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In secret control center, N.Y.'s Penn Station moves fewer trains as repairs proceed

In a secret midtown Manhattan location lies the heart of operations for the busiest train hub in the Western Hemisphere, New York's Pennsylvania Station, which is undergoing a massive emergency repair.

Staffed 24 hours a day, the control center is housed in a nondescript office building within a block of the station. Here, 16 dispatchers at a time route 1,300 trains daily: Interstate trains that run from Holmesburg, Pennsylvania through New Jersey and New York City and on to New Rochelle, New York, as well as commuter trains to and from the city's Long Island and New Jersey suburbs.

On a 67-foot-wide curved black panel that takes up an entire wall, a lighted map of tracks glows green and red. Streaking through the heart of the Penn Station network are blue lights marking three tracks that have been taken offline for a massive repair program undertaken by Amtrak, the interstate railroad and owner of Penn Station.

The program has disrupted daily commutes for tens of thousands of passengers who have had to use alternate routes that take far longer to get into Manhattan than their now-canceled direct service.

So far, however, the summer has been less hellish than anticipated. Most commuters are adapting to the alternatives provided.

"The first two weeks have been, I think, better than anyone could expect," said Mitchell Pally, a board member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, at a Monday meeting.

The MTA operates the Long Island Rail Road, whose riders come into Manhattan from the city's eastern suburbs. The LIRR also provides some control center dispatchers.

"I knew people coming in here would get an on-time train," said Steven Young, deputy general manager of Amtrak's New York division, who led reporters on a command center tour.

With the three tracks offline until Sept. 1, the number of trains moving through the station daily has dropped to about 1,140, Young said.

Before the control center became operational in 1994, dispatchers sat in towers along the line, communicating with each other on slips of paper and operating switches by hand.

Amtrak is spending an estimated $30 million to $40 million on the repairs, which are focused on the most complex portion of crisscrossing tracks.

The fixes were originally planned to take place in off-peak hours over the course of a couple years. But the program was sped up after recent derailments, resulting in long delays to cross the Hudson River and backing up traffic across the region.