Increase Penn Station’s capacity with fewer platforms

While Gov. Cuomo’s ambition to improve capacity is commendable, the recently announced plan is all wrong.

Gov. Cuomo has proposed adding eight new tracks to Penn Station.

Gov. Cuomo has proposed adding eight new tracks to Penn Station. Right Coast Images/Shutterstock

Penn Station is both a functional and an aesthetic failure, and its improvement is desperately overdue. This has prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce a new plan for reconstruction of the station, including eight new tracks built on the block directly south of the existing complex. While Cuomo’s ambition to improve the station’s capacity is to be applauded, the recently announced plan is all wrong.

Cuomo’s proposal, which would likely cost a bare minimum of $9 billion including land acquisition, was drawn from the original Gateway Tunnel project, first announced in 2011 in the wake of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s cancellation of the previous trans-Hudson tunnel project, and currently in limbo awaiting federal funding.

What Penn Station needs isn’t more platform tracks – its capacity limitations come from poor pedestrian circulation and a lack of coordination between railroads. The budget-busting purchase and demolition of a block of Midtown would draw funds that could be far better spent on delivering the much-needed Gateway tunnels themselves.

Counterintuitively, Penn Station’s capacity could actually be increased by reducing the number of tracks to widen the platforms and add additional stairs and escalators. This is because the platforms are so narrow that they take a long time to disperse passengers when a train arrives. This can be easily understood in analogy with the subway. Even at the busiest subway stations, trains never stop for more than a minute since platforms with many stairs and trains with numerous doors allow the quick loading and unloading of passengers. At Penn Station, trains routinely take ten minutes or more to load and unload. This means that even a reduction in dwell time to five minutes – an unimaginable eternity on the subway – could double capacity. If dwells could be cut down to more like two minutes, that’s a fivefold increase in capacity – easily cancelling out the loss of capacity from eliminating some tracks.

That’s how Paris’ Châtelet-Les Halls handles 493,000 riders per day on only six tracks, while Penn Station struggles to accommodate 600,000 per day with 21 tracks. At the most extreme, JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo handles 1.5 million riders every day on 16 tracks. Alon Levy of NYU’s Marron Institute has written extensively on the need for wider platforms, and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design carried out a 2013 studio that also examined this approach.

Put simply, Penn Station should have much wider platforms, more like the existing Long Island Rail Road platform for tracks 18 and 19. This greater width would enable larger staircases, so that people can come and go more quickly. It would also mean that passengers could wait for their trains on the platform, as they do on the subway, rather than slowly crowding down staircases all at once with the train already sitting at the platform.

Equally important, when buying new trains, the commuter railroads need to choose models with more doors to speed loading and unloading.

Finally, the station’s pedestrian circulation spaces need to be rebuilt to be spacious and easy to navigate, rather than the narrow, mazelike warren of today. The current station’s layout is largely a relic of the old Penn Station – obviously with all of its beautiful adornments stripped – which was not designed for the kind of heavy commuter use that makes up most traffic today. New York knows how to build an efficient, high-capacity rail station: it has dozens of them in the subway. Effectively, a proper plan for Penn Station should mean making it work much more like a subway station.

The key to unlocking Penn Station’s capacity doesn’t involve new construction of an additional city block’s worth of infrastructure. Instead, it means true cooperation between the commuter railroads using the station – Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, and, one day, assuming East Side Access is ever completed, Metro North. Today, most riders go through a handful of staircases while others are barely used because each agency directs passengers to use the facilities in its own section of the station. Every platform access point should be shared, and there should be a common wayfinding system for the whole station. Furthermore, every LIRR and NJ Transit train currently turns around at Penn Station or continues empty to a yard. The procedures required to turn trains take many minutes, uselessly occupying platform space in the most expensive real estate in the country. Empty trains obviously use capacity while providing no transportation value. The solution is better coordination between the railroads so that they share trains and no train has to unnecessarily be turned at Penn or run empty.

In Japan, for decades, privately owned commuter trains have run directly into the public subway, and many then continue onto another private commuter railway at the other end. Paris’ RER regional rail system emulated the Tokyo approach. So these commuter trains go through the urban core and out to the periphery on the other side, like subway lines that go from Brooklyn to the Bronx or Queens via Manhattan. At the boundary between the agencies, train drivers of one agency would swap out for a driver of the other (the need to swap was later eliminated in Paris), and the trains would switch between different electric supply systems. This takes place in seconds, and passengers are completely oblivious to the change. The same approach could be used between the LIRR and NJ Transit to replace the in-and-out model that makes Penn Station the terminus and necessitates turning around there.

Trains would be shared, fare systems would be coordinated, and staff would quickly swap at Penn Station. This would not only increase capacity at Penn Station by reducing dwell times and empty train movement: it also would significantly improve travel options across the region, making previously unimaginable commutes between Queens and New Jersey, for example, much more doable. People travelling from Newark Airport to Queens would no longer need to add to the crowding at Penn Station and on the E Train. Turning of trains could take place at locations in Long Island, Queens, or New Jersey where there is ample real estate available for numerous platforms. An even higher level of coordination already exists in the New York area: Metro North trains run seamlessly into Connecticut, and NJ Transit trains run into Rockland County, New York. With political will, it is achievable.

The money saved by on expanding Penn Station should be applied to the desperately needed Gateway tunnel, which should be redesigned to connect with the East River tunnels to create a seamless four-track railroad across Manhattan. Those three moves would make finally make Penn Station something New Yorkers can be proud of once again.