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Readers & Listeners Share Tips On Surviving The Present Penn Station, Identify Remnants Of The Old

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The muses in this public artwork seem to be beckoning passengers into the void. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Relish the wisdom of the crowd. Many of you have weighed in with your knowledge of New York Penn Station at the bottom of our previous post with additional strategies for navigating the nation's busiest train terminal.

We invited you to contribute to the list of minor amenities that New Jersey Public Radio managing editor Nancy Solomon and I came up with as we walked the overburdened transit hub and searched for coping strategies for the 600,000 travelers who squeeze through it every weekday.

A few readers said there are more water fountains than the one we found behind a pillar in the Amtrak Acela waiting room. George Gauthier wrote, "There are three other water fountains in the station, two in the waiting room for New Jersey Transit, next to the rest rooms. Another at the east end of the Long Island Rail Road station behind the police booth."

And after I described a filigreed entryway near the Long Island Rail Road waiting area as "the one thing commuters can see from the lost age of Penn Station," several of you brought up a wide staircase with thick brass handrails that riders still use to reach tracks 1-6. Eric Marcus said the staircase is another survivor from the original Beaux Arts beauty that opened in 1910. He added: "In some places you’ll see the old glass block floors in their cast iron frames above you. They’ve been covered over by terrazzo, so light no longer penetrates."

Marcus goes on to claim, intriguingly, that Amtrak has been collecting fragments of the original Penn Station from people who've saved them, with the aim of bringing these vestigial elements to a new station Amtrak is building across Eighth Avenue in the Farley Post Office. (See renderings of Moynihan Station here.) We've asked Amtrak whether that's true, and await their reply.

Which raises the question: how did regular people save bits of old Penn Station?

Technology consultant and native New Yorker David Hochman has an answer. He was seven years old in 1964, the year after the original station was dismantled and resettled as rubble to a wetland in New Jersey. Hochman's parents spotted an ad in The New York Times taken out by The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which then owned the station, offering to send a memento of the monumental building to those who asked for one. The enterprising David sent in his request, and the railroad replied:

Some time later, a chunk of stone weighing "a few pounds" arrived in the mail. Surely young Hochman cherished it as a talisman from a more graceful age, and he will now be donating it to Amtrak. "Sadly," he writes, "I've lost track of the piece itself." He then rhetorically smacks his forehead while quoting Bugs Bunny, "What a maroon I am!"

(This excellent article describes even more slivers of the old Penn Station embedded in the new.)

Of course there were plenty of laments. To delve into the history of Penn Station is to realize its demolition remains an open wound in the psyche of New York. Commenter "Jorge" quoted Yale professor of architecture Vincent Scully's great line about the effect of removing passengers from the station's once-palatial precincts to an underground warren devoid of natural light:

“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Reader Paul de Silva, an architect, added this critique: "The worst part of Penn is the track platforms. Much of the power of a well designed train station anywhere in the world is an open view of the platforms, as per original Penn."

Others added detail to a shortcut described by Nancy Solomon in the radio version of the story, which you can hear by clicking the audio player at the top of the post.

And several people wondered why the railroads that use Penn Station wait so long before posting the track number of a departing train. That's because the station handles close to the same number of trains as Grand Central Terminal on half as many tracks. Result: dispatchers don't know a train's track number until 10 to 12 minutes before it leaves, as opposed to the 25 minutes' notice that passengers enjoy at Grand Central Terminal. The shorter notice at Penn Station means people pile up under the information boards, blocking the flow of the hordes through the too-small halls.

Despite all, reader "Andrea" complimented Amtrak for playing classical music in its waiting area. She says her dream job is "to be the DJ for Penn Station!"

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Transportation Nation

Tix On NY Commuter Trains Will Be Valid Longer...But A Refund Will Still Cost $10

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tickets on this Metro-North train will be valid longer, starting in September. (traingeek/flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Starting in September, Long Island Railroad and Metro-North riders will have more time to use their tickets. Tickets will be valid for two months, up from their current two week lifespan.  And riders will have two months to seek a refund, also up from two weeks.

But a refund will still cost ten dollars — even if the price of the ticket was less than $10.

The policy irks Bill Henderson of the Long Island Railroad Commuter Council. He says Macy's doesn't charge its customers for a refund and neither should the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "There's things that are part of the cost of doing business and we think refunding the cost of a ticket ought to be one of them," he said.

Henderson pointed out that riders seeking a refund on a ticket worth less than ten dollars could conceivably end up owing the railroad money.

The NY MTA countered, saying the charge is needed to partially cover the "the administrative expenses of issuing and mailing [refund] checks." The authority also said it will cost $6 million a year to extend the validity of its train tickets.

(Ten-trip tickets will remain valid for six months, and riders will have six months to refund them.)

The two-week validity and refund periods on tickets began in December 2010. The MTA says it enacted the changes "to reduce revenue loss from uncollected tickets and...partially cover the actual cost of processing the refund." But in an unusual admission, the authority said, "These policies generated numerous complaints from customers and elected officials" and led to today's about-face.

The changes will take effect on September 4.

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Transportation Nation

The Single Switch Routing 1/3 of All LIRR Trains, Down for a Month

Monday, July 09, 2012

Long Island Railroad train barrels through a crossing. (photo by ynkefan1 / flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) About 5,000 riders on Long Island Railroad will see their evening rush hour train either cut or delayed for as long as a month starting Monday.

The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the LIRR,  is taking a single switch in Queens out of service so it can dig the next length of the East Side Access Tunnel — a project designed to bring LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal by August 2019.

Switch 813 regulates 1/3 of all eastbound train traffic as it passes through a massive switching yard called The Harold Interlocking.

The switch can't be operated while a giant boring machine is tunneling beneath it. With only two tracks remaining to handle the evening rush, train traffic must be juggled.

The NY MTA said riders can expect the following changes:

  • The 4:52 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon will be canceled.
  • The 5:20 PM train from Penn Station to Long Beach will be canceled.
  • The 5:40 PM train from Penn Station to Seaford will be canceled.

The four PM Peak trains with adjusted schedules include:

  • The 5:36 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon, which will depart Penn Station one minute later (at 5:37 PM) and arrive Babylon two minutes later at 6:42 PM.
  • The 5:55 PM train from Penn Station to Long Beach will arrive at Long Beach one minute later at 6:52 PM.
  • The 5:59 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon will arrive at Babylon five minutes later at 7:04 PM.
  • The 6:44 PM train from Babylon to Patchogue will operate two minutes later, departing Babylon at 6:46 PM and arriving Patchogue at 7:16 PM as a result of its connecting train from Penn Station (the 5:37 PM) arriving two minutes later at Babylon.

The NY MTA has been alerting riders to the changes through an alert on its website, fliers posted at stations and dropped on trains seats, and email alerts to the 30,000 customers who subscribe to them.

Those efforts weren't enough for the Long Island Railroad Commuters Council, which urged the LIRR to post workers in stations and on platforms during the first days of the schedule changes.

LIRR spokesman Sal Arena said that will now happen. "Railroad president Joe Calderone said to The Riders Council, 'You're right. Let's do it.'" Arena said riders confused by the changes can expect to see LIRR workers in reflective vests at Penn Station in Manhattan, Jamaica Station in Queens and Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.

For more on East Side Access, go here.

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Transportation Nation

Diamond Engagement Ring Is Lost And Then, Against Long Odds, Found On Long Island Railroad

Friday, June 29, 2012

Long Island Railroad passenger Brooke Bene shows off her recovered engagement ring.

(New York, NY - WNYC) Here's an uplifting story on a hot summer day. It begins with a young woman placing her hand on a metal pole in a New York City subway and sickeningly realizing that the sapphire and diamond engagement ring on her finger didn't make a sound...because the ring was gone. We'll let this understandably breathless press release from Long Island Railroad describe what happened next:

The owner of the dazzling ring, Brooke Bene – who was recently engaged in April – inadvertently left the ring on the train as she disembarked at Atlantic Terminal [in Brooklyn] for her daily subway trip to her Wall Street job.

"I removed the ring and placed it on my lap to apply hand lotion while on the LIRR train,” said Ms. Bene. “When I stood up to leave the train, it must have fallen without me realizing. It wasn’t until I grasped the hand bar on the No. 2 train out of Atlantic Terminal and didn’t hear the metal of the ring touching the bar that I noticed it was missing – and that’s when the panic set in."

After a frantic search through her belongings, Ms. Bene realized the ring was gone. She immediately contacted the LIRR upon arriving at her office.

That’s when the LIRR’s Deana Teemer jumped into action and called the LIRR’s operation center to find out where Ms. Bene’s LIRR train was next headed – which turned out to be the Hempstead Branch. She requested the operations center to contact the crew of the train via radio and also called the Hempstead Station ticket office for the train to be searched.

Following a regular routine, Ms. Bene sat in the same seat in the same car each day – this aided in the hunt for the ring.

LIRR conductor Tim Parrett found the ring in the space between the seat cushion and the seat back, after pulling the seat cushion away. He radioed word to the operations center that the ring was found and brought the ring to the Penn Station Customer Service office.

Upon hearing the good news from Deana Teemer later that morning, Ms. Bene gave a sigh of relief and immediately headed to Penn Station to re-claim her cherished ring. Then, she told her fiancé about the ordeal and the happy ending.

“I just love them,” Ms. Bene said about Teemer and Parrett. “They were incredible – how amazingly fast everything was done and the ring was found!”

Deana Teemer has worked for the LIRR for 13 years, starting as a ticket clerk and for the last two years in the Customer Service office. Tim Parrett has 15 years on the job.

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Transportation Nation

NY MTA Chief Says Railroads Need To Work Together To Overcome Maxed-Out Hudson River Crossings

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Amtrak concourse at Penn Station in New York. (Scott Beale / flickr)

(New York, NY -- WNYC) New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota told a conference of transportation professionals that the only hope for moving more people under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey is for the area’s commuter railroads to set aside their traditional enmity and work better together.

His remarks came after a presentation showing rapid growth in New Jersey’s commuter population has maxed out rush hour crossings — both transit and vehicular — and that relief in the form of a proposed Gateway Rail Tunnel won’t arrive until 2025. If it arrives.

Which raised the question: what to do in the meantime?

Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan, the hemisphere’s busiest railroad station and a terminal for New Jersey Transit trains.

He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space.

Each railroad currently controls a third of the platforms, which sometimes leads to one railroad having too many trains and not enough platforms at the same time another railroad has empty platforms. The railroads also vie with each other for access to tunnels during peak periods. Lhota said capacity would be boosted if dispatchers in the station’s control room could send any train to any platform, and through any tunnel, as they saw fit.

Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.

The practice is called “through-running.” It happens already when NJ Transit trains carry football fans on game day from New Haven, Connecticut, through Penn Station to Secaucus, where passengers transfer to a shuttle that takes them to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Lhota says more trains crossing borders would make for a truly regional and efficient system. But first the railroads must cooperate. "Right now, we're as Balkanized as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “We need to find a way to coordinate that."

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said running the football train is complicated but shows that cooperation is possible. “Doing just this experiment required agreements among four railroads to coordinate schedules, crews, track, ticketing, revenue and some minor hardware issues,” he said. “So expanding it to full-fledged through-running will take much more.”

Lisberg said the four railroads are conducting a $1.5 million study to look at improving Penn Station’s capacity. “The study is trying to quantify the benefits and the costs of through-running,” he said. One of those costs would be overcoming the railroads’ disparate technologies: Amtrak, Metro-North and NJ Transit use overhead catenary power, while Long Island Rail Road is powered by a third rail.

In an email, Lisberg further weighted the costs and benefits of through-putting. He said a big advantage would be that trains wouldn’t have to stop and turn around in Penn Station, “or use precious tunnel slots to move empty trains into storage yards.”

And he said the existing tracks and platforms under the station “could be reorganized into simple eastbound and westbound tracks and platforms, regardless of which railroad uses them.” Then he added a caveat: “However, it would require lots of capital investment and changes to existing procedures – and we want to know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.”

The Regional Plan Association, which held the conference at which Lhota spoke, and other advocacy groups have expressed support for through-running—at least until Gateway Tunnel gets built. If it gets built.

 

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Transportation Nation

Schumer: Use ARC Tunnel $ To Finish Digging Rail Tunnel Under East River

Monday, June 20, 2011

East Side Access would bring Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station through a tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street and then beneath Park Avenue.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says New Jersey's transportation loss should be Long Island's gain.

The Senator is supporting a $2.2 billion low-interest loan from the federal government to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The money was originally earmarked for a commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River that Governor Chris Christie killed in October. Schumer says it should now go to finishing East Side Access, a project connecting Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station through tunnels beneath the East River. Long Island Railroad is the nation's largest commuter line.

East Side Access is supposed to be done by 2016, but is only funded through the end of the year. The project is designed to speed up trips for about 160,000 riders from Long Island to Manhattan's East Side by as much as 30 to 40 minutes.

More than $5 billion in state and federal funds have already been spent on the new rail connection, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the U.S. But East Side Access is still facing a $2.2 billion shortfall.

The MTA applied for the loan in late April to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Spokesman Aaron Donovan said the authority is "in discussions with the U.S. DOT as part of the application process but we don't have an estimate on when we'll hear back."

U.S. DOT spokeswoman Olivia Alair said "We do not have comment on this today."

Most Long Island Railroad trains cross under Manhattan to arrive at Penn Station on the West Side, adding to congestion at that station and forcing commuters with jobs on the East Side to double back by bus or subway. Schumer said eliminating that bottleneck and adding flexibility to the system will "boost New York as the economic engine of the region."

 

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Transportation Nation

NY'S MTA Looking to Sell Ads in Subway Tunnels

Monday, March 07, 2011

Old School subway ad with the legendary Dr. Zizmor. (flckr crative commons / jonkeegan)

(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) The perennially strapped New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is exploring new ways to boost annual ad revenue, including selling wall space in the tunnels between subway stations. Spokesman Aaron Donovan said the authority has already solicited bids from companies to manage the new account. "Anywhere there’s a dark tunnel, you could do it," he said.

Surfaces in subway tunnels have been marketed by other transit agencies, like the NY-NJ PATH train and  Boston's T system. But this would be a first for the MTA in New York.

It's part of the authority's push to wring more money out of advertising after two flat years of sales. The NYC MTA earned $109 million during the recession years of 2009 and 2010, down from a high of $118 million in 2008. But the MTA is projecting a comeback in 2011 with sales of $120 million.

The tunnel ads would show a string of varied images that, when viewed from a passing train, would move like a flip book. A similar effect is visible in a subway artwork called Masstransiscope between the Manhattan Bridge and the DeKalb Avenue station in Brooklyn. As the D train glides by an unused station at Myrtle Avenue, painted images flash behind vertical slits and appear to morph and writhe. (A video of it can be seen here or at the end of this article.)

Donovan said most ideas for non-traditional ad placement come from advertisers themselves. In recent years, the MTA has permitted video on the outside of buses and ads that wrap entire train cars, like the 6 train that became a long rolling ad for Target last fall, when the company opened a store in Harlem -- which is served by the 6.

Then there is a program called "station domination," in which a single company plasters ads on multiple surfaces--columns, stairwells, turnstiles--throughout a subway station. Ads at Union Square Station have even been projected onto floors and walls. And now, perhaps inevitably, the MTA website displays ads for free credit checks and the Crate & Barrel wedding registry.

Gene Russianoff of The Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group, says he's of two minds about the spread of ads not only in the subway and on buses but on billboards outside stations and the exterior of commuter trains. (The New York City Department of Transportation gets the money from ads on bus shelters.)

"My view is informed by the very tough times we’re in and the pressure the MTA is under to make money," Russianoff said. But he said he draws the line at selling naming rights to stations--like the agreement by Barclays Bank to pay the MTA $200,000 over 20 years to puts its name on the Atlantic Avenue station in Downtown Brooklyn. "That's making a public space private and subordinating the public’s right to know where it’s going," Russianoff objected.

Still, the MTA faces pressure to cut costs and pump up sources of non-tax revenue.

The authority has an agreement with CBS Outdoor, a media-buying company, for the company to sell at least $580 million in ads on the subway from 2006 to 2016 and $346.5 million in ads on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter lines from 2010 to 2016. The MTA is also in the midst of a 10-year contract with Van Wagner, another media-buying firm, to sell at least $58 million in billboard ads on transit authority property. In December, ad space became available on five pages of the MTA's website. Donovan said that initiative has earned $10,000 over three months.

What is the most lucrative spot for ads in the region's transit system?

The answer is not temporary tattoos on the foreheads of train conductors. At least not yet. It's the Times Square Shuttle, with its packed cars and constant turnover of passengers. If an advertiser has an idea for a new kind of ad, like a train wrap or video, it's likely to be tried out on the shuttle. So be warned that in the future, if you're riding that train and decide to take a rest from all the ads by looking out the window...you could see more ads.

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Click here to see the subway tunnel artwork Masstransiscope. Be sure to click "Launch Movie" to see it in action.

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