which owns the LIRR, prepared for the changes.

Mark Epstein, a lawyer who commutes from Long Island to his Manhattan office, is the Chair of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters’ Council. He sounded a cautionary note, telling this writer: “Our tracks, signals and switches haven’t been worked on, so we expect the same commute in September that we had in May.” At this writing, Amtrak definitely plans to complete the work by Sept. 1 and return to normal operation. New Jersey riders also wonder if their commute will be any better after Labor Day, when the track work is completed, at least for this year. There have been unofficial reports that there will be another service disruption next summer, too, as more track work will be needed.

If anyone drew praise, it was the riders, who had to endure the service changes through much of July and all of August. Epstein said: “I give the tip of the hat to the riders” of Long Island. NJT Executive Director Steven H. Santoro praised NJT’s riders for being “very, very patient” during the summer. The advocates who were present agreed.

It was a difficult summer for riders, especially on the Morris & Essex Line. It could have been better for the riders if NJT had brought the riders’ advocates into the planning process, but the feared “Summer from Hell” did not materialize. Perhaps Dante would have placed it in Purgatory, instead.

The Lackawanna Coalition held its first “Coffee & Commuting” outreach to the riders at the Short Hills station on Thursday morning, August 17, between 6:00 and 8:45. Under clear skies, hundreds of commuters were introduced to the rail advocacy organization as six members handed out literature explaining the activities and goals of the group. The Short Hills riders are sophisticated business people, often working in high tech industries, and they seemed genuinely interested in the information that was offered.

The goal is to introduce the Lackawanna Coalition to the public in a friendly, neighborly way by offering a cup of coffee. There were a dozen new sign-ups for the group’s e-mail notifications, three membership renewals and two new members who signed up on the spot. There are plans for other coffee & commuting outreaches at other rail stations soon. We thank the dedicated members who organized the event: David Peter Alan (LC Chair) Sally Gellert, Simon Drake, Tim Sevener, Gary Kazin and this writer. A second session at South Orange on August 29 also brought two new members and about 30 e-mail notification sign-ups.

A more detailed account of the Short Hills session by Sally Gellert is posted on the Coalition’s website, www.lackawannacoalition. org. Also, be sure to check the website for announcements of future “Coffee and Commuting” sessions.

It was a difficult summer for our riders on the Morris & Essex Line and Gladstone Branch, but it could have been worse. NJ Transit had a good plan, and they implemented it well. We praised them for that, but things could have better if they had allowed us, as the representatives of the displaced riders, to participate in the planning and implementation of the summer service plan.

Before the plan was implemented, advocates and elected leaders complained that they were not fully informed about it. This writer made that complaint at the May 31 Legislative hearing. So did the mayors of seven towns along the M&E Line, as well as several state legislators. Nonetheless, NJT maintained strict secrecy until the plan was actually implemented; an action that prompted this writer and other commentators to say that we expected a chaotic scene when the summer schedule went into effect.

We expected a more-difficult summer than we had, mainly because of NJT’s total secrecy about their plan. Had we known the specifics of that plan before it was implemented, we could have been reassured that they had a good plan, and we could have suggested changes that would have made the summer even better (or, at least, less difficult) for our constituents.

We had specific suggestions, and we proposed them to NJ Transit managers. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy with which the plans were formulated and implemented, those managers considered it too late to implement those suggestions, so they ended up falling on deaf ears.

The secrecy with which NJT operates is strongly adversarial to the interests of its riders. It would not have been difficult or expensive for management to trust us or the area’s elected representatives enough to consult us while they planned for the summer. Had they been more trusting and less secretive, the summer would have been less onerous for our riders, and management would have drawn extra praise for caring enough about the representatives of the riders to include us in its decision-making process.

We will continue to fight the culture of secrecy at NJ Transit in our statements, in our legislative efforts, and every other way we can. We ask you to join us in this campaign. Until managers at NJ Transit start caring about your representatives, including us, they will not start caring about you, either.

If you enter NY Penn Station’s (NYP) newly expanded and extended West End Concourse (WEC), built under the steps of the Farley Post Office building on the west side of Eighth Avenue, you will see not a single clue that most NJT trains—those on Tracks 5-16—can be reached from this wonderful facility, which provides excellent 8th Avenue subway and Far West Midtown access. Nor is there even a single clue planned regarding NJT train service in New York State’s grand $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall, located just west of the WEC in the re-purposed Farley mail-sorting room (scheduled to open in late 2020, it is designed for “celebrating arrivals” with its high glass ceiling).

That’s because NJT management has steadfastly refused to undertake a project proposed repeatedly by advocates (including a May 22d resolution by the Coalition) that was a 2004 Early Action item of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project and is a critical element of the Gateway project. That project is the extension of NYP Platforms 1 and 2 (which serve Tracks 1 through 4) to the newly extended WEC and related track switching improvements. Without these improvements, trains on these four tracks cannot be reached from the WEC. To solve the problem of an NJT customer waiting for a train that ends up departing from one of these inaccessible tracks, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), New York State’s economic development agency and WEC and Train Hall developer, elected never to mention NJT or its trains on the WEC train departure boards and way-finding signage, and plans to do the same in the Train Hall.

In fact, ESDC renderings of the Hall depict Amtrak and LIRR waiting rooms, ticketing and information facilities, way-finding signage and departing train information on large digital displays, but without a single mention of NJT in the entire facility. The lack of access from the Hall to Tracks 1-4 will also deny NJT customers use of the 50% increase in NYP waiting space provided by the Hall, a huge benefit during evening rush hour service disruptions.

In his August 25 nj.com and Star Ledger article headlined “Official: N.J. Needs a Voice in Plans to Revamp Penn Station,” Larry Higgs quoted Coalition Chair David Peter Alan: “Extending tracks gives commuters access to the full [Moynihan] facility. For commuters, it means getting into Penn Station faster and getting on and off [trains] faster. NJ Transit could run any train to any platform.” He also referenced this writer, who is also a Coalition member: “NJ Transit board members were asked by Joe Clift in July to allocate $10 million to design the track and platform extension. ‘It would be a huge increase in waiting space. There is a benefit to having all tracks accessible.’”

No design funds were allocated, which constitutes the most recent refusal by NJT. Higgs reported NJT officials instead are working on a different plan that would extend the LIRR’s Central Corridor in NYP, which would not solve the problem of Tracks 1-4 not having access to the WEC or the Train Hall. He referred to Nancy Snyder, NJT spokeswoman: “The agency investigated extending the four tracks and platforms in 2007 and found it would have cost around $200 million, was too complex and provided little benefit to riders” Snyder said. Higgs’ article continued: “That proposal ‘posed significant engineering and design challenges and requires extensive and difficult modifications to the railroad’s infrastructure,’ she said.”

The platform extensions and related track switching improvements will have to be undertaken at some point, as they are a necessary element of the Gateway project. Why not undertake them immediately, in time to demand full Hall access and facilities for NJT customers? We hope NJT management will change their minds quickly & get on board the Moynihan Train Hall train, before it leaves the station.