New York commuters take disruptive track repairs in stride

Commuters wait for track announcements at New York's Pennsylvania Station which began track repairs causing massive disruptions to commuters in New York City

By Barbara Goldberg and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Commuters were warned to expect hell going to and from New York City, but on the first day of disruptive repairs at the nation’s busiest rail hub on Monday many said their rides were no worse than usual for the crowded, delay-prone transit system.

Some, noting the sunny weather, even enjoyed being diverted onto a free, specially arranged ferry across the Hudson River.

The three railroads that carry tens of thousands of people each day to and from Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan have canceled some trains and rerouted others for the eight weeks the work on the tracks is expected to take.

Some riders from New Jersey complained about lengthened commutes, while noting they were already used to delays after a string of derailments and stalled trains at the station this year that the repairs are intended to remedy.

Many riders and transit officials attributed the relatively smooth start to a successful public awareness campaign, including numerous station attendants who answered questions, handed out pamphlets and herded disoriented passengers.

“Tickets out!” one attendant bellowed at New Jersey’s Hoboken Terminal, on the opposite side of the Hudson River from Manhattan. “This way to the 39th Street ferry!” shouted another.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had predicted a “summer of hell” for commuters as the repairs continued through to Sept. 1.

Bill McLeer, who works in data analysis and was waiting in an unusually subdued Penn Station for a train home to Mount Laurel in New Jersey, called the governor’s warning “completely overblown.” And some commuters relished a free ride on a ferry that normally costs $9.

“It’s my first time,” said David Lawner, a database administrator from West Orange, New Jersey, as he marveled at the warm breezes of the ferry’s open-top deck. “Isn’t this relaxing?”

Another ferry rider, Kathleen Lynn, was less rhapsodic. “It’s going to add 20 minutes,” said Lynn, a Summit, New Jersey, resident who works in financial services. “Or an hour. Depends on whether everything hooks up.”

Penn Station, an underground maze of low ceilings and mediocre dining spots built in the 1960s, serves about 95,000 New Jersey Transit customers and about 116,000 Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) customers on an average weekday, according to 2016 data.

Amtrak, the national passenger rail corporation and the station’s owner, says an average of 28,000 rides a day on its intercity services begin or end in Penn Station.

The commuter crunch highlights lagging investment in U.S. infrastructure, and especially in New York City, which is dependent on mass transit.

Even so, Amtrak reported most of its trains ran on time or close to it, and the Penn Station departures board showed no delays during the evening rush.

“We’ve had a good commute this morning,” Amtrak’s president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, said in an interview. “It’s the first morning of a long process, but right now we feel good.”

Joe Lhota, who oversees the LIRR as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chairman, praised riders, saying “they did everything perfect today.”

“Tomorrow is another day, we start afresh,” he told reporters during the evening rush. “We’re expecting thunderstorms in the morning.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Hofstetter, Laila Kearney, Peter Szekely and Amy Tennery; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)