As Commuter Nightmare Worsens, Cuomo and Christie Tell Amtrak a Private Company Should Run Penn Station

The governors told Amtrak that Penn Station is in need of a private operator

What to Know

  • Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie penned a letter to the CEO of Amtrak saying months of "failures" at Penn Station are "intolerable"
  • The governors want a private company to operate Penn; Amtrak had proposed having a contractor run only its concourse areas
  • Commuters are bracing themselves for what lies ahead when Amtrak begins track repairs and other projects

Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie on Thursday issued a joint letter to Amtrak CEO Charles Moorman calling for a private company to operate Penn Station.

At a hearing with lawmakers earlier in the day, Moorman had proposed hiring a contractor to manage Amtrak's concourse areas at the station. But the governors went a step further, writing in the letter that the whole station needs a private operator. 

The proposal comes after months of commuter horror stories and worsening conditions at the nation's busiest rail station, which is owned and operated by Amtrak; LIRR and NJ Transit lease space there.

On Wednesday evening, signal issues at the station caused service problems for LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak, leading to such severe overcrowding that police had to barricade some entrances. In the weeks before, two derailments, a power failure and other signal issues caused one headache after another for travelers. 

About 75 percent of current train volume would run during the shutdown, Amtrak said Thursday. Andrew Siff reports.

“The situation at Penn Station has gone from bad to worse to intolerable,” the governors’ joint letter begins.

The governors blame “decades of underinvestment” by Amtrak for a “continuing string of infrastructure failures at Penn Station.”

Commuters from New York and New Jersey have sacrificed time and energy, and endured ongoing suffering because of the infrastructure problems, the governors wrote, adding that the two states pay “the enormous amount” of $150 million a year to Amtrak to use the facility.

Signal issues hampered the commute for LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak riders at Penn Station on Wednesday night. Crowds got so bad, police had to close entrances to the stations. Conditions were better Thursday, but commuters were skeptical. Rana Novini reports.

Despite the payment, “Amtrak’s management of Penn Station continues to produce multiple failures,” the letter reads. 

“It now will require drastic and continuous improvement of these conditions by real experts over a sustained period of time to have the effect of improving commuting conditions for our citizens.”

The governors said a private operator should be brought in to take over the repairs of the station and to manage things going forward.

“The situation is not tolerable and change cannot wait any longer,” the letter ends.

A Cuomo administration official said Thursday the private operator would be under the oversight of the three railroads that use the station: New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak.

Amtrak released a statement early Friday morning addressing the letter.

"We agree with the Governors that dramatic action is required at Penn Station," the statement said, "and that's why Amtrak is advancing our renewal plan as well as the creation of a new entity to unify management of the station concourses and leverage the expertise of the private sector with experience in running complex passenger facilities."

Amtrak said it wanted to work with the governors, LIRR and NJ Transit on these "critical steps" while continuing to take action to improve daily operations.

Police were dealing with confused commuters outside Penn Station as they blocked one of the entrances to ease crowding within the station.

The letter came the same day Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road officials answered questions from lawmakers about ongoing issues at the congested station and its plans for work there this summer. 

During the hearing, Moorman hinted that he was open to the idea of a private operator.

"Let's give the people who really know how to do this well the opportunity to do it, and let the railroads, all three of us, do what we know how to do well," Moorman said. 

This summer Amtrak could cancel up to 25 percent of the trains at the station, even though most of the work will be done at night. With 1,300 Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit trains coming in and out of the station daily, that would imply roughly 325 trains a day would be cancelled between the three rail services.

"We realize we are disrupting people's lives," Moorman told a News 4 reporter.

Amtrak officials said the railroad will announce the summer service plan for the station next week. The railroad said crews will be working around the clock during the outage periods this summer, and that the number of tracks taken out of service will vary depending on the time of day.

Officials said they're looking at all possible options to accommodate customers during the summer infrastructure project, including rerouting some trains through Grand Central Terminal. Amtrak and NJ Transit have already announced commuters should prepare for daily delays.

Moorman acknowledged that even with weeks of work this summer, another outage will still be required sometime in 2018 to finish rehab projects at the aging station.

Police blocked off access to some of the entrances to Penn Station because of crowding amid delays on LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak. Checkey Beckford reports.

At Thursday's hearing, Amtrak executives showed state lawmakers a diagram of the station's underground infrastructure and said improvements were essential. 

"We are operating at or even beyond the limits of the possible," Moorman said. 

Amtrak’s replacement of tracks and other equipment, much of which dates to the 1970s, initially was scheduled to be completed over a two- or three-year period, mainly during off hours. But the recent problems prompted Amtrak to speed up that timetable.

The hearing came a day after massive commuter problems and delays for NJ Transit, LIRR and Amtrak at Penn Station. Crowds of commuters swelled so much Wednesday that police had to close some entrances. 

This NYPD officer did his best communicating with crowds of commuters Wednesday as police blocked an entrance outside Penn Station amid delays.

State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages was caught up in Wednesday's chaos, and didn't let LIRR off the hook. She said the agency seemed caught off guard. 

"I was caught in that mess and we got not help on the platform," Solages said. 

Rush-hour troubles this week were only the latest in what has seemed to commuters like an incessant string of rail problems:

• On March 24 an Amtrak train derailed and bumped into an NJ Transit train.

• On April 3 a second derailment closed more than a third of New York Penn Station's tracks for four days.

• On April 14 a train got stuck in a tunnel for nearly three hours, leading to systemwide delays for travelers.

• On April 21 an Amtrak switch problem near Newark caused widespread delays.

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