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Designer hired for Penn Station addition as group suggests merging NJ Transit with regional railroads

Amtrak officials hired an international engineering company to design four options being considered for a Penn Station addition that would allow it to accommodate more NJ Transit trains after the Gateway Tunnel is completed.

The announcement by Amtrak and NJ Transit officials came on Thursday, the same day Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group, released a report suggesting unifying the region’s three commuter railroads and building a smaller addition to the mid-Manhattan train station.

Amtrak announced it hired engineering and consulting firm Arup to begin designing options for new tracks, platforms and concourses connected to a potential Penn Station addition.

The design team led by Arup and including Grimshaw, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Hatch LTK, and Lendlease has international experience developing and implementing projects around the world, including the Fulton Street Center, Hudson Yards and Second Avenue Subway in New York; Euston and Kings Cross Stations in London; Southern Cross and Metro Martin Place in Australia; and the Union Square Development at Kowloon Station in Hong Kong.

“Beginning the design of Penn Station expansion on the heels of last week’s announcement by Governors (Kathy) Hochul (New York) and (Phil) Murphy (New Jersey) shows that the new era for New York train travelers and commuters is no longer on the horizon, it’s here now and we are getting to work,” said Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia. “An expansion of the tracks and platforms at Penn Station will help reduce our carbon footprint, create new jobs, and improve how people in the region work, live and travel.”

The four options include building a track level addition north and south of the existing station, a deep cavern station underneath Penn Station and an option to “through run” trains across various commuter railroads, where the technology allows it, Amtrak officials told NJ Advance Media .

Advocates and experts had feared for the fate of the addition after it was left out of Requests for Proposals for the Penn Station renovation announced on June 9. The MTA’s request for proposals tell potential architects and engineers that the Penn Station expansion is “not part of this project.”

The addition to Penn Station is a separate project from the station renovation and is proceeding on a separate path from the renovation above track level, including the investigation of four options, Amtrak officials said.

The concepts developed by Arup will be evaluated as part of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement about a possible Penn Station addition. Hearings on it, held by NJ Transit Amtrak and the MTA, could happen this year, officials said.

A report released by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign Thursday took a different approach, calling for unifying NJ Transit, Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road into one rail system that would allow each other trains to run directly between the states.

Dubbed the “Tri-State Solution,” the report calls through running of trains to allow a rider to get on an NJ Transit train and ride it straight through to Long Island, Westchester or Connecticut.

Through running would allow for construction of a much smaller addition to Penn Station, two tracks and one platform and widening center platforms with 10 through tracks, as opposed to building an up to eight to nine track additions proposed in earlier plans. The Tri-State report contains that current plans to build a Penn Station addition could tack an estimated $12 billion on to the $12.3 billion Gateway Tunnel project.

Through running of trains, where they stop in Penn only to load or unload and continue on, would make building a smaller addition possible and provide operating cost savings, Tri-State’s report said.

This is not the first time regionalization has been proposed. In 2018, the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Region plan called for creation of the “T-Rex,” the trans-regional express concept, across state and transit agency borders. That plan builds on the Gateway tunnel project and proposed pushing those tunnels across Manhattan, under the East River to a station at 31st Street and Third avenue that would connect at a station with the proposed north-south Manhattan spine at 57th Street.

“RPA has long supported many of the concepts raised by Tri-State, such as “through-ticketing,” and we advocated for a fully integrated regional rail network in our Fourth Regional Plan,” said Brian Fritsch, an RPA spokesman. “Increased through-running at Penn Station would connect more suburban residents to job opportunities and sustain long-term regional economic growth.”

Both count on building the Gateway project and adding new tracks and platforms, which would require expanding Penn Station. That is “the only way to handle the additional trains and passengers that Gateway will bring to the station,” Fritsch said in a statement.

Other advocates were less enthusiastic about the idea, contending the Tri-State plan wouldn’t provide station space for the estimated 16 additional NJ Transit trains an hour that the larger Penn Addition could provide.

“The Gateway plan has been out for over 10 years. Time for debate on its necessity or frivolous ‘alternatives’ are long since over,” said Joe Versaggi, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers. “No additional terminal capacity means just two more trains per hour and no FTA (Federal Transit Administration) funding. One track/two platform additions accomplishes little, if anything.”

Tri-States plan proposes two implementation phases. The first five years would establish a network manager, restructure fare policies and unify mobile ticketing apps and finally test through-running NJT, LIRR and MNR service at Penn Station.

The second phase, continuing over a 15-year period, has the more cost-intensive tasks, including coordinating train purchases across the agencies, automating fare collection, expanding electrification on diesel rail lines, retrofitting low level train stations for high level platforms.

“There is no third rail in NJ, no catenary (wire) out to Jamaica, and nobody is going to purchase expensive and complicated tri-voltage locomotives or MU trains,” Versaggi said. “This nonsense is unworkable … it puts their entire Gateway project at risk for termination because it won’t increase capacity.”

The report’s authors admit implementation would not be easy. The regions commuter railroads have no less than five different electrical voltage and frequencies that power trains by third rail or overhead wire. Only 35% of New Jersey train stations have high level platforms, allowing riders to avoid climbing up and down rail car steps. High platforms will be needed to accommodate runs through most LIRR and Metro north equipment.

“But resolving labor issues will likely be the toughest part of unifying commuter rail and require union participation to redo obsolete and labor-intensive practices,” the report said.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.

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