Amtrak improvement at its New York Penn Station is essential

Amtrak's Penn Station, New York, photo by NSL Photography

Train travel is an important and highly useful mode of transportation in the US and abroad. Intracity and intercity train travel is often better than cars, buses and planes city-to-city travel.

In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail often outperforms all other modes of transportation, including air travel, for journeys between many city pairs. In the northeastern US, I can take Amtrak’s semi-high speed rail line, Acela, and get from Philadelphia to Boston, about as quick as it will take to fly, including airport wait times. Plus, there is far less hassle, real comfort and an opportunity to be highly productive during the ride.

As good as Amtrak travel can be, especially in the Northeast Region, the nation’s most densely populated area, boarding at Amtrak’s busiest station, New York’s Penn Station, must change. The boarding procedure makes no sense and puts passengers’ safety at risk.

This past weekend, I traveled on Amtrak to New York. I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station just 15 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart. Getting to 30th Street Station is a snap for most travelers, as it’s in the heart of center-city Philadelphia, near the historic sights and museums. When flying, passengers need to get to the airport 1½ to 2 hours before domestic flight departures. But, arriving at the station about 20 minutes before train departure is early enough.

Looking up at the 30th Street’s departure’s board I noted my gate number, which had been displayed for some time, and headed to the gate. Passengers were already queued up in an orderly line.

Once boarding was announced, after a quick show of my iPhone’s screen showing my e-ticket, I was past the gate agent. Boarding took less than ten minutes total. There was plenty of room for all to stow their luggage. We all found seats quickly, and were off to New York. On the train, Amtrak’s free high speed WIFI connection to the Internet was immediately available. The seats were comfortable, and the space between seats was as good as in any domestic airline’s first class cabin.

After about an hour and 20 minutes, after working on my email on my iPad during the ride, I arrived at Penn Station, New York City. I departed, set for the day’s activities.

Coming home from New York, by Amtrak, is problematical. Boarding trains at Penn Station is not fun and can be downright dangerous.

Penn Station on 8th Avenue, between 31st and 33rd Streets, is easy to access from virtually everywhere in Manhattan. As in Philadelphia, unless passengers are planning to check luggage, they only need to arrive about 20 minutes before the scheduled train departure.

Once arriving at Penn Station, the problem is immediately apparent. In the central area where the gates are located, is the departures board. The train listing does not include the departure track number. That’s the problem.

For some inexplicable reason or reasons, at New York’s Penn Station departure tracks are not displayed in advance. Even just a minute or two before boarding, there is no way to find out the track number.

In my opinion, Amtrak’s created an irresponsible situation.

Crowds form in front of the departure board with as many as several hundred passengers waiting in the hall, all milling around and standing, watching, staring at the huge black departures board, prepared to run to their gates the second the gate number is announced, which starts the boarding process.

When the board finally displays the gate number, there’s a mad, crazy dash to the gate to board the train.

Passengers are regularly tripped by flailing feet and out of control carry-ons racing by as passengers literally run to the gate to board their train. In the line, there’s considerable pushing and shoving. Luggage is pulled over passengers’ feet, some clad in sandals. A woman on my train got a cut on her forehead when she bent over in the crowd to retrieve her carry-on, which had been knocked out of her hand by another passenger.

This scene is replayed over and over again, each day, day after day.

Penn Station’s “hundred passenger dash” is someday going to result in more than minor injuries. Sooner or later, Amtrak’s “mad as a hatter” approach to boarding at Penn Station will result in someone needing hospitalization, but even if it doesn’t, why should Amtrak’s boarding procedure result in any injuries whatsoever?

Boarding at Penn Station, New York, isn’t safe. Amtrak needs to change the system to allow for orderly lines at the gate in advance of boarding, ensuring passengers a safe boarding experience, like they do at other stations in their rail system.

  • Longinus

    You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the dangerous situation at NY Penn station. It amazes me that the situation has not been addressed before now. The current boarding system at Penn is primitive and, compared to European stations, shameful!
    Hopefully your comments will be taken to heart by “the Powers that Be” responsible for travel safety.

  • Bill

    penn station is a mess. maybe it is the fact that there are no real waiting areas around each track, but it is a very cramped space which handles all amtrak and nj transit trains. not sure what can be done however – it would require a complete overhaul to get the space needed to be able to post tracks in advance (so people can queue up like they do in DC) – unfortunately space is not something that can be found in that area.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Funny, my husband and I were just talking about this situation last night….what a cluster it is. If it can be done at Grand Central Station in New York, why not Penn Station. It’s ridiculous.

  • Jonathan_G

    Just in the past week, there was an interesting discussion of the problems at Penn Station that appeared in the New York Times:

  • wiseword

    Right on! Of course, it all goes back to the demolition of magnificent Penn Station, where one boarded like royalty.

  • MeanMeosh

    I would agree with you, except they seem to be able to do this at Grand Central. Track numbers are posted on the boards ahead of time there; they just don’t open the platforms to passengers until the train is ready for boarding. You would figure they could do something similar at Penn.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your comment and your readership.

    Heck, boarding at Penn Station isn’t even up to the standards of other Amtrak stations. The reason for the problems there, which Amtrak has stated for years is that it’s so cramped. To me that’s not a reason. It’s an excuse.

    At this point, I doubt we’re going to see any changes at Penn Station in the near future. Amtrak doesn’t seem to have their head on straight in NYC. Between the possibility of a new Penn Station at its current site (Great idea), if Madison Square Garden is actually forced to move, and the new Moynihan Station (I’m very negative on this station at this time.) Amtrak in NYC can’t get their act together to improve the current situation.

  • NedLevi

    Exactly. They could try a Disney snake line system. The NJT trains are usually on tracks 1-8. Amtrak uses the other tracks, there are extremely few instances of more than 2 Amtrak trains leaving at the same time. The can have a line on each side of the hall and queue them up starting about 10 minutes ahead of time which would dramatically reduce confusion and increase safety.

    They could also move customer service out of the area to the other side of the station where they have an information desk. They would also be well off to redesign the waiting areas while they’re at it. They are huge space wasters and oppressively hot much of the time.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership.

    Penn Station, NY is indeed very cramped, but it’s still not impossible to improve the boarding situation to increase safety.

    There’s many other problems at the Station too, which I’ve touched on in the past.

    About the only thing I’ve seen improve in the last couple of years is the signage, which still could be better.

  • NedLevi

    I agree with you. I think it might be tougher at Penn Station at this point, but I believe major improvements are possible.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • NedLevi

    It’s a good article. Thanks for your readership and the link. The problems Mr. Previdi discussed are very real, and the solutions mentioned aren’t particularly hard to accomplish.

    Of course, right now, cash is a major issue at Amtrak, and with many in Congress not having a clue how much viable passenger rail service can do for the country, getting reasonable funding is extremely difficult.

    Beyond what needs to be done at Penn Station over all, and safety improvements instantly, Amtrak needs lots of funds for important infrastructure work, new rolling stock, station upgrades, etc.

    We also need to be moving to high speed rail, and I think the Obama administration’s scatter-shot approach to high speed rail is absurd. As is the Republican hate of Amtrak and rail in general.

    Frankly, the US should be hard at work planing two high speed rail lines, one on each coast (Miami to Boston) (San Diego to Seattle). The trains would likely be a well used alternative to flying.

    And to start, I’d make the first true high speed line leg in the US go from Washington to Boston, as soon as possible, where its success would be assured, as we can tell by the success of Acela. Plus it would have the immense benefit of dramatically reducing congestion in the New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia Airspace, the busiest, most congested, most complex airspace in the world, by reducing the number of flights going directly between the airports in this airspace, as well as to Boston in the north, and Washington and Baltimore in the south.

    Not only that, if anyone in Washington doesn’t think a 30 minute train trip from Philadelphia to New York, or a one hour train trip from Boston to New York, won’t get many out of their cars and on to a train, should have their head examined. That would be a major plus relieving the horrible traffic between these cities.

  • NedLevi

    You’re right about that. I remember that station. Of course, it would have cost a fortune to renovate it, and no one had the cash at the time. I will stay that NYC’s loss was a gain for Philadelphia. The outrage of tearing down Penn Station helped save Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and eventually got it renovated, plus 4 of the Eagles from Penn Station, and some of the magnificent large standing lights from the Station, the ones with the tiers of big white globes, can now be found lining the Market Street Bridge in Philadelphia, adjacent to 30th Street Station.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • pauletteb

    I hate Penn Station so much that even though Amtrak stops only a few miles away from my home, I drive 40 miles to take Metro North into Grand Central.