Walking to the subway the other day I noticed that a long line (pictured) had formed in the corridor leading into Grand Central Terminal.
That’s odd, I thought to myself. You don’t see lines like this at Grand Central.
It turned out that the line was a queue of people waiting to board an Amtrak Empire Service train to Albany.
After several derailments at Penn Station, Amtrak had to bite the bullet and close tracks there for over a month to make repairs. This has been dubbed the “Summer of Hell” in local media.
With capacity reduced, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Railroad were forced to cancel some trains into Penn. As part of this, Amtrak re-routed six of its Empire Service trains to Grand Central, their former home.
This re-routing gave Albany passengers direct access to East Midtown and a much more pleasant station environment to boot. A friend of mine who regularly rides this train calls it his “Summer of Hell, Yes!”
But seeing this line, I realized that part of the problem at Penn Station is not caused by its dreary architecture and low grade retail services, but Amtrak’s operating practices.
I used to regularly ride via Metra commuter rail in Chicago. In Chicago, trains are mostly sitting on the platform ready to go, and you just walk up to your train and get on it when you get to the station.
When I moved to the East Coast, I got to experience the standard practice here: you have to wait in the station until they formally announce boarding about 10-15 minutes before the train. So you have tons of people standing around staring at the board waiting for their track to be posted, then a mass of people rushing for the platform.
Chicago’s stations are all terminal stations. Even Union Station is a double-ended terminal with only two through tracks. Penn Station is a through-running station with limited capacity, so you can’t just park a train on one of the tracks for an extended period of time.
But even where there’s a terminal station with ample track capacity, Amtrak still insists on Penn-like boarding procedures. This was even true in Chicago on the Hiawatha train to Milwaukee, which like the Albany trains are quasi-commuter. You’d have to hang out in Amtrak’s waiting room, get in a big line, then board shortly before departure, which tickets checked prior to boarding (though again on the train too).
Grand Central is a similar situation. I believe it has more tracks than any other rail station in the world. There’s no reason people couldn’t just walk right out and get into a waiting Amtrak train instead of having to stand in some huge line indefinitely. The customer experience would be better, as would the station experience.
Given that commuter rail systems can manage to provide a more pleasant boarding experience, I see no reason why Amtrak shouldn’t be able to as well, certainly for semi-commuter services at terminal stations.
These long, Penn Station like lines at Grand Central are an Amtrak self-inflicted wound.