More On the Penn Station Problem.

Some 25 years ago, when I rediscovered long-distance train travel, I had a lot of catching up to do. For three decades I had been living in Hawaii with no passenger trains and hadn’t actually ridden on a train of any kind since the early 1960’s. Once I got back into long-distance train travel, and certainly after I had finished the first edition of my book, I knew a lot about our national passenger rail system.
The thing is, a lot of it was superficial knowledge. While I had accumulated a good deal of information, my time and attention had gone into communicating that information to people who just wanted to learn about long-distance train travel. I’ve always been happy to oblige, but until recently, I hadn’t really spent enough time understanding the significance of many of those facts.
Case in point: New York’s magnificent Pennsylvania Station was demolished in the mid-60s, leaving only the underground infrastructure–dank and dark and overcrowded for both trains and people.
The other day, with Penn Station the subject of some email swaps, my brother Pete mentioned a quote from the late writer Austin Coates: “If the U.S. Navy offered to give you an aircraft carrier, would you take it?”
That hit me right between the eyes. For the first time I was confronting the practical implications of Congress creating Amtrak and then dumping Penn Station with all its problems into Amtrak’s lap. Here’s just one: only 12-percent of the trains going in and out of Penn Station on a typical weekday are Amtrak trains, but Amtrak is still responsible for the safe and timely arrivals and departures of all those other trains … trains operated by the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit.
I know, I know . . . Amtrak is paid for that by the two commuter lines, but Amtrak has complained for years that the payments are too low. Meanwhile, Penn Station’s infrastructure continues to age making it more costly for Amtrak to accommodate all those trains that aren’t even theirs. And all the while, Congress keeps demanding that Amtrak reduce costs to at least break even.
This nonsense has been going on for far too long! It’s time for Congress to fix things permanently and they can start by finding a new owner for that damn aircraft carrier. Amtrak should be a tenant, not the landlord.