Amid repairs, Amtrak shows off control center efforts

Amtrak says Penn Station track work is on or ahead of schedule.

In the “Days of Delays,” commuters aren’t looking for anyone to blame, they’re blaming everybody. That means leaving the railroads with a need to get their sides of the story out, and, for Amtrak, that means briefings, like Tuesday’s talk at a secret location that contains the railroad’s control center.

“Track 10, that’s 1,200 feet. Track 5X, track 4X, and track 3X, totally renewed and that’s a big deal,” said Amtrak Deputy General Manager Steven Young, a 30-plus year Amtrak veteran who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the railroad’s summer rehab of Penn Station. He took reporters through a tour of Amtrak’s super secret control center in midtown, explaining what all the blue, gray and green lines on the big board mean and what all it takes for the railroad to plow through this summer’s big fix.

“This weekend we had five station tracks out and four of the X tracks out, so there was a lot more track out over the weekend. We took some congestion delays but it is what it is,” added Young. “That’s what has to happen because there’s no place – when you take the stuff out – there’s no place to put it. All the tracks are so close out there that when you remove a whole section of track you have to have some place to put it.”

That means commuters will deal with unanticipated delays that can randomly mess with their travel plans. Amtrak says most of the repairs are happening during off-peak hours and that, overall, this Penn Station project – despite with all the apocalyptic predictions – is actually slightly ahead of schedule. Still, Young knows it’s a race against time and that unanticipated events, like a couple of recent derailments, can throw the best laid plans, into the dumpster.

“Total shutdown of service until we get people out in the field to tell us what routes are actually available for us to use around the derailment site, get the people that are on the derailed train off and then we make decisions on what kind of service we can support around the derailment site,” Young explained.

Inconvenient, for sure, but Young urges commuters to remember the work is necessary and rendered so by the sorry state of the existing tunnels that feed commuters to the station. Young says the failure of one of those tunnels – no matter how much shiny new track gets laid under Penn Station – would be, well, apocalyptic.

“Before the renewal project, we ran 24 to 25 trains an hour east, and 12 trains west, so you’re looking at 30-someodd trains in both directions, likkity split, no problem,” he said, warning, “If we were to go to just one tunnel, that goes six in one direction and six in the other, that’s it. So you go from 30-some odd trains in both direction, to six in and six out – you could make it nine in and four out; you could tweak that anyway you want but it’s 12 trains – and that’s catastrophic to the region.”

And nobody, as the saying goes, has got time for that.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of commuters, Amtrak is on the offensive, hoping that, while you may never come to love them, you may at least come to understand them a little better.

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