The Terrors Of New York’s Penn Station

Joanne Butler Contributor
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I have a confession to make: being vaporized by a North Korean bomb doesn’t scare me as much as trying to catch a train in New York’s Penn Station. With track repairs on top of the usual delays, the station is very crowded. And once the track for a train departure is announced, there’s a stampede to the gate (I’ve visited cattle stockyards, I know what a stampede looks like). Plus one has to be mindful of the many homeless people who are either wandering about or sprawled out in the concourse.

Although Penn Station is owned by Amtrak, the New Jersey Transit and Long Island railroads also use this facility, which contributes to the crowds. Its location below Madison Square Garden means if there’s a sports event happening on a weeknight, the crowds get worse, as commuters and fans jostle for space.

Last month, Amtrak’s President and CEO, Wick Moorman, said “After only a short time here at Amtrak it has become apparent to me that we need to accelerate major renewal work in New York Penn Station.” He’s absolutely correct on this issue.

As a traveler who uses Penn Station several times a month, I have some ideas for station improvements – some of which could be done right now.

  1. Put signage on the concourse indicating where the tracks are. Entering Penn Station, one travels down a concourse that terminates in a large semi-circular area, with a large electronic sign listing departures. Here’s the problem: I see my train is boarding on gate 14 East – is the gate closer to my right or left? Make the wrong choice, and the traveler faces a gauntlet of other travelers (and homeless) as they try to make their way to the gate. If seconds count, a missed train can result.
  2. Use a gate’s east and west escalators to board a crowded train. Earlier this month, I stood in a crowd of about 300 people waiting to board the 6:25 p.m. train to Washington. We had to pass, single-file, by an Amtrak staff person checking tickets at the west gate. While waiting, I was accosted by several homeless people. The mass of people stretched all the way to the east gate of the same track. Doesn’t this present a public safety hazard? The solution: use both east and west gate escalators. I asked an Amtrak staff person about this, and was told the 6:25 train originates in Boston and the opposite escalator must be free to allow Boston passengers to exit (they are given about five minutes to exit before New York passengers board). But I say if Boston passengers are late in exiting the train, they have the option of taking the elevator to the concourse.
  3. Have multiple staff check tickets at the escalator. Almost always, I encounter only one Amtrak person checking tickets, while other employees are gathered at the passenger lounge. Two checkers results in a faster-moving line and boarding at the track.
  4. Improve the Seventh Avenue entry to the station. Currently the entry is limited by bollards – the perfect place for people to lean on while having a smoke and chatting with friends. This is a hindrance to disabled people who use a cane or have other mobility issues. Amtrak needs to keep this entrance clear so people, disabled or not, can enter and exit the station smoothly.
  5. Find a solution to Penn Station’s other role as a homeless shelter. I think the station’s retail revenues would increase dramatically if customers weren’t constantly confronted by beggars whenever they reach for their wallets. After one or two bad experiences, I expect many would-be customers opt to buy their travel food elsewhere. Further, there are security aspects of having the homeless camp out in a crowded public place with their bags of stuff. Let’s not forget what happened during the Boston Marathon bombing. In my opinion, it would be easy for a terrorist to follow the routines of several homeless people, slip a bomb in the sack of a strung-out person outside the station – only to have the bomb go off later inside the station. Unless those National Guard members posted throughout the station have X-Ray vision (they don’t), this is a plausible scenario.

Now you know why I’m not that worried about a North Korean bomb.

Clearing entrances, moving people faster through check-in lines, improving security – this is not rocket science. Nor does it require billions in infrastructure improvements (although a new Penn Station with improved logistics would be wonderful.

Mr. Moorman wants to make Penn Station better. There’s no need to wait; he can start now. Thousands of travelers will be very grateful.