Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Metro-North plans for Penn Station access

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MTA Metro-North Railroad could make access to Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station an official priority in its next five-year capital construction program to be released in 2014, despite decades of obstructions confronting the railroad.

The plan, currently labeled West Side Access, would involve routings some Metro-North New Haven Line trains over Amtrak's Hell Gate Bridge and to Penn Station, on Manhattan's West Side. A second phase would allow Metro-North's Hudson Line to also access Penn Station, via crossing the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge and traversing Amtrak's right-of-way along Manhattan's West Side.

At present, Grand Central Terminal serves as the terminus for all Metro-North operations east of the Hudson River.

The plan would in some ways be counterbalance to MTA's current $8 billion East Side Access construction project, which will give Metro-North's sibling Long Island Rail Road direct access to Grand Central as well as Penn Station. Proponents of West Side Access, however, note the Metro-North plan, utilizing existing rights-of-way, would be far less expensive than East Side Access, in the "hundreds of millions of dollars," according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan, as opposed to billions.

For its New Haven Line, which also doubles as part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, Metro-North initially would add stations in Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point in the Bronx, northeast of Manhattan, on the way to Penn Station. A Metro-North public presentation to Co-Op City residents in the Bronx last September suggests that travel time between the huge residential complex and Penn Station would be reduced from nearly an hour, using bus and subway combintations, to just 27 minutes.

In Phase 2, involving the Hudson Line, Metro-North could add stops in Manhattan at 125th Street, and possibly near 59th Street on the way to Penn Station. Amtrak already uses this route as part of its Empire Corridor service.

In both situations, Metro-North presumably could use time slots freed up by the diversion of some LIRR trains to Grand Central once East Side Access opens. But Long Island political officials, and even some Long Island rail rider groups, have objected to any proposed use of Penn Station by Metro-North, fearing LIRR service to and from Penn Station would be compromised.

Privately, however, Metro-North officials in recent months have expressed cautious optimism, based on at least two factors: West Side Access would be relatively cheap to implement, and Metro-North’s ascension in the past two years as the largest U.S. regional railroad by ridership (surpassing the LIRR) lends additional political clout.

Equipment issues could arise, though they might be manageable. Metro-North’s M-8 electric multiple-units (EMUs) already are equipped to run using third-rail and overhead catenary; the latter a prerequisite for traversing across the Hell Gate Bridge. But the Hudson Line is protected by M-7 equipment, utilizing third-rail power exclusively; Metro-North would thus likely be prompted to expand its M-8 fleet, or order a new fleet of dual-power EMUs. 

Penn Station, the nation's busiest passenger rail station, currently serves as a rail terminus not just to Amtrak and the LIRR, but also to New Jersey Transit.