Part 5 of 6: Can We Keep Penn Station from Going South?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

In 1995, one of the alternatives of the original Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project would have developed a track connection for New Jersey Transit (NJT) trains to go to Grand Central Terminal (GCT) on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan. New Jersey riders, especially commuters whose offices are nearby, would have enjoyed convenient access to them for the first time. That alternative was eliminated in 2003, and the means for delivering new Manhattan capacity was downgraded to a stub-end deep-cavern station 20 stories below ground.

Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, eventually killed the entire ARC Project in 2010, mainly because it was too expensive, but also because it was flawed. It would not have gone to GCT or Penn Station New York, and Amtrak could not have used it. Gateway, sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman, took its place four months later.

The deep-cavern terminal from the ARC plan was replaced in the Gateway plan by Penn South, a separate stub-end station located south of the existing Penn Station, which would serve as the end of the line for most NJT trains. In short, most of New Jersey’s riders would still be evicted from Penn Station, but the “alternate accommodations” would not be as onerous as the ARC deep-cavern would have been. They would be located roughly at the level of the existing Penn Station tracks, but a block further south.

For years, Amtrak has been searching for a means to expand Penn Station, which has become overcrowded. At least some of that relief will come when the Moynihan Train Hall, west of Eighth Avenue, is completed. Moynihan Train Hall (named for former U.S. Senator from New York  Daniel Patrick Moynihan) will be located below the historic Farley Post Office, erected in 1910 as a companion to the original Penn Station. It will allow access to all Penn Station tracks that NJT and Amtrak use, except Tracks 1 through 4. These are the southernmost tracks, which are used almost exclusively by NJT. Most of Amtrak’s passenger support services will move across Eighth Avenue and onto the Moynihan side, too.

Liberating space is not enough for Amtrak, which wants to monopolize tracks, as well. Amtrak requested $50 million in federal funds for preliminary environmental and engineering work as early as 2011. The object is to clear NJT trains from the existing tracks. Except for a few during peak-commuting hours, they would be relegated to Penn South, a proposed seven-track stub-end station that would extend southward to 30th Street. But Penn South would present problems, in terms of inconvenience for riders and cost.

Advocates for New Jersey’s riders complained bitterly a decade ago, when the former ARC Project would have sent many of them to the proposed dead-end deep-cavern station (dubbed “The Tunnel to Macy’s Basement”), evicting thousands on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton and Gladstone Lines from the existing Penn Station.

Penn South would serve the same purpose. It would not be as onerous as the ARC deep-cavern, because Penn South would have tracks at the same level below ground as those at the existing Penn Station. Still, Penn Station is located at the southwest corner of Midtown Manhattan, and most Midtown offices are located north and east of there. Penn South would leave nearly all of New Jersey Transit’s rail commuters one block further from their offices, compared to the existing Penn Station. In addition, Penn South would be located one block further from the subway lines that actually serve Penn Station. The only exception: For New York City Transit No. 1 line (Seventh Avenue IRT Local) riders, it would be closer to 28th Street (a local station) than to 34th Street, but all other subway riders from Penn Station would be inconvenienced.

This new inconvenience for riders also comes at a high price. To build Penn South, the project would confiscate 35 lots containing 64 properties (because some are condos) of valuable Midtown Manhattan real estate. While established real estate firms may be drooling at the prospect of having more land handed to them for new development, the price of acquiring that land is heading toward the roof. In 2014, the market value calculated by the New York Department of Finance was $404 million to acquire the 35 lots that would be condemned and the buildings now located on them. The next year, that estimate grew to a range between $769 million and $1.3 billion. New York real estate prices keep rising, and real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has estimated that land in Midtown Manhattan cost 2.5 times as much in January 2015 as it had cost in 2012, according to Christopher Maag’s reporting in the Bergen Record.

There is also the issue of whether or not Penn South is compatible with modern railroading. The trend in station design and operations is toward through-running and stations that accommodate it. Trains from one suburban area to another, operating through the city’s central core, run today in several major European cities, including London, Paris and Berlin. In this country, they only run in Philadelphia. Except for one variation on the old “Alternative G” of the original ARC Project that would have brought trains from New Jersey to the Lower Level Loop at Grand Central Terminal, more recent plans have called for stub-end terminals; a railroading practice that dates back to the 19th Century.

Scott R. Spencer evaluated more than 100 proposed trans-Hudson infrastructure alternatives when he worked for Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) between 1995 and 1998, as part of the ARC Project. In that job, he considered potential capacity improvements, service plans, operations feasibility and cost-effectiveness for each of the rail alternatives, as well as other parameters. “The currently proposed Gateway alignment did not make the first cut,” he told Railway Age. He called the Gateway plan to create new capacity with a Penn South station a “bait-and-switch,” and said that, even if the multi-billion-dollar, 7-stub-track station could be financed and built, it could not produce enough capacity to fully utilize the new Hudson tunnels that Gateway proponents claim.

Spencer also told this writer that he did not see how Gateway could be funded—the fatal flaw that ultimately killed the ARC project nine years ago. “It’s not only a matter of initial funding” he said. “Nobody is preparing to cover 100% of the billion-dollar-plus cost overruns that come with projects like this.”

With the high cost of building Penn South—estimated at $5.9 billion in July 2017—and the inconvenience it would pose for riders, is there any way to avoid it? Advocate Joseph M. Clift, who previously served as Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), thinks so. Clift believes that capacity at the existing Penn Station can be enhanced through improvements in the operation. He notes that the LIRR uses only nine tracks at Penn Station (Tracks 13 through 21) but brings more trains into the station than Amtrak and NJ Transit combined bring in on the other twelve tracks.

According to Clift, the key to bringing riders into Penn Station at its busiest time (arrivals from 7:30 to 8:30 AM) is to unload each train and clear the platform as quickly as possible. That means bringing a train into the station, unloading it, and boarding reverse-flow riders quickly after the incoming riders have left the platform. The same concept holds for trains going to Sunnyside Yards in Queens for mid-day storage, except without boarding reverse-flow riders.

The LIRR brings 36 trains onto nine tracks during the busiest 60 minutes of the morning peak, so it can clear the platform and re-use a track every 15 minutes on average. In contrast, NJT and Amtrak together bring in 25 trains during the comparable hour on 12 tracks. That means they clear a platform and re-use a track every 28 minutes. There are no long-distance Amtrak trains leaving Penn Station at that time of the morning, so it should be possible to board Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) trains almost as quickly as boarding NJT trains.

If Amtrak and NJT could reliably re-use a track every 20 minutes, it would allow 36 trains to arrive at Penn Station during the busiest hour of the morning. If such an operating plan could be implemented successfully, there would be room for full service on the Raritan Valley Line and more service on all other lines that use Penn Station today, without the need to acquire expensive land or build the inconvenient Penn South station. If the operation could be more finely tuned to where it would be possible to re-use a track even faster, there would be room for even more than 36 trains during the busiest hour of peak-commuting time. The constraints on station capacity are not as critical at other times of the day.

Clift acknowledges that Penn Station must be improved before tracks can be cleared significantly faster. He believes the key is enhanced vertical access to and from the tracks, as well as concourses that allow more access to each track and between tracks for transfers. He said that the LIRR made such upgrades in the late 1980s, and he also says that improvements of that sort will mean upgraded operations at Penn Station, no matter what else is done or not done, and they would cost significantly less than tearing down existing buildings and constructing a new underground station.

Clift and other advocates are not merely complaining about Penn South and other plans, though. They have a plan of their own, which involves building new capacity into Penn Station with each step having independent utility, along with improvements at Penn Station itself. One of the major ones is to extend Platforms 1 and 2, which serve Tracks 1 through 4, westward to the recently-expanded and extended West End Concourse, which also makes it possible to reach the Moynihan Train Hall when it is completed late next year. That would give NJT full access to that part of the station, as well as lengthening those tracks enough that any track could accommodate NJT train consists of any length.

It would not be easy to accomplish that goal, but that particular project was included as part of the previous ARC Project in 2004 as an Early Action Item, and then removed in 2008. It was also shown as a Penn Station improvement in Gateway presentations.

Spencer is pushing a different proposal, which he calls the “Empire State Gateway”: a giant transit-only bridge using the air rights of east-west streets over Midtown Manhattan, spanning from Secaucus to Queens. We will have more to report about that plan in the future, but the fact remains that some people outside the “Gateway Establishment” want alternate solutions and are proposing them.

As we have seen, Penn South has problems, as does Gateway generally. Funding is questionable, and some of the components of the program will not deliver optimal results for the riders who would use it. At this juncture, the object of much of the ongoing advocacy effort is to save money by bringing the overall program scope down to a reasonable size and cost, so there will be enough money to build it.

So where do we go from here? We will attempt to answer that question in the next, and final, article in this series.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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