Penn Station: Managed Chaos

Managing train movements into and out of New York’s Penn Station is “ballet” that brings “Order Out of Chaos”, the title of a story by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Nov. 24).  This behind-the-scenes visit to the Amtrak center where Penn Station train movements are controlled reveals a group of ice-calm dispatchers sitting before computer screens and seemingly ready to cope with any eventuality.  Commuters may wonder why their train doesn’t always arrive or leave from the same track.  There is a plan, called the “program” or “guide”, but, Dennis Hamby, Amtrak supervisor of Northeast Corridor operations, says, “it just takes one thing to happen, and there goes the apple cart.”  After a seemingly small but foreseen event, Hamby says, “you’re putting (trains) wherever you can.” In rush hours, which now extend from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., the station’s 21 tracks are fully utilized: “It’s all filled,” said Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s chief of planning for the Corridor.

When Penn Station went into service in 1911, its 21 tracks were enough for what traffic was foreseen by the Pennsylvania Railroad, its builder.  Now the station handles 1200 trains on a weekday, 332 of which are operated by NJ Transit.  The bulk of the rest are operated by the Long Island Rail Road, which enters the station through 4 tracks under the East River.  Amtrak trains constitute a smaller portion of the total, but Amtrak operates the station, which it inherited from the Pennsylvania Railroad and its corporate descendants. NJ Transit trains, and Amtrak trains to the south and west, have to share only two tracks under the Hudson River: a major choke point.  Amtrak has plans to build two more tunnels to relieve the bottleneck, but this will take at least 12 years to finish—if funding can be secured for the expansion.  Meanwhile, upgrades to the Northeast Corridor already in progress will allow Amtrak to run more trains—“to go from 2–3 trains an hour . . . to 10–12 trains an hour,” Galloway said.  However, those additional trains will still have to get through the Hudson River bottleneck.

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