Emergency repair work began Monday at New York’s Penn Station, kicking off a “summer of hell” for hundreds of thousands of commuters battling chronic delays, overcrowding and frayed tempers at North America’s busiest rail hub.
An estimated 650,000 passengers pass every day through Penn Station — twice as many as for the three New York area airports combined — where rail lines from New Jersey, Long Island and the East Coast corridor connect with the Big Apple’s aging and crumbling subway system.
The two months of track repairs, which began Monday, will reduce the number of trains at peak hours by around 20 percent until September 1.
Commuters have been urged to switch to replacement bus, ferry or subway services wherever possible, and come into work earlier or later. Some fares have been reduced to help alleviate the inconvenience.
“Everybody is at different levels of breaking point,” says Andrew Sarnow, who works in marketing and says he has been battling delays of 30-40 minutes for the last two months on his commute from Princeton, New Jersey.
He reeled off a litany of complaints: a station not designed to handle the volume of passengers; tracks with one point of entry — “an unforgivable design flaw;” delays; breakdowns and faulty tracks.
The repair work follows three derailments since March.
Penn Station’s woes sunk to a new low in May when dirty water, widely reported to have been sewage, gushed from the ceiling.
“It’s going to be a struggle,” says Sarnow. “I’m going to be working a lot on the train.”
But he admitted his journey time of one hour, 15 minutes was “not bad” and admitted he had been expected worse.
“It’s long overdue and I blame many politicians for taking so long to do something,” he said.
Perhaps because the disruptions were so long planned, commuters had time to make contingency plans and almost everyone AFP spoke to Monday said their journey had not been as bad as they had expecting.
“Lately it’s been much longer than today,” admitted logistics worker Thomas Fletcher, dashing off the train from Newark and walking at breakneck pace through the station en route to work.
“It has been a pain and I was worried,” he said. “I just wish they had taken care of it sooner.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned as early as May that the repair work would spell a “summer of hell for commuters.”
The disruptions coincide with woeful delays in the aging subway system, which is similarly straining to cope with increased ridership, and highlights a wider problem of crumbling infrastructure in the United States.
Sean Cribbin, 27, who works in asset management, said he was grateful that he lived and worked in New Jersey most of the time and so could avoid the commuter life.
“God forbid, there’s a drop of rain that comes down, or snow — trains shut down or are massively delayed,” he told AFP.
“The subways are nasty. It seems to be everywhere you look in New York, public transportation’s a mess.”
But neither will the next two months be a one-off.
A solitary century-old tunnel used by all trains crossing under the Hudson River — one track in, one track out — was damaged in Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and will also need repair work in the future.
“If we all stay cool, respect the train crews and don’t let these frustrations take over, everyone will get to where they need to be,” Steven Santoro, the executive director of NJ Transit, advised in a recent letter.
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