Amtrak improvement at its New York Penn Station is essential

by Ned Levi on October 7, 2013

Amtrak's Penn Station, New York, photo by NSL Photography

Train travel is an important and highly useful mode of transportation in the US and abroad. Intracity and intercity train travel is often better than cars, buses and planes city-to-city travel.

In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail often outperforms all other modes of transportation, including air travel, for journeys between many city pairs. In the northeastern US, I can take Amtrak’s semi-high speed rail line, Acela, and get from Philadelphia to Boston, about as quick as it will take to fly, including airport wait times. Plus, there is far less hassle, real comfort and an opportunity to be highly productive during the ride.

As good as Amtrak travel can be, especially in the Northeast Region, the nation’s most densely populated area, boarding at Amtrak’s busiest station, New York’s Penn Station, must change. The boarding procedure makes no sense and puts passengers’ safety at risk.

This past weekend, I traveled on Amtrak to New York. I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station just 15 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart. Getting to 30th Street Station is a snap for most travelers, as it’s in the heart of center-city Philadelphia, near the historic sights and museums. When flying, passengers need to get to the airport 1½ to 2 hours before domestic flight departures. But, arriving at the station about 20 minutes before train departure is early enough.

Looking up at the 30th Street’s departure’s board I noted my gate number, which had been displayed for some time, and headed to the gate. Passengers were already queued up in an orderly line.

Once boarding was announced, after a quick show of my iPhone’s screen showing my e-ticket, I was past the gate agent. Boarding took less than ten minutes total. There was plenty of room for all to stow their luggage. We all found seats quickly, and were off to New York. On the train, Amtrak’s free high speed WIFI connection to the Internet was immediately available. The seats were comfortable, and the space between seats was as good as in any domestic airline’s first class cabin.

After about an hour and 20 minutes, after working on my email on my iPad during the ride, I arrived at Penn Station, New York City. I departed, set for the day’s activities.

Coming home from New York, by Amtrak, is problematical. Boarding trains at Penn Station is not fun and can be downright dangerous.

Penn Station on 8th Avenue, between 31st and 33rd Streets, is easy to access from virtually everywhere in Manhattan. As in Philadelphia, unless passengers are planning to check luggage, they only need to arrive about 20 minutes before the scheduled train departure.

Once arriving at Penn Station, the problem is immediately apparent. In the central area where the gates are located, is the departures board. The train listing does not include the departure track number. That’s the problem.

For some inexplicable reason or reasons, at New York’s Penn Station departure tracks are not displayed in advance. Even just a minute or two before boarding, there is no way to find out the track number.

In my opinion, Amtrak’s created an irresponsible situation.

Crowds form in front of the departure board with as many as several hundred passengers waiting in the hall, all milling around and standing, watching, staring at the huge black departures board, prepared to run to their gates the second the gate number is announced, which starts the boarding process.

When the board finally displays the gate number, there’s a mad, crazy dash to the gate to board the train.

Passengers are regularly tripped by flailing feet and out of control carry-ons racing by as passengers literally run to the gate to board their train. In the line, there’s considerable pushing and shoving. Luggage is pulled over passengers’ feet, some clad in sandals. A woman on my train got a cut on her forehead when she bent over in the crowd to retrieve her carry-on, which had been knocked out of her hand by another passenger.

This scene is replayed over and over again, each day, day after day.

Penn Station’s “hundred passenger dash” is someday going to result in more than minor injuries. Sooner or later, Amtrak’s “mad as a hatter” approach to boarding at Penn Station will result in someone needing hospitalization, but even if it doesn’t, why should Amtrak’s boarding procedure result in any injuries whatsoever?

Boarding at Penn Station, New York, isn’t safe. Amtrak needs to change the system to allow for orderly lines at the gate in advance of boarding, ensuring passengers a safe boarding experience, like they do at other stations in their rail system.

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