Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Raise - Don't Lower the Bar

While shutting down the subway for Hurricane Sandy was ground-breaking and smart, it was the first time in 108 year history that the subway ever closed.  I find it hard to justify shutting down the entire system only 3 years later for a projected - two foot snow storm.
I worked the Office of Emergency Management during the Blizzard of 1996 representing NYC Transit and most of the system was operating.  The operating personnel take great pride in preparing and implementing plans for these types of situations.  For a snow storm of this nature it would be usual to take as many trains as possible out of harms way and out of the train yards, and store them underground on express tracks throughout the city. This means many areas lose express service - but subway service continues.
In outdoor areas such as elevated structures - if wind or ice become an issue, service can - and is often suspended at the desecration of the operating department.  Areas like the Rockaways are use to this.
In the event that snow inhibits bus service because streets become difficult to navigate, the subway is the only logical option for New Yorkers to travel within the city.  It is what makes New York resilient and a special place. And one of the reasons why the city is known as "the city that never sleeps."
Hurricane Sandy - was for an excellent reason - time to pause from our 108 year old tradition, but this past storm, even if it was at its worst - was no reason to deviate from that history.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fixing Penn Station Without Rebuilding It

The New York Times

October 1, 2013
Originally Posted On: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/opinion/fixing-penn-station-without-rebuilding-it.html 

Fixing Penn Station Without Rebuilding It

FOR commuters and travelers, New York City’s Pennsylvania Station is a disaster, as almost anyone who passes through it will tell you. The nation’s busiest transit hub is cramped, crowded, confusing and depressing. But now that the New York City Council has told Madison Square Garden that it has 10 years to vacate and find a new home, there is talk of rebuilding the rail station that lies beneath it.
Let’s face it, though. A new Penn Station, if it happens, would take billions of dollars, agreements between the federal government and multiple agencies of three states, and a decade if not more to accomplish. (Amtrak is expected to move across the street to the Farley Post Office by 2035.) Rather than wait for all of that to unfold, there are a few simple things those entities and Madison Square Garden should do now to improve the experience for the unfortunate 440,000 intercity and commuter rail passengers who pass through the station’s claustrophobic maze every weekday.
As a starting point, the executives of the three railroads that operate out of the station — Amtrak, which owns it, and New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road — should put their heads together to develop a plan to provide seamless customer information and ticketing.
Now, New Jersey Transit operates on both the Seventh and Eighth Avenue sides of the station, Amtrak on the Eighth Avenue side, and the Long Island Rail Road below West 33rd Street, where the subways are. For all of the infrastructure issues that plague the station, the biggest problem for passengers is that each rail line operates as if the other two don’t exist. To navigate the station, you need to know where to buy your ticket and which monitor to watch for your train. Good luck if you’re not familiar with the station and its catacombs.
Let’s say you live on Long Island and want to travel to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. It would be so simple to be able to buy one ticket good on both the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit that would get you there and back. E-ZPass has figured out how to do this on the highways. But you can’t do it on the regional rail lines. You have to disembark at Penn Station, navigate the subterranean labyrinth to find a New Jersey Transit ticket kiosk or venture upstairs to locate the New Jersey Transit ticket counter, and buy your ticket to Newark.
Then you have to find your train. This is another problem. If you are that customer trying to get from Long Island to Newark, and consult the departure board at the Long Island Rail Road area for the next train to Newark, you won’t find it. That information is on the New Jersey Transit and Amtrak departure boards, in different parts of the station. Why can’t departure and arrival information for all trains be on all boards? Many airports have solved this problem. You look at the departure and arrival boards, and all the flights are there, no matter the airline.
More visible and universal signs that point people to the various railroads, subway lines and street and building exits would help people find their way. So would maps that show passengers how to find the station’s many retail shops and food outlets. Most malls post maps of their layouts. Why can’t Penn Station have one map?
A more inviting retail atmosphere would also improve the customer experience. Grand Central Terminal, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hired a professional leasing firm to manage the retail mix after the station was renovated in the 1990s. Union Station in Washington did the same thing. Both stations are now hugely successful as inviting retail and restaurant locations. Perhaps Penn Station could be, too.
These goals — universal ticketing, access to all arrival and departure information, better signage throughout the station, a more engaging (and perhaps more profitable) retail experience — might seem obvious. The problem is that territorial claims within the station run deep.
Still, examples of cooperation between various transit agencies offer hope. New York City MetroCards are good on PATH trains to New Jersey, for example. New Jersey Transit operates between Secaucus, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., when the Jets and Giants play at the Meadowlands. Metro-North has contracted with New Jersey Transit to operate its service west of the Hudson River. You can also buy tickets to use on Philadelphia’s regional rail system at New Jersey Transit ticket offices.
Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey should take the lead on these proposals and encourage the agencies to break down the barriers that separate them for the sake of the customer. Moving Madison Square Garden someday sounds like a good idea. But running the station as one single transportation hub, not three, and focusing on assisting commuters and travelers in navigating the warren that is Penn Station will result in streamlined operations and a more pleasant commuting experience — even without moving Madison Square Garden or expanding tunnel capacity between New York and New Jersey.

Robert W. Previdi is a former spokesman and operations planner for New York City Transit.

Letter to the Editor: Only a New Penn Station Will Do

(Two days after the above NY Times op-ed was published came this response from RPA and MAS)

The New York Times

October 3, 2013

Only a New Penn Station Will Do

To the Editor:
Robert W. Previdi outlines some excellent short-term measures that would make Penn Station more functional. But these steps wouldn’t add meaningful capacity to the station, and therefore don’t address the severe overcrowding that several hundred thousand users of the station confront every day.
Equally important, because the station is so grim, the neighborhood around Penn Station is now the least appealing part of Midtown. These things can be fixed only through a fundamental redesign and expansion of the station.
The decision by the New York City Council in July to provide Madison Square Garden with a new, 10-year permit should be the beginning of that rebuilding process. The railroads and the state and city should now collaborate to expedite plans for a new Penn Station that can meet the needs of the city and the Northeast for generations to come.
If done right, a new Penn Station will be a project that reorients our city and region to address the transportation and economic development challenges of the next century. Our two organizations are committed to working together to help make that happen.
New York, Oct. 2, 2013
The writers are the presidents of, respectively, the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association.

Make N.Y. Penn Station more customer friendly, NJ Transit board chairman says


Make N.Y. Penn Station more customer friendly, NJ Transit board chairman says

Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger By Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on November 14, 2013 at 6:45 AM, updated November 14, 2013 at 6:47 AM

New York Penn Station can be a confusing maze for passengers,
but NJ Transit's board chairman directed its customer service committee
to find ways to help customers navigate America's busiest transit hub.
On Tuesday, Bob Previdi watched as two French tourists tried to navigate America’s busiest transit hub.
They entered New York Penn Station through NJ Transit’s ornate entrance at 7th Avenue and 31st Street, then stopped and viewed an impressive new map, but couldn’t find the information they needed most.
“We’re looking to get to JFK,” they told Previdi, a former New York transit planner who offered his help.
“You’re in the wrong part of Penn Station,” he told them, directing them to the Long Island Rail Road’s section.
To Previdi, the chance meeting illustrated what he sees as the biggest problem for Penn Station passengers: NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak often operate as individual fiefdoms that don’t always pay attention to the other two railroads.
He suggested in a New York Times column last month — read aloud during Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the NJ Transit board — that the three railroads “put their heads together to develop a plan to provide seamless customer information and ticketing.”
“To navigate the station, you need to know where to buy your ticket and which monitor to watch for your train,” Previdi wrote. “Good luck if you’re not familiar with the station and its catacombs.”
New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who chairs the NJ Transit board, said getting around Penn Station is a “very difficult experience at best.”
He used the Previdi column as a rallying cry to continue efforts to work with other railroads in the name of customer convenience, directing NJ Transit board member James C. Finkle Jr. from the customer service committee to continue efforts that got sidetracked by Hurricane Sandy.
Universal ticketing between the railroads and better signage in the station were some of the suggestions to help customers navigate the often-confusing maze.
“There are some simple things that were mentioned in this article that we all know about — but it would be nice if we could see these things become a reality in the next year or so,” Simpson said.
Previdi was thrilled that the board that oversees New Jersey’s statewide transportation agency was looking at ways to improve the customer experience at Penn Station, and citing his column in the process.
“The problem is, of the 430,000 people that use Penn Station every day, only 30,000 of them are novice users,” Previdi said.
That, he said, can lead to an attitude of, “We’re in the club — the heck with everybody else.”
Previdi said planners need to look at Penn Station through the eyes of people visiting the station for the first time.
One simple suggestion from him:
At each main entrance, having a person wearing a red cap and holding a sign with a question mark, to assist customers who aren’t sure where to go.
NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein said commuters can expect some improvements in the coming months, but noted the transit hub — which has three railroads, a subway system down below and Madison Square Garden up top — is a “complex place.”
“It’s clear that we have to work together on this,” he said.


© 2013 NJ.com. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

So Far, Moving MSG Theater is the Most Practical, Cost Efficient Way to improve Penn Station

So Far, Moving MSG Theater is the Most Practical, Cost Efficient Way to improve Penn Station (Post #2)

By Bob Previdi      Email: bobprevidi@verizon.net     Twitter: @bobprevidi 

In the act of restoring greatness to the look and functionality of Penn Station we should not be encouraging patrons of the Garden to drive – which is exactly what will happen if we push it to the far west side over by the Javits Center.  Having only the #7 train is no substitute for the location of MSG right at Penn Station where there is a multitude of intercity, commuter rail, bus and subway lines.  The Farley Post office is a reasonable relocation position but the main question is who will pay $1 to $2 billion to move Madison Square Garden?  Absent a pot of gold - we need to consider more practical solutions to our dilemma for the lack of space at Penn Station and developer Steven Roth of Voronado has already come up with the idea – move the Theater out and let light into Penn Station. 

Instead of chastising MSG for the long-defunct Pennsylvania Rail Roads blunder – maybe we need to try a new tact.  Why not embrace the idea of a 19,000 seat arena atop our nation’s busiest transportation facility?  Developer Steven Roth of Voronado Reality was quoted in a 2008 NY Observer story recommending carving out the theater below MSG and moving that.  Turns out it is not the arena itself that is choking the main waiting room at Penn Station – it is the theater.  He saw an opportunity to make a big difference and I think this is worth reconsidering.     


Referring to the diagram below, most people are not aware that the ice level of MSG is located on the 5th floor (A), while the 6,000 seat Theater (B), sits between the ice level of MSG and Amtrak’s main waiting room (C).  Let’s move the MSG Theater to the back end of the Farley Post office – which would allow architects to lift the ceilings of the main waiting room at Penn Station from 20 to 50 feet.  Remove the ticket offices to allow daylight into the station and maybe we can truly make something better then what we have as Mr. Roth has suggested.    

Even looking beyond Mr. Roth’s idea so much has been put on MSG, but few mention the office tower that also sits on the site.  Neither the office tower and MSG completely cover the entire block that Penn Station occupies which runs from 7th to 9th Avenue – 33rd to 31st Streets.  There are lots of places to imagine poking new holes in the ceiling and allowing more light and entrances.   Surely with all the architectural talent focused on this issue we can find ways to work around MSG.

We could also close 33rd Street and lift off the ceiling of the LIRR’s concourse that sits directly under the street and install a Milan Central Station-type arch that would help orient people by allowing a clear view of the Empire State building.  A railroad station arch would help accomplish this and opening up the ceiling above the Amtrak waiting areas and rearranging other areas around the office tower and the driveway between the office tower and MSG would offer more opportunity to let light in.  We can be more creative if financially we can’t afford to move MSG and still improve the existing station. 

Penn Station has been there since 1910 - only its magnificent hat was removed.  The tracks and platforms are still there.  And many new corridors have been added since 1910 to improve the circulation within the station.  But these changes within the past 30 years have focused only specifically improving the climate for either Amtrak, LIRR or NJ Transit needs separately – never as one collective station.  Nobody as yet to take responsibility for the old "Hilton Passageway"  It is another example of how there is a lack of a truly regional approach to the redesign of Penn Station – and its rail service provided by all three railroads.  It has not been their job to consider anything more then helping their own customers. Never mind that those very same customers might like more regional service.    

If Amtrak, the MTA or NJ Transit were asked by our elected officials to operate in a more integrated fashion there might be commuter trains reaching into each other’s territory (for example; NJT serving JFK, LIRR serving EWR).  There are also operating budget savings that could be realized and most importantly we could reduce the amount of capital construction - like avoiding building Penn South under Gateway and spending that money fixing the existing station instead.
In our zeal to improve the existing Penn Station we need to be more customer oriented in our approach to how we rethink how Penn Station starting with the train service that is there.  How each of the rail agencies serve relate to each other and the customers is critically important to how we end up designing and fixing the existing Penn Station.  Without question we must increase capacity under the Hudson River, but if we build 1 or 2 tunnels or add 6 terminal tracks to Penn Station will have huge cost and service implications.  If we can improve service to the customer, and reduce operating and capital costs - everyone wins.  And whatever we do we also must plan for how Penn Station will eventually tie into Grand Central.  A unified plan is something we need before we go forward but don’t yet have.

(Next issue – how we might link Penn Station & Grand Central)    

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why NY Penn Station Needs A 3rd Track, Not A 4th

Why NY Penn Station Needs A 3rd Track, Not A 4th

How to Add a 3rd Tunnel under the Hudson at ½ the Cost

By Robert W. Previdi on February 23, 2013             Email: bobprevidi@verizon.net

Twitter: @BobPrevidi


Penn Station, and the NJ Transit commuter are both like the Rodney Dangerfield of transportation – neither gets any respect.  Penn is – by far – the largest transportation facility in the nation.  Penn Station moves twice as many people as the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartfeild-Jackson International, and nobody knows it.  The station manages over 500,000 passengers a day according to Amtrak and has needed to expand capacity under the Hudson River for some time now.  The reason it hasn’t is the cost for constructing a new tunnel at this location is very high.  Too high for Governor Christie who canceled NJ Transit’s Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project in 2010, but it was even difficult for the Pennsylvania Rail Road when they built the original tunnels back in 1910. 

There is an alternative approach; if we rethink how Penn Station is use, eliminate trains originating or terminating their trip at Penn station, and implement a practice known as “through routing,” we can then maximize the use the station’s existing infrastructure by taking advantage of the location of the LIRR’s West Side Yard and build just 1 new tunnel instead of 2.  This would allow us to achieve the stated goal of doubling capacity under the Hudson River for half (½) the cost of the ARC project or Amtrak’s Gateway project, both estimated between $13 to $14.7 billion dollars. 

Some Background

For a nation that is so auto dependent, how Penn Station became such a large force, I have no idea.  According to Amtrak in the spring of 1976 there were a total of 661 weekday train trips.  Today there are 1,248 - a 90% growth rate.  Amtrak has already captured 75% of the airline market between Boston and Washington, and they expect overall travel demand at the station will double by 2050.  Most of this is NJ Transit and LIRR passengers who make up 95% of the station’s ridership.    

Penn Station tunnel portals in NJ and NJ Transit Passengers at Penn Station

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy gave us another reason to consider as nature displayed just how vulnerable the Hudson River tunnels are.  Amtrak and NJ Transit were knocked out of service as the tunnels were flooded for two weeks causing havoc for Amtrak and NJ Transit Rail Commuters.  Having only two-tracks under the Hudson River makes it real difficult to operate.  There is no margin for error.  Even on a normal day in the peak morning and evening peak rush hours every train slot is taken, and every train is packed.  The slightest problem gets magnified very quickly and can spread delays all along the entire Northeast Corridor. 

For years planners and politicians have attempted to fix this problem but it has proven to be difficult and costly, partly because of the terrain that must be crossed, which includes the NJ Meadowlands, the Palisades and the Hudson River, and partly because of the way we use Penn Station today.  At the core of the problem is a 10 mile long stretch from Newark, NJ to Penn Station, NY.  Most of the Northeast Corridor has 4 tracks, but in this particular area, at the Northeast Corridor’s most critical peak load point, there are just 2 tracks (1 in each direction).   In “Conquering Gotham” an historical review of the PRR efforts to build these tunnels and be the first railroad to reach Manhattan, author Jill Jonnes examined in great detail the difficulties the Pennsylvania Rail Road faced in designing a solution to cover these 10 miles.  

Former PRR President Alexander Cassett considered many options, including a path that is now used by the Staten Island Expressway, Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Gowanus Expressway.  He also looked at an 8 track bridge at the current location of the tunnel that could have eventually been expanded to 14 tracks. According to Jonnes it was ultimately the French advances in traction power that gave Cassett the confidence to build a tunnel in the least obtrusive way maneuvering into a plot of land that they had purchase between 7th/8th Avenues and 31st/33rd Streets in Manhattan.  They wanted to secure their franchise position in NYC - quietly - before going public about their plans.  Today we still rely on those same two tracks and tunnels.  Can you imagine if the George Washington Bridge had just 2 lanes – 1 in each direction? 
Courtesy of Amtrak
Click To Enlarge

Lessons Learned From Failure of ARC – Can’t Cost Too Much

In 2009, NJ Transit started construction on Access to the Region’s Core, a project that would have covered those 10 miles with 2 new tracks and 2 new tunnels under the Hudson River, plus a 6 track addition to Penn Station under Macy’s Department Store.  This ambitious project was cancelled in 2010 by NJ Governor Christie citing a poor design and an excessive $13+ billion cost, which could not be guaranteed.   

The lesson to be learned from the ARC project’s demise is that the project became too large and its $13 billion cost too expensive.   We must be careful about how we design Amtrak’s replacement project, Gateway which now projected to cost nearly $14.7 billion.  Amtrak is working hard trying to solicit input from all users, so there is still time to influence this design and bring the costs down to something Trenton and Washington can live with. 

Maximizing Penn Station
Most people have no idea that Penn Station is served by only 2 tunnels under the Hudson River while there are 4 tracks under the East River.  In the morning rush hour 48 trains can be scheduled from Long Island, while only 24 can be scheduled from New Jersey.  If we can reorganize Penn Station and consider the role the West Side Yard plays, we can maximize its use and reduce the cost of the next new tunnel under the Hudson.  

In the late 1980’s the LIRR built the West Side Yard which reduced the amount of unnecessary train trips from Penn Station to Long Island after the morning rush hour that were to going to park for the day until the evening rush hour.  Today the West Side Yard captures 2/3rd of LIRR morning rush our trains in.  Having the West Side Yard for the purposes of planning the next tunnel is like having a 3rd tunnel under the Hudson into NJ already in place. 
Click to Enlarge

If we line up how trains enter and leave the station there are  2 inbound and 2 outbound under the East River tunnels, while the Hudson River has 1 inbound and 1 outbound.  The West Side Yard captures LIRR trains in the morning rush, and feeds trains into the station in the evening rush.  This eliminates the need for and outbound (NJ bound) tunnel in the morning, and inbound (NY bound) tunnel in the evening rush.  Then we need just need 1 additional tunnel under the Hudson and we can still achieve the goal to double capacity from NJ to NY in the morning and NY to NJ in evening rush hours.  The key to this is implementing this plan is to utilize a standard practice of “through routing” trains at Penn Station which would require an overhaul of current operating practices, including how passengers use the station. 

Through Routing Penn Station Operations

Through-routing is not a term typically used by the public – it is a technical term that means trains pass through a station, as opposed to “terminate.” Today, many LIRR and NJ Transit trains (not all) terminate within Penn Station, and then head back in the direction they came from.  This back and forth movement causes congestion within the station that could for the most part be eliminated - if all commuter trains simply passed through Penn Station onto terminals at the far reaches of the metropolitan region such as;  Trenton, Suffern, Port Jervis, Stamford, New Haven, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and Montauk.  

Through-routing has been successfully implemented in London, Paris and Philadelphia and other cities, and there are some great advantages from a passenger’s point of view.  NJ Transit service would reach JFK Airport, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and the US Open, and LIRR & Metro North trains would serve Newark Liberty Airport, Met Life Stadium and the Prudential Center.   

Adding a 3rd tube under the Hudson would allow planners to use the West Side Yard as it was intended, to park trains during the day, and we can balance the operating plan evenly among the four trunk tunnel lines that would operate through Penn Station.  The additional tunnel and track would need to reach all the way back to Newark to relieve the congestion and add the capacity needed to manage 24 trains in the peak (8:00-9:00AM) hour.  At Penn, each of the four trunk lines could be assigned 3 exclusive use platform tracks for commuter trains, (5-7 and 13-21) while Amtrak can have 5 exclusive use platforms (Track 8-12) for Northeast Corridor service, while the Empire Service, along with Metro North’s Hudson Line could use tracks 1-4.  This would give each commuter train a platform dwell time of 8.5 minutes. 
Picture by: Willy Previdi
This schematic shows Penn Station and its relationship to the 4 tunnels from Queens, 2 tunnels from NJ, and the proximity of the West Side Yard and potential 3rd track from NJ. 


In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) implemented a similar service plan when they opened the Center City Commuter Tunnel in 1984.  SEPTA through routed the operations of two old competing railroads (the Pennsylvania and the Reading) and it has been successfully providing service for 28 years.  Passengers rarely notice on the platform at Suburban Station that train crew’s change – a vestige of the old railroad operations when trains terminated at either Suburban or Reading Terminals.  To the public the details of through routing may appear a simple mundane, but how we staff such an operation, and move the trains around has huge implications and relatively smaller, but not insignificant capital costs.  

To implement through routing there needs to be upgrades to signal and power systems, train equipment, as well as operating procedures and where trains will be stored.  Also Penn Station’s mezzanines and concourses would need new way-finding signs as track assignments would be comingled between what are now segregated LIRR and NJ Transit concourses.    

However, these changes to Penn Station are a relative low price to pay when compared to the savings of constructing just 1 new tunnel under the Hudson River instead of 2 which ultimately could save billions (with a capital B) of dollars – and reduce the project cost by half (½). 

Ridership Studies

Ridership studies performed by NJ Transit Ridership clearly show that the need for additional rail service is only in the peak rush hour direction (inbound toward Manhattan in the morning, and away from Manhattan in the evening).  The reverse peak ridership demand does not justify building the second tunnel under the Hudson River.      

With the West Side Yard and through routing in place, not only can we avoid building the 2nd new tunnel under the Hudson River, we can also eliminate adding the 6 new tracks at Penn Station.  According to former MTA Capital Program President, Mysore Nagaraja, who was in charge when the 2nd Avenue, #7 extension and LIRR East Side Access projects began construction said, “Eliminating the 6 track station could save another $2+ billion.” 

Conclusion - Less Can Be More

Penn Station is our nation’s busiest and most successful transportation facility and we should pay attention to its needs.  If the answers provided cost too much – then we need to be flexible in finding an answer.  I believe there is an answer available if we rethink how we use Penn Station.  We can still achieve the goal of doubling peak hour (8:00 AM to 9:00 AM) train service under the Hudson from 24 to 48 trains by simplifying train movements through the station which would allow us to maximize the current stations capacity, and allow us to add just 1 new track under the Hudson, instead of 2.  Adding 1 track now does not prevent adding more tracks later.

President Obama speaks of creating High Speed Rail, but the most important thing to do now is to get the next step going or we risk choking on the tremendous progress that the commuter rail and intercity rail marketplace has already achieved.  I don’t disagree with Governor Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC project due to cost, but as Hurricane Sandy has shown we are vulnerable and need a new option.  New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders need some respect and Amtrak deserves the ability to rebuild the existing tunnels that have served us so well for over 100 years.   

Robert W. Previdi
Philadelphia, PA
February 23, 2013
Twitter: @BobPrevidi