LIRR East Side Access Delayed Again

One of the legacies of commuter access to Manhattan is that it was developed by a number of different railroads, each with their own terminal in Manhattan or on the west bank of the Hudson.  Many cities in the U.S. and abroad have managed to unite their legacy rail networks, affording direct access to multiple locations in the central city; but New York is still struggling to do so.  The three commuter railroads in the area, NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad, each have but one terminal in Manhattan: Penn Station on the West Side for NJ Transit and the LIRR, and Grand Central Terminal on the East Side for Metro-North.  All three would like to be able to deliver their riders to both sides of Midtown.

The most advanced project to achieve this is the $8-billion East Side Access project of the Long Island Rail Road, which plans to connect the LIRR in Queens to new platforms under Grand Central Terminal, building tracks in Queens and Manhattan and utilizing two tracks in the 63rd Street East River tunnel first built 4 years ago, but never used.  The East Side project was originally slated to be completed this year, but delays have pushed the projected completion out farther and farther; on May 8 Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Joseph Lhota confirmed a one-year slip, to 2019, for the current projected completion date.  On May 21, MTA officials confirmed that the new completion date is August 2019 and that the current cost estimate is $8.24 billion, up from an original (2006) estimate of $6.3 billion, according to reporting by Colin Moynihan in the New York Times (May 22).

The biggest technical challenge is at the Harold Interlocking junction in Sunnyside, Queens, where tracks from Penn Station divide into the lines of the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, and also lead to the Sunnyside Yard storage facility.  Changes to the complex junction while maintaining existing traffic has caused delays; also, the new tracks involve tunnels, but sandhogs have hit contaminated soil and underground springs that are stifling progress.  Once the East Side project is complete, some LIRR trains will terminate there rather than in Penn Station, freeing up space for possible West Side service to Penn Station from the New Haven and Hudson Lines of Metro-North.  Meanwhile, hopes of NJT commuters to reach the East Side directly seem far off; plans for such access would apparently require new tunnels under the Hudson, as well as extending trackage from the Penn Station area to the East Side, no mean feat given existing infrastructure—subways and water tunnels—which already occupy underground real estate in Midtown.

 The Lackawanna Coalition believes that East Side access for long-suffering NJ Transit commuters is essential and that all planning for infrastructure improvements in the Tri-State area need to be better coordinated among all railroad operators in the area: NJ Transit, Metro-North, Long Island Railr Road, and Amtrak.

LIRR Plans Penn Station Concourse Modernization

Now that NJT’s new trans-Hudson tunnel is dead, the Long Island Rail Road is planning to upgrade and modernize its passenger facilities in Penn Station.  The LIRR had put plans on hold, expecting disruptions from NJT’s tunnel construction.  According to Andrew Grossman, writing in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), “Penn Station’s warren of underground passageways and tracks connecting three railroads and the New York City subway system are difficult even for frequent users to navigate.”  LIRR President Helena Williams said, “It’s a facility that’s showing its age. . .  it’s cluttered visually, functionally.”  However, progress will be hampered by  the division of responsibilities among the station’s owner, Amtrak, and its tenants, LIRR and NJ Transit.  Because of this, Grossman wrote, “the pace of change is often slow . . . all three systems maintain separate concourses, ticket offices, and signs.  And getting from one railroad to the other can be tricky, especially for newcomers to the station.”  Consultant David Gibson, who specializes in designing signage systems, added, “At the end of every corridor or somewhere along it is a secondary or tertiary way to get to some other place. The whole ensemble is so kind of pieced together.”  Maureen Michaels, who heads the LIRR Commuters’ Council, an advocacy group, agrees on the need for modernization, but is not very optimistic.  “These are shared spaces and they’re dysfunctional because it has been individual agencies doing their own thing,” she said.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that regional transportation would be better served if all the rail operators worked closely together, not only in station facilities, but also in operations, equipment procurement, ticketing systems, and capital investment planning.

LIRR To Be Nearly Shut Down for Two Weekends

NJ Transit customers have a quick and valuable connection in New York at Penn Station, both to Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).  However, it won’t be so easy on two weekends in October and November: the LIRR has announced the final phase of repairs to the signaling system at their busy Jamaica transfer point that caught fire in August, knocking out most service.  On these two weekends, October 23–24 and November 6–7, the railroad will be nearly shut down to replace the antiquated system that caught fire.  Michael M. Grynbaum, writing in The New York Times on September 28, reports that the railroad is instructing customers to “use LIRR for essential business travel only”.  (The line’s Web site suggests that travel be undertaken only by first responders who have no other choice.)  Only 3 trains per hour will operate between New York Penn Station and Jamaica; no service at all to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.  Service on the Hempstead, Far Rockaway, and Port Jefferson lines will consist of diesel trains on 2-hour headways—and sorry, no bicycles will be allowed on the trains.  According to the line’s Web site, many passengers will have to use the subway to reach Jamaica from Manhattan and some customers will have only bus service between Jamaica and Mineola.  Ronkonkoma Branch trains will be rerouted via the Babylon Branch to Babylon and then to Farmingdale.  Special timetables will be available.  The Port Washington Branch, which does not pass through Jamaica, will not be affected; the railroad suggests those interested in “recreational travel” confine their trips to that branch.
Note that NJ Transit’s plan for a new “ARC” tunnel under the Hudson would bring many NJT customers, including all from the Morris & Essex and Montclair/Boonton lines, not into Penn Station but into a new “deep cavern” station under 34th Street.  This would make connecting to Amtrak and the LIRR much more difficult, and is one of the reasons that the Lackawanna Coalition advocates that the new tunnel lead instead to Penn Station as originally planned: “Penn Station First”.