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Amtrak Says Penn Station Repairs Likely to End Soon After Labor Day

Upgrades right on schedule, agency says, but there might be more work needed after summer is over that could affect NJ Transit commuters

amtrak workers
Credit: Amtrak

The major repairs at New York’s Penn Station that have pushed thousands of New Jersey Transit commuters off their normal routes into Manhattan this summer are right on-schedule after the first month of work.

The steady progress means service changes that have been in place since early July are still likely to end soon after Labor Day. But with the aging station and its heavily used infrastructure in need of even more fixing up once summer ends, additional track outages that could again impact NJ Transit may be looming.

According to the latest update from Amtrak, the agency that owns Penn Station and has been leading the ongoing repairs, workers will need roughly another month to finish fixing up Track 10 and a part of the facility that includes a very busy section known as “A Interlocking.” While the workers still have “considerable challenges ahead,” Gery Williams, Amtrak’s chief engineer, said they remain on course to complete those repairs by September 4.

“Really, overall, we’ve had a really, good week,” Williams told reporters on Friday as the project reached its official midway point. “From the project aspect, we’re 50 percent completed.”

“We’re very focused on delivering by Labor Day,” he said.

Derailment disruptions

Amtrak’s major repair work at Penn Station was first announced in late April, after two train derailments caused major disruptions and brought new attention to the aging station’s failing infrastructure. Amtrak officials said they had previously identified problem areas inside the station, but were originally planning to do the maintenance work over a longer period of time in an effort to ease any disruptions.

A interlocking
Credit: Amtrak
A Interlocking at Penn Station serves as the critical sorting mechanism that routes trains entering and exiting the station.

This summer’s expedited repair effort has instead reduced the station’s hourly capacity from roughly 21 to 15 trains, meaning schedules for NJ Transit, Amtrak, and the Long Island Rail Road have all had to be adjusted to account for the loss of volume during what’s being dubbed the “Summer of Hell” for commuters.

Gov. Chris Christie — who has faced criticism for his stewardship of NJ Transit during his two terms in office — personally announced NJ Transit’s contingency plan to deal with the Amtrak repair project in May. A key to that plan has been a diversion to Hoboken of nearly 7,000 passengers who normally have direct service into Manhattan on the agency’s Morris & Essex lines. Although a roughly 50 percent fare discount has been offered while the service change is in place to help cushion the blow, the diversion is still adding about 45-minutes of commuting time in each direction for Morris & Essex passengers.

Periodic delays

Riders on other NJ Transit lines, meanwhile, have also been facing periodic delays and overcrowding conditions this summer.

Cross-honoring arrangements between NJ Transit and the Port Authority have been put in place for diverted commuters who are now taking PATH trains from Hoboken into Manhattan. A cross-honoring agreement is also in place with NY Waterway, a ferry operator that has debuted a new route this summer between Hoboken and West 39th Street in Manhattan.

NJ Transit last week also added some new morning-only express bus routes to the Port Authority Bus Terminal that are enabling direct commutes into Manhattan. They include new morning-only express routes from Madison and Morristown, and more morning-only express trips from Maplewood and Summit. Some bus trips from Newark Broad Street and South Orange have also been discontinued due to low ridership.

“We’ve been closely monitoring how our customers are adjusting to the service changes so we can best match our equipment with demand,” said Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director. “Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been getting a picture of when and where our customers utilize our services and we are adjusting accordingly to serve as many customers as possible.”

While the NJ Transit contingency plan has so far largely worked out as planned, the agency has faced some problems scheduling its train engineers, which has caused some route cancellations this summer.

But Williams, the Amtrak official, praised the region’s commuters at the start of Friday’s briefing for helping to make this summer’s difficult circumstances a little more tolerable.

“I want to thank all the passengers for their patience during this project,” he said.

He also complimented the workers who have been assigned to the repair effort, saying they completed the first phase of the project in July, which included some demolition and material removal. They have now moved on to the project’s second phase, which is focused in an area of the station that hosts Track 10 and the A Interlocking. The workers almost suffered a setback last week when a concrete mixer failed, but a replacement that was on standby was brought in so “we really didn’t lose a beat,” Williams said.

In fact, the temporary track shutdowns have worked well enough that Amtrak officials will consider them as a model that could be used again in the future as the station’s aging infrastructure continues to need repairs in other areas. But Williams stressed that any future track outages wouldn’t occur without cooperation from the partner agencies like NJ Transit. And he added no additional major work is planned at the station in 2017 that can’t be completed on weekends without service disruptions

“We’ll take a look and see what we want to do again next year,” Williams said.

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