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An NYC think tank has a surprisingly simple solution for fixing Penn Station

Penn Station has hit a tipping point.

The transit hub has been thrust into the center of public conversation in New York after a pair of derailments in March and April caused hellish delays. Earlier this month, crews took the better part of a day to fix a sewage leak near the entrance to a pair of Long Island Rail Road tracks. The track work required to fix key issues at the station are expected to cause weeks of service disruption this summer. All the while, public and private officials are without an overall plan to bring Penn, which serves upwards of 600,000 commuters every day, into the 21st century.

But one New York think tank has put together a grandiose vision that could go a long way in solving the problems currently associated with Penn Station. Over the last year or so, ReThink Studio, a local group that takes critical looks at some of the largest urban planning issues facing the city, has been pushing a plan aptly dubbed "ReThink NYC."

The plan questions why commuter rail lines in the New York metropolitan area are built around the concept of ushering passengers in and out of Manhattan, and whether or not Penn Station really needs to be the city's key transit hub. A major part of the plan is to take NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, and combine them into what ReThink is calling a "Regional Unified Network," or RUN. 

Currently, morning rush hour NJ Transit trains heading to Penn Station either continue to a rail yard in Sunnyside, Queens to wait until evening rush hour, or provide service back to New Jersey. In both cases, they interfere with other inbound trains. Just the same, Long Island Rail Road trains heading into the station every morning either head to the West Side Rail Yards or change direction and provide outbound service, which often blocks other inbound trains. Throw Amtrak into the mix, and you have a mishmash of competing trains and a logistical nightmare.

ReThink posits that if Penn Station were thought of as more of a through station than a terminal—and if NJ Transit, LIRR and Metro-North became a single, unified service—then these problems would be fixed. In this vision, westbound LIRR trains could continue through to New Jersey on the northern half of Penn Station's tracks, and eastbound NJ Transit trains could continue through to Long Island on its southern half. 

In order to achieve this vision, a few major projects would need to be completed. First, the MTA would need to invest in new transit hubs outside of Manhattan, which would be constructed at the Sunnyside rail yard, Port Morris in the Bronx and Seacaucus in New Jersey. These stations would provide more transfer points between lines, connecting every suburban transit line in the area through five key hubs (add on Grand Central Terminal and Penn to the three previously mentioned).

Beyond that, the MTA would need to get serious about the Gateway Project, which would add two new train tunnels beneath the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. These would allow for a higher capacity of trains running through Penn Station and beyond. The Gateway Project currently calls for the construction of "Penn Station South," which would provide more tracks for the increased train traffic and would require the demolition of an occupied block of midtown Manhattan. By allowing trains to pass through Penn instead of terminating there, ReThink argues that the southern expansion of the station would be unnecessary. 

ReThink NYC paints the broad strokes of what could be an exciting solution to Penn Station's issues. The best part? It's surprisingly simple. But with a complicated network of interests and several politicians who could be more inclined to invest in a quick-fix solution to the problems, the plan could very well never see the light of day.

Penn Station became the nightmare that it is today because of short-sighted thinking by politicians and developers alike—ReThink's plan pushes for a shift in that paradigm.  

Check out a breakdown of ReThink's plan in the videos below.



Jonn I

Aside from the political and multi agencies - the proposed plan is pretty the obvious way to go.  If you look at any of the major rail mainline stations in Europe that are very old <1900 - they terminate at the end of the city like Gare Du Nord, Waterloo or Victoria.  Those city's are spending billions in land costs to try to extend a few tracks "through" to opposite mainline stations.  For example Cross Rail is connecting Paddington and Liverpool Street.    The newer networks like Berlin, Zurich, Barcelona, were built after the lessons learned in London and all have clean through tracks with no major central turnaround depots.    Just moving the train in the same direction to just outside the center core does a lot to alleviate traffic.  It doesnt matter if the last stop is a big traffic driver or not, its a depot stop that can be leveraged for a outside core hub where some passengers can now directly connect to light rail, bus, uber, rental car without having to take a 2 train connection to cross town, this frees up the center for more foot traffic.  

Here in New York we have what I consider unique and illogical setup - primarily because Penn Station was historically designed by the Penn Railway company for traffic out west. of the Mississippi.  We have two terminal stations - that are connected but not used except for moving empty trains to a nearby depot.  I cannot find any other rail city in Europe that has this alignment.  Either its a terminal with no connectivity or a pass through station with full through connectivity.  Its so strange - that we are actually consider it "normal" and need a think tank to tell us the obvious.

Kim C

I think it is great to think about using ny penn as a pass through station as opposed to a terminal station.

Instead of creating new routes/stations to secaucus and Sunnyside yard, what about just run the trains from Nj end point to LI end point? Say a train starts from Trenton and stops at NY penn; after unloading the passengers at Penn, the same train(whether or not using the same crew ) continues all the way to a long island end point?

This would significantly improve the speed of the trains in and out of ny penn.

One other thing to think about is the capacity of the station itself. We need to have more than 5 staircases to unboard 400 passengers at a time...

Gregory A

This proposal is breathtakingly stupid

Nobody needs to get to Sunnyside or the South Bronx or Secacus - those commuter trains bring suburban resident workers to their jobs in Manhattan 

Putting the terminal anywhere other than Midtown Manhattan would be useless 

Also NJ Transit is owned by New Jersey, the LIRR and Metro North by New York State - they aren't going to merge 

Even if they did, there's three sets of locomotive engineers, conductors, trainmen and yardmen, with three different sets of seniority lists and union contracts and three different sets of incompatible rail cars - trying to merge them would take decades of effort, billions of dollars and would meet lots of resistance 

This reads like an idea that some idiot who knows nothing about railroads drew on a cocktail napkin in a Penn Station bar three beers into a train delay - utterly unrealistic
phunkshun P

@Gregory A You can remove all of your comment other than:

"NJ Transit is owned by New Jersey, the LIRR and Metro North by New York State - they aren't going to merge "


 "there's three sets of locomotive engineers, conductors, trainmen and yardmen, with three different sets of seniority lists and union contracts and three different sets of incompatible rail cars"

 Note: I am a friend of labor and work in a union shop.

But yeah, that's why it won't happen.  The plan is fundamentally sound from a transit network throughput standpoint.  That's a bit more work than napkin math, too, so at least be intellectually honest about your argument.