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'Summer Of Hell' Begins For New York Commuters

Long Island Rail Road commuters arrive at the Hunterspoint Avenue station in Queens on Monday morning to transfer trains.
Mark Lennihan
Long Island Rail Road commuters arrive at the Hunterspoint Avenue station in Queens on Monday morning to transfer trains.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET

Even on a good day, New York City's Pennsylvania Station barely works. And with a massive summer repair project underway at the nation's busiest train station, commuters across the region are bracing for what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dubbed the "summer of hell."

"It's been clear that the system has been getting overwhelmed for a long time," said Brett Pulley of West Orange, N.J., on his way to Manhattan on Monday morning. "It's like we've been kind of putting off the inevitable. And now we've put it off to the point it's a major inconvenience for people."

Amtrak, which operates Penn Station, had been planning to make repairs to tracks and switches over the next several years. But Amtrak decided to accelerate that timetable after two minor derailments in the spring that led to major delays for travelers. That means a 20 percent reduction in the number of trains from New Jersey and Long Island, leaving tens of thousands of commuters looking for alternative routes into Manhattan.

In South Orange, N.J., Mayor Sheena Collum and other city officials greeted commuters with doughnuts and coffee outside the train station. "We just want to put a smile on the face of our commuters before they enter into two months of inconvenience," Collum said.

South Orange is one of the busiest stops on the Morris and Essex line, which has seen train service into New York City slashed dramatically until Labor Day. New Jersey Transit says approximately 16,000 daily riders will be diverted to Hoboken, N.J., where they'll have to transfer to a bus, ferry or a second train to reach Manhattan. The Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, added extra trains. And New York Waterway has added new ferry service from Hoboken to midtown Manhattan.

The scene at Hoboken Terminal on Monday was bustling. But there were no major problems as commuters seemed to be adjusting to the new reality.

"I saw a much smoother operation than I expected to see," said David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, which advocates for rail riders.

"I saw a bit of hiccup on the PATH at the very busiest time," Alan said. "But I saw most people able to get onto the first PATH train they could catch."

Hundreds of commuters took advantage of the new ferry service from Hoboken to Midtown. "I just want to get to work," said Ken Sorkin of Maplewood, N.J. "If they had a zeppelin that was gonna land in Bryant Park, I'd be on that."

Even when it's complete, this summer's repair work will do little to alleviate overcrowding at Penn Station. About 600,000 commuters crowd into narrow corridors and stairways every weekday in what is essentially the basement of Madison Square Garden. The vast majority are commuters riding New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad.

The aging tracks at Penn Station are just one piece of New York's crumbling transportation infrastructure. The rail tunnels under the Hudson River, which connect Manhattan to New Jersey and the rest of the country, are more than 100 years old and were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

"The lack of investment in infrastructure is disgusting," said Collum. She supports a plan to add additional rail tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan. "It's really impacting not just South Orange or Maplewood and our local economies, but the entire region," Collum said.

It has also been a tough year for commuters in New York City, where the subway system is operating under a state-of-emergency order.

In a survey of 1,200 commuters released by the city on Sunday, 74 percent said subway delays caused them to be late to a work meeting; 13 percent reported lost wages; and 65 percent said they had been late to pick up, drop off or attend a child's function in the past three months.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.