UPDATE: Commuters brace for pain of Penn Station track upgrades

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NEW YORK — Planned Penn Station track and electrical system rehabilitation, which had been previously programmed to take place only on weekends over the next several years will now be expedited so it can be completed by the end of this summer.

Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman told reporters on a hastily arranged conference call Thursday morning that the work will necessitate reducing Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit movements for extended weekday periods to allow for uninterrupted construction windows.

“We won’t have definite plans about the sequence of what platforms and tracks are out of service until we work through that with our partners over the next several days so that we can together formulate what our train plans will be for those outages,” says Moorman, adding, “Our target is to minimize the number of trains to be impacted at any one time.”

“There are efficiency gains with the ability to work around the clock…on areas that truly require extended outage time,” says Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek, who was also on the call.

Both executives noted that rebuilding interlockings at the western end of the station will likely cause the most disruption.

Amtrak’s president says the reason rehabilitation initiatives had been previously scheduled over a longer period “are much more about time and access constraints of working in such a complex environment,” rather than money. Moorman says costs will be funded out of the current budget by deferring updates of outdated technology platforms, “not something that will have significant impact on the customer or the workings of the company.”

Evening rush hour power problems and a stalled train tying up tracks on Tuesday created concourse chaos as arriving passengers jammed the station with no place to go, likely prompting Amtrak to announce that former Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast had been tapped to “independently review the interaction, coordination, and collaboration between the railroads’ various passenger concourses within Penn Station…including during disruptions.”

Moorman also says Amtrak seeks the support of the Long Island and NJT to plan, develop and staff a joint station concourse operations center to integrate and promote information sharing, joint decision making and the leveraging of technology.

“We do that for train operations with our Penn Station Control Center, but each operator now has separate ticket and waiting area concourses,” he says.

Coordination would allow limited station space to be better used if, say, a track problem affected only Long Island Rail Road or NJ Transit trains.

Although Moorman admits, “The engineering department generated a renewal program several years ago,” it took yet another incident related to failed infrastructure for Amtrak to announce an all-out effort to find and finance a fix.

Further evidence that Amtrak insists on being reactive — rather than proactive — in expressing its operational and maintenance system financial needs was expressed on the call by Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Vice President Caroline Decker, who says the company will wait for the release of President Trump’s budget before releasing its grant and legislative request, “that will outline our spending priorities for the Northeast Corridor and the national network.”

She says, “Even in modified budget years, Amtrak typically submits its request following the President’s request,” but in the last decade the company has issued it no later than mid-March.

This suggests that Amtrak will adjust its “ask” to accommodate what the president says he wants, rather than attempting to make a case in advance by precisely articulating its spending needs.

UPDATE: Full story with comments from Amtrak officials. April 27, 2017 3:15 p.m. Central time.

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