Amtrak has been making noises again about the need for Moynihan Station as a replacement concourse for Penn Station for Amtrak travelers, but makes it clear it does not want to pay almost anything for it. While former Amtrak President David Gunn withdrew from the project on the grounds that it would not increase track capacity, and another former president criticized the project for the same reason, today’s Amtrak is interested in the prospects of not sharing concourse space with commuter trains.
The irony is that what Amtrak perceives as the value of Moynihan Station is actually negative value. Penn Station already has a problem with concourse integration – different concourses have different train arrival boards, and different ticket-vending machines. The need to change concourses lengthens access time, in my experience by a minute or two. Right now, Amtrak has just gotten $450 million to increase top speed in New Jersey from 135 mph to 160 mph for a 24-mile stretch (150 under current regulations), for a time saving of 100 seconds (64 if only 150 mph is possible) minus acceleration and deceleration time. From my perspective as a passenger, the minute or two I lose every time I need to change concourses at Penn Station is worse than a minute or two spent on a train.
Separating the concourses completely is even worse when it comes to access and egress times. In comments on Second Avenue Sagas, Jim (who comments here as well) says that the move one block to the west is not too bad for intercity travelers, because to get to Midtown hotels, people would take the E anyway. However, people who live in New York and wish to travel elsewhere, or people who visit but do not stay at Midtown hotels, are likelier to take the 1/2/3, and Amtrak as well as local Moynihan Station boosters want them (us) to need to travel an extra crosstown block to travel. That’s 3 extra minutes of access time; at current costs, how many extra billions would have to spent to save them on the train?
Even the stated purpose of Moynihan Station, bringing people to the city in grandeur, fails. The building is a former post office rather than a train station; its former main entrance (still leading to the post office – thanks to Jim for the clarification) requires people to climb stairs. There are planned to be step-free entrances, but those remove much of the neo-classical grandeur.
From the perspective of intercity rail passengers, the biggest problem with Penn Station is the tracks and track access. The platforms are narrow, and visibility is obscured by columns, staircases, escalators, and elevators. But even what exists is not used to its fullest extent. Although Amtrak checks all passengers’ tickets on board, it also conducts a prior check at the station, funneling all passengers through just one access point and lengthening the boarding process. It’s possible to go around the check by boarding from the lower concourse, but Amtrak trains are not posted there, requiring passengers to loiter on the upper concourse, see what track the train arrives on (information which is typically posted only 15 minutes before departure), and scramble. As a result of the convoluted boarding process, Regional trains dwell 15 minutes at Penn Station, and Acela trains dwell 10 minutes. Many of those minutes could be saved by just better station throughput.
If more infrastructure is needed, it is not a separate passenger concourse, but better platforms and platform access. Some of the platforms – namely, the southern ones, hosting New Jersey Transit trains but not Amtrak trains – have too few access points, and require additional staircases and escalators.
More radically, platforms may need to be widened, at the expense of the number of tracks. This is one of the advantages of regional rail through-running, though in reality, even today clearing a full rush-hour commuter train is fast enough (about 1.5-2 minutes on the LIRR) that at least the LIRR could stand to have tracks paved over and still have enough terminal capacity for its current needs; New Jersey Transit, which has fewer tracks and trains with worse door placement and smaller vestibules, may have problems, but Amtrak doesn’t use its regular tracks because they do not connect eastward.
Amtrak’s history with Moynihan Station is especially telling about the company’s priorities. Clearly, Moynihan is not a priority – that’s why Amtrak says it has no money for it, and that’s why Gunn removed it from the company’s list of projects. The biggest supporters of Moynihan are local boosters and developers, who want the extra retail space. The planned expenditure on the project is $14 billion: $2 billion in public money for the train station, the rest in private money for development around it. The family of Daniel Moynihan is a strong backer of a monument named after the late Senator. It is not surprising that a project whose benefit goes entirely to power brokers and not to transportation users is backed by the locals the most: Amtrak and federal agencies may be dysfunctional, but they are models of efficiency compared to the local governments in the US.
However, Amtrak is incapable of saying no to monuments and megaprojects that it thinks will benefit it. More crucially, it will argue for their construction. Its symbiotic relationship with local governments seems to be, we’ll support your boondoggles if you support ours. Today’s Amtrak is not Gunn’s Amtrak, but the Amtrak that fired Gunn for refusing to defer maintenance in order to boost on-paper profitability.
Moynihan Station represents a failing of not only transportation planning, but also urban planning. More than any other project in New York, it brings back my original analogy between today’s urban boosterism and the modernist suburbanism of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. The project’s backers tell us a story: Penn Station was a magnificent edifice destroyed by thoughtless planners, and now we must repair the damage and restore style to passenger railroad travel. Since they base their conception of infrastructure on moral and aesthetic claims, which always seem to coincide with what gives them more money and kudos, they do not care whether the project is beneficial to users, and find the preexisting situation self-evidently bad.
Because the argument for Moynihan is entirely about the need for a grand, morally good projects, the backers spurn incremental improvement of what already exists, finding it so repulsive that it must be replaced no matter what. This is quite similar to how some proponents of suburbanization opposed improving tenements on the grounds that it would detract from the purpose of razing them and sending their residents out to single-family houses.
For example, both Moynihan backers and New Jersey Transit have complained about lack of space for passenger circulation at Penn Station; in reality, IRUM‘s George Haikalis has computed that about half of the lower concourse’s space is used for Amtrak back offices and concessions rather than for passenger circulation. In reality, Penn Station’s low ceilings make the station appear cramped, but the concourses are still fairly functional, and even at rush hour the crowding level is normal by the standards of what I’ve seen at Paris’s Gare de Lyon and at Nice’s main station.
This interplay between bad local governance and federal agencies that coddle it is part of what caused Amtrak’s Vision plan to be so bloated. The single worst component, the new tunnels through Philadelphia, appear to come from Amtrak’s belief that the local officials want strict separation of high-speed and commuter train infrastructure, coming from the fact that the locally-designed Penn plan included such tunnels. And in New York, Amtrak’s proposed its own marked-up version of ARC, one that is not too much better than the cavern plan that was under construction. On a smaller scale, the Harold Interlocking separation, primarily a New York State project benefiting commuter rail riders, made it to Amtrak’s list of desired incremental improvements, and is now receiving funding earmarked to high-speed rail.
The only special trait distinguishing Moynihan from those other unnecessary or bloated projects is that it’s harmful to riders, rather than neutral or insufficiently beneficial. The main backers of the project do not care much for transportation users, but Amtrak should. It seems to believe that its passengers want to spend time sitting at its train stations as if they were airline lounges; nowadays, not even air travelers like spending time at airports, which is why such time-saving features as printing boarding passes at home are so popular. The only positive thing to say about the project is that the cost is so high relative to the effect on passengers that the return on investment is very close to zero, rather than the -4% figures seen for long-distance Amtrak projects. And I don’t think that “This project only has an ROI of -0.2%” is a valid argument for construction.