There are both short- and long-term issues concerning Penn Station's capacity and operations. Proposals by some elected officials about relocating some Amtrak trains from Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal to support emergency maintenance repairs sounds great until you look into the details.
Until 20 years ago, Amtrak Empire Service operated trains from Grand Central Terminal along the Hudson River to Albany and points beyond, including Buffalo, Montreal or Toronto. Today, there are five morning rush-hour (6 - 10 a.m.) and six evening rush-hour (4 to 8 p.m.) arriving or departing Amtrak trains from Penn Station that could temporarily return to Grand Central Terminal.
There are several hundred daily Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit trains operating from Penn Station during the same morning and evening rush hours. Amtrak will require the cancellation of far more than 11 trains to support emergency repairs this summer. Don't be surprised if this work continues into the fall and 2018.
Amtrak giving up 11 rush-hour train slots for LIRR and NJ Transit is just a drop in the bucket. This will be little comfort to many of the more-than-200,000 LIRR and 100,000 NJ Transit riders who will lose their trains for however many weeks and months.
There is no room to run additional trains into or out of Penn Station during either a.m. or p.m. rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections to Long Island. This has been the case for decades. Three of four tunnels running inbound during a.m. and outbound during p.m. rush hours have very tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing during rush hours. There is no platform capacity at Penn Station to accommodate any additional trains during rush hour. Penn Station is currently operating at 100 percent capacity during both a.m. and p.m. rush hours. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellations.
There are a number of other competing new services looking for nonexistent rush-hour Penn Station platform, track and East River tunnel capacity in coming years.
Metro North wants to begin service at a cost of more than $700 million to Penn Station some time between 2021 and 2023. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also wants to provide new frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point station. This is to support his $450 million LaGuardia Air Train. Both Amtrak (Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, along with Empire Service north to Albany and Buffalo) and New Jersey Transit have future plans to expand service in and out of Penn Station.
However, both the $29 billion Gateway Tunnel (two additional tracks connecting New Jersey via the Hudson River to Penn Station) and $3 billion Moynihan Station Farley Building projects fail to add any new additional tracks or platforms at Penn Station. This results in no capacity increase for adding any additional new morning or evening rush-hour Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road or future Metro North Railroad trains to serve Penn Station.
Don't be surprised if there are no changes to the level of service during the rush hour at Penn Station in the foreseeable future.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.