As Amtrak prepares to announce plans for track and other infrastructure repairs at Penn Station, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road riders are bracing for news of how the work will impact their already painful commutes.
Amtrak owns the tracks and equipment at Penn Station, and leases them to the commuter rails. Both the MTA and NJ Transit have blamed Amtrak for poor upkeep on those tracks -- which has resulted in derailments and train delays -- and both New Jersey and New York officials have threatened the possibility of lawsuits against Amtrak over the condition of the rails in the region.
Now that it's finally getting to work on making the repairs, commuters have been warned that delays and cancellations will get even worse before they get better.
"Without improvements, Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road will continue to see disruptions, which could also have an impact on passenger safety," an Amtrak spokeswoman said.
Already on Wednesday, while Amtrak was making only short-term repairs, NJ Transit trains were significantly slowed during the morning rush hour -- a repeat of what's become a frustratingly common experience for commuters lately.
"There were 300 people trying to get on the train at MetroPark, climbing onto the side of the train," said Frank Marinaro of Manasquan.
To be fair, NJ Transit did warn customers on Tuesday that these immediate repairs would delay trains by at least 15 to 30 minutes into early next week. The rail is issuing "delay letters" for customers to give to employers if they have experienced delays getting to work. You can get the letter online or you can also stop by one of the customer service offices and pick a copy up.
But the challenges will likely get worse later this year when Amtrak works on its long-term repairs. Amtrak officials are meeting with MTA officials Thursday morning to discuss how it will affect Long Island Rail Road customers, too.
"That's gonna delay my trains even more, I've already had such a hassle," said Brooke Goldstein of Stony Brook, dreading how the work will impact her. "I've been late many times to work, and it's really affected my commute."
MTA Acting Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said they've been waiting two weeks, since around the time of the last derailment at Penn Station, to hear what Amtrak would come up with.
"What they told us two weeks ago is they need two weeks to come up with a plan," said Hakim. "My understanding is that's what we are gonna hear tomorrow."
NJ Transit says it's also waiting to hear from Amtrak on its plans.
"NJ Transit has been assured by Amtrak that when their Penn Station track rehabilitation plan in fully developed, NJ Transit will get a full briefing and be part of that dialogue," said spokeswoman Nancy J. Snyder.
Until then, NJ Transit's new spring rail schedule will include additional seating capacity to ease overcrowding on heavily traveled trains and adjusting the schedules on certain trains to provide improved connections at Secaucus and Newark Penn Station.
Gov. Christie, who has been one of Amtrak's most vocal critics, said in a statement Wednesday, "It's good to see Amtrak is finally beginning to make the long-ignored repairs at New York Penn Station and throughout the Northeast Corridor.
"Whether they are going to Penn Station in New York, or Newark or Trenton, 80 percent of NJ Transit's riders' trips touch some part of Amtrak's rail system," he said. "So the condition of the overhead wires and tracks and the rest of the infrastructure is just as important on the Corridor in New Brunswick as it is going in and out of Manhattan."
Christie said his office was monitoring Amtrak's repair plans to make sure they address safety concerns and ensure long-term reliability while minimizing inconvenience to riders.
Gov. Cuomo said in an unrelated news conference Wednesday, "There is no doubt that Amtrak has been substandard in their performance of their basic duty. It's affected millions of people, it's happened again and again."
"Fix it, fix it," he said, addressing Amtrak. "Do your job, be competent, run Penn Station competently. Have tracks that are well-maintained, have signals that operate. Have enough security personnel to keep the passengers safe."
Cuomo said he wished he had control over Penn Station, which he called a "debacle": "It would be a very different situation than it is."
The recent rush-hour problems Tuesday were just 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.