Modest Relief on Way for NJ Transit Commuters with ‘Refresh’ of Penn Station Waiting Area

John Reitmeyer | January 8, 2020 | Transportation
NJ Transit and Amtrak are financing upgrades on 8th Avenue side of the rail hub in midtown Manhattan
Credit: NJTV News
Part of Penn Station in NYC is being revamped to make the wait for passengers more comfortable.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak are sprucing up a busy waiting area inside New York’s Penn Station as part of a broader push to address what can be a miserable experience for commuters who pass through the crowded rail hub.

On Tuesday, the two mass-transit agencies launched a “refresh” of Amtrak’s waiting area for ticketed passengers, which is located on the 8th Avenue side of the midtown Manhattan station.

The $7.2 million project will include new furniture, better lighting and charging outlets for mobile devices, among other changes. Work on upgrading the concourse is expected to take until the middle of the year to complete; temporary waiting areas have been arranged to accommodate riders in the meantime.

Officials said the result should be a station that functions better for all customers by improving pedestrian flow on the concourse level. It could also ease frequent overcrowding, even for NJ Transit customers who congregate on the 7th Avenue side of the station, they said.

“NJ Transit customers deserve a better experience at New York Penn Station, and that’s exactly what these improvements will deliver,” said Kevin Corbett, the agency’s president and chief executive officer.

“These improvements will help reduce overcrowding in the NJ Transit waiting area, improve pedestrian flow through the station, and generally provide for a more comfortable environment for NJ Transit customers using New York Penn Station as an origin or destination,” Corbett said.

Track work continues

The refurbishment comes as Amtrak has been working to upgrade tracks and other rail infrastructure deep within the 109-year-old station. That effort began several years ago but was expedited in the wake of two derailments inside the station in 2017, which caused major headaches for commuters. The latest phase of track repair started earlier this month and will run through mid-April, according to Amtrak.

“Modernizing and investing in infrastructure is a continuous process, and Amtrak is committed to making investments towards updating infrastructure when needed,” said Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer.

Owned by the federal government, New York Penn Station is the busiest rail hub in North America, serving more than 500,000 Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit customers daily. NJ Transit pays rent to Amtrak to use the station, along with other infrastructure which the two agencies share on the portion of the Northeast Corridor that bisects New Jersey.

While tracks continue to be repaired inside the station in response to the 2017 derailments, concerns about conditions at the station’s concourse level have persisted despite recent efforts to improve bathroom facilities and bring a new retail coffee bar directly into the waiting space. Commuters regularly post photos of overcrowding inside the station, especially when NJ Transit’s own operating problems cause train delays or cancellations.

Credit: Mai Reitmeyer
The first phase of the work will run through March.

As well as new furniture, including seats and communal tables, LED lighting, and new electrical and USB outlets for mobile devices, the upgrade calls for removal of a “midpoint barrier” inside the station, installation of a new information desk and providing a second entrance to the waiting areas to improve access for those coming from the 7th Avenue side of the station. There will also be a designated family area and a “pod” for nursing mothers, officials said.

The first phase of the work will run through March and the second through June. Funding from both Amtrak and NJ Transit is covering the cost of the project, officials said.

Bigger plans

The work comes as commuters are awaiting the expected opening later this year of a new train hall inside the Farley Post Office building on 8th Avenue adjacent to Penn Station, a development that is also designed to ease congestion — particularly for Amtrak and Long Island Railroad customers.

And, as part of the ongoing effort to improve Penn Station’s rail infrastructure, crews began working this month on upgrades to tracks 11 and 14. The $7.6 million project involves upgrading railroad ties and installing a safety barrier on the platform to protect passengers, officials said. That work is expected to last until April 17, but should not result in any service reductions, they said.

“We thank our customers as well as our partners at NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road for their patience and continued cooperation with our efforts to keep this important infrastructure in a state of good repair,” Anderson said.

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this week announced an ambitious “Empire Station” plan to boost rail capacity by expanding to the south of Penn Station. That would allow for the addition of eight new underground tracks, Cuomo said.

No price tag or timeline has been announced, but the proposed track expansion drew immediate praise from transportation advocates, including the Regional Plan Association, an influential public planning organization that often calls for improvements to mass transit.

“We are pleased to see a comprehensive plan that encompasses not only the station itself, but also the district surrounding it,” said Tom Wright, the association’s president and chief executive officer. “Adding transit capacity and prioritizing safety is critical to the success of the region and for the hundreds of thousands of people that rely on the station regularly.”