The former boss of New York’s subways and buses says the region has a “golden opportunity” to expand commuter rail service while at the same time saving the block south of Penn Station from demolition to make way for a new terminal for New Jersey Transit.
The official, Andy Byford, hailed for improving subway and bus service, embraced the idea of running commuter trains through Penn Station, rather than terminating them there.
This so called “through-running” would allow NJ Transit and the Long Island Railroad to run more trains, but it would also require them to integrate their operations so Long Island trains could run through to New Jersey and Jersey Transit trains could carry passengers into Queens, and the Bronx via Metro North and perhaps beyond.
Much of the recent attention around Penn Station has focused on building a better station for passengers to pass through or even linger in. Comparatively less attention has been paid to what rail officials say will be the need to expand the stations capacity by the end of the decade to accommodate two new tracks that will run through a new Hudson River tunnel and into Penn Station.
So far, the most widely described plan is to tear down the block immediately south of Penn Station, often described by its property tax number, block 780, to make way for more Jersey Transit trains.
Local residents and several civic groups have decried that plan as wasteful and destructive and proposed, instead, that NJ Transit capacity be expanded within Penn Station’s current footprint by expanding platforms and reconfiguring tracks so trains can both drop off and pick up passengers as they run through.
Byford made a surprise appearance July 25 at a forum sponsored by one of those groups, ReThink NYC, whose leader, Samuel Turvey, has been lobbying for an independent review of through running, perhaps even lead by Byford.
“This is a golden opportunity,” Byford told the forum. “It’s not just about building something that’s more aesthetically pleasing, important though that is--Penn Station is kind of an embarrassment. But you can’t fix it by just putting in a few light boxes. By just heightening the ceilings. By just widening a few corridors.
“If we are going to do all of that, why not take the opportunity to fix the damn thing once and for all? Byford said it would be ideal to remove all the pillars that hold up Madison Square Garden, and cramp already narrow platforms.
But even though the City Council told The Garden ten years ago to move, there is no sign that will happen. The Council is currently considering an extension of The Garden’s permit to operate a large arena above Penn Station. The current permit expired July 23.
“At the very least, do something with the track configuration to enable through running,” said Byford, who was head of the London Transit system and introduced through running from the east to west of London via the new Victoria line.
“People in Frankfurt. People in Amsterdam. People in Paris and, dare I say, New York are probably gnashing their teeth because that was a game changer for London,” said Byford.
“Well, I live in the States now. I’m going to be an American in a few year’s time. I want to do my bit for the States. It seems to me this is a golden opportunity for the U.S. and for New York City to have something similar to the Elizabeth line. To have something that has that economic regenerative impact in New York.”
Byford now works for the owner of Penn Station, Amtrak, where he is in charge of expanding high-speed rail service
“I do stress that’s my personal opinion,” he said of his comments on through running, “I’m not speaking on behalf of Amtrak. I don’t know all the facts.”
An Amtrak spokesman said the railroad and its partners, The MTA and NJ Transit, “are studying a range of options to add capacity at Penn Station while minimizing impacts on existing Northeast Corridor service.” This study will be incorporated into an environmental review and the best plan will then be adopted, said the Amtrak spokesman, Jason C. Abrams. “This project is not part of, or affiliated with, any of Andy’s responsibilities,” Abrams said. “Amtrak’s teams working on Penn Station NY projects will lead on this issue.”
Amtrak and MTA officials have said through running will be one of the options studied. “Converting the existing Penn Station to a through running operation would require significantly wider platforms, new vertical circulation elements (i.e. stairs and escalators) at the track level, and other major infrastructure improvements throughout the regional rail network to accommodate NJ Transit trains on LIRR infrastructure and vice versa,” Abrams said. “These improvements would cause a significant amount of disruption to existing Amtrak, NJT and LIRR service, as well as service up and down the NEC, which supports some 20% of the nation’s GDP.”
Assemblyman Tony Simone said at the forum that any burdens placed on the railroads by through running were better than tearing down block 780.
Amtrak and other rail officials have said through-running would require widening and lengthening of platforms in Penn Station and, perhaps even more complicated, the collaboration of The MTA’s Long Island Railroad, and possibly Metro North as well, on the compatibility of trains and of fare collection with NJ Transit.
“Why does dysfunction between all the different railroads continue to delay a great transit future,” asked Simone, who represents the neighborhood and opposes the demolition of block 780. “We cannot let bureaucratic turf wars hold us back. This is too important. Egos cannot get in our way. We need to do what’s best for our Transportation hub. I’m done hearing excuses for why we can’t have through running.”
Byford said he would be “honored,” if asked, to conduct a full review of the costs and benefits of through running versus the other options.
“It would break my heart to see beautiful buildings torn down on Eight and Seventh Avenues when they don’t need to be,” said Byford.
Block 780 includes stores ranging from Starbucks, Panda Express and Smash Burger, a six story Meyer’s Parking garage, St. John’s R.C. Church, one strip club, two Irish pubs, Tir Na Nog and the Molly Wee, as well as Tracks Sports Bar, and the Gardenia Italian deli, and residential apartment buildings among other entities on the honky tonk city block.
Amtrak has said it will include an examination of through running in an environmental review it is required to conduct of the impact of running the new tracks into an expanded Penn Station.
But Turvey suggested that review was an unneeded delay in discussing the core issues of whether through running was a better answer than expanding the terminal station of NJ Transit. He said the public would trust an answer from Byford.
An MTA spokesman referred questions on Byford’s comments to Amtrak because he works there.
Turvey said he had been taken by surprise by Byford’s decision to appear at his forum, although Byford has attended previous events by the group and is on its mailing list.
“We remain hopeful that the powers that be will see the wisdom of getting someone like Andy involved and firmly believe he is the perfect choice,” Turvey says. “If the railroads objections to through running have merit Andy will have the credibility to bring that to the public. If the railroads are wrong, Andy and others can start work pivoting towards what all acknowledge is a superior and transformative operating model, through running.”
“It would break my heart to see beautiful buildings torn down on Eight and Seventh Avenues when they don’t need to be.” Andy Byford, former head of NYC subway system who now works for Amtrak