Understanding the History Behind The Chaos at Penn Station

The last 60 days were hell for commuters who rely on New York’s Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the North America. In several separate incidents, train derailments and other problems have caused delays that have, quite literally, affected millions of passengers.

The folks at Curbed NY provide a nice recap of the situation

Getting in and out of Penn Station on a good day can be a harrowing experience, but as many New York commuters can attest, the past few months have been full of some terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days at the transit hub.

To briefly recap: after an Acela derailment caused problems at the end of March, a NJ Transit derailment on April 4 led to extensive delays on that system, along with the LIRR and Amtrak. Just days later, another NJ Transit train stalled just outside of Penn Station, while false reports of a shooting on the same day led to mass hysteria. And this week, wire problems in one of the tunnels led to delays that were so bad, the station was temporarily closed to commuters.

Adding insult to injury, Amtrak officials have confirmed that they knew about the track flaw that caused the two earlier derailments, but simply did not understand how bad it was. And to make matters worse, there’s a chance that the Gateway Tunnel Project, which would replace the aging tunnels below the Hudson River that connect Manhattan to New Jersey, could lose federal funding under the Trump administration.

That’s all happened since March, and doesn’t take into account all of the times trains have been delayed or otherwise slow because of the aging infrastructure. So basically, things are no good at Penn Station right now.

The fact that today’s situation has been allowed to get to this point is beyond breathtaking.

Penn Station is the focal point of the Northeast’s Corridor, the most heavily used network of rail in the hemisphere. Penn Station is also a critical transportation node that powers the nation’s largest city. The slow deterioration of the hub has been chronicled for years.

Experts have long known that heavily used tunnels that feed into the station would need to be renovated or replaced, and that new tunnels were needed in order to allow the hundreds of trains that use the station to continue unimpeded. Further compounding the misery of commuters is the fact that, despite its status, Penn Station is easily the most dreary, crowded and depressing rail station in America, with referring to it as the worst place in New York City.

So why has nothing been done?

Though Penn Station has been the subject of scrutiny from planners, since at least the 1980’s, a perfect storm of factors prevented any action. For one, there are so many stakeholders. Penn Station is owned and operated by Amtrak, the nation’s beleaguered long distance rail agency. Though Penn Station is both its busiest station and the centerpiece of it’s only profit center, the agency has lacked the money and the political firepower to engage in an infrastructure overhaul. Gateway, Amtrak’s big plan to bring high speed rail to the Northeast, is still many years away from even breaking ground.

New York State, and it’s govenor, are also a big player. The State has been pushing, understandably, for a complete revamp of the dreary hub for almost a generation. On the surface, a revamp seems to be a no-brainer, the station is easily one of the worst transit facilities in America, especially when taking into account it’s size and importance. However, even this has proven complicated. Since the original (and very beautiful) terminal was torn down to make way for Madison Square Garden (“MSG”) in the 60’s, the City of New York and MSG would have to sign on. In an effort to circumvent this problem, focus has shifted to the Farley Post Office, a spacious beax-arts building that lays directly across the street, and was once considered the “twin” of the original Penn Station.

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SOM rendering of New York State’s Proposed Penn Station Revamp

This solution too, however, is laden with problems. With most of the platforms and subways located east of the Farely Post Office, only a fraction of passengers would be able to utilize the new station house; the majority would be stuck in the old, depressing facility.

Oh, and a new facility would do nothing to solve today’s tunnel capacity problems.

The tunnels that feed into Penn Station transcend state lines, making New Jersey a major player as well. Penn Station, in-fact, is the only New York City point of entry for New Jersey Transit, the nation’s third largest commuter rail system. Realizing the need for additional capacity to serve the growing number of commuters entering into the city, New Jersey Transit once began an ambitious project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (“ARC”). ARC would have built two additional tunnels, which would have terminated under Midtown’s 34th Street. The plan has received funding and began construction in 2009.

It wasn’t a perfect project, ARC would not have helped those who use Amtrak or the LIRR, but it would have added capacity and relieved the Hudson tubes of congestion. Despite the obvious benefits, Chris Christie, the Govenor of New Jersey, unceremoniously cancelled the effort, instead funneling the dollars to highway improvements.

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Penn Station, prior to demolition in 1963

Meanwhile, other projects have come and gone in New York, even ones that cost more and will be used by less. The Fulton Center and the World Trade Center Transit Hub were both completed at a cost of many billions, the latter of which would make Penn Station commuters jealous. The Seven Train extension and the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway have also been completed. Meanwhile, the MTA’s $10 billion dollar East Side Access project stumbles towards completion under Park Avenue.

Relief for Penn Station passengers, by comparison, isn’t on the horizon.

Unfortunately, the deterioration of Penn Station is a potential sign of the infrastructure dystopia that awaits us.

Much of American infrastructure, especially relating to public transit, is similarly positioned at the nexus of squabbling stakeholders. The similarly deteriorating DC Metro, for example, is at the awkward intersection of two states and a federal district. Federal highways, including bridges and tunnels, are supported by federal and state dollars. High speed rail initiatives also transcend numerous states and localities.

If the busiest and most high profile parts of our infrastructure network go neglected, then it doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of us.

Featured Image via Kevin Harber on Flikr

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