By Mark Hallum
The problems in Penn Station have escalated to the point where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued a letter to President Donald Trump requesting federal funds to bail out Amtrak, which owns the station. The move comes as the passenger railroad service attempts to overhaul the largest transit hub in the United States to end delays and cancellations.
Tuesday saw further issues with tracks leading to Penn Station through an East River Tunnel when two Long Island Rail Road trains, each carrying about 1,000 passengers, became stranded for three hours due to power issues associated with the tracks.
Another train was required to remove people from one of the stranded trains while the other pulled into Penn about 70 minutes late. Delays spread through the system until about 9:30 a.m. A spokesman for the LIRR said the issue was related to the tracks, under the purview of Amtrak for upkeep. Amtrak has announced that it will take six weeks over the summer to complete vital repairs to the station, cutting 20 percent of service.
“Amtrak’s need to cut service this summer has created both a short-term crisis and dramatically exposed the system’s chronic problems,” Cuomo said in his letter to Trump. “Even if true, this will be a summer of agony as thousands of commuters would be significantly inconvenienced and alternative routes and means would be swamped. This will overload the subway system and drive many more commuters onto our highways, bridges and tunnels.”
Cuomo said that although the MTA has made an effort to oversee the needs of passengers who will be uprooted by the repair work, there will be no way to prepare for the transit nightmare that is coming to the nearly 600,000 daily riders flowing through Penn Station each day.
“As I believe the Penn Station problems may very well elude resolution, and the MTA is already beyond its limits, I will be calling on the MTA to find new ways to accelerate the long-term capital plan and on our local governments to assist in funding that plan to the extent necessary,” Cuomo said. “I think New York City and the other local governments now fully recognize the critical needs of the MTA and will meet their financial obligation. However, as Amtrak’s Penn Station is a critical component of the system and under federal control, we need your assistance.”
Cuomo argued that the situation facing not only the city and state but the region should be treated with the same respect offered to natural disasters.
“While this is not a hurricane or a flood, it will affect as many people and businesses with dire consequences. Like a natural disaster, we didn’t create it, but our public offices require we address it,” Cuomo said. “As in most emergencies, this is not a political issue, and bipartisan officials will agree that we need immediate help. This situation effects the entire northeast region.”
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who worked 31 years for the USDOT Federal Transit Administration. He is doubtful that Amtrak is so strapped for cash that it would require additional funding from the federal government. He claimed the real barrier to fixing Penn Station is not with money but with workers.
“It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of where Amtrak will find the workforce.” Penner said. “The issue no one is talking about is: Where does Amtrak get the workforce to do all this work during the summer and into the fall which has been deferred for a decade or more?”
He pointed out that “because of union contracts and work rules, they can’t have third-party contractors do the work.”
Penner went on to claim that the workforce issue would be the real Achilles’ heel of progress for Penn Station. He criticized Cuomo’s proposal, which was mentioned in his letter to Trump, to pull Amtrak from managing Penn Station and put the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in charge of building a world-class transportation hub that would include the construction of the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey.
“The Port Authority does not have enough people and money to manage the $10 billion Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd Street and the LaGuardia Airtrain,” Penner said. “Crying for more money from Washington, which has a $20 trillion debt and growing, makes a nice headline, but it makes no sense in my professional opinion.”
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall