A Setback for Naysaying

The call for renovation of the national infrastructure is universal. Everyone is for it — the public, politicians, engineers and the media. But not everyone is accepting of the inconveniences, often major, which are as much a price of renovation as the cost in materials and labor.

The current repairs at Penn Station are a perfect example. Two months of replacing worn-out track and signals equipment cannot be done only at night when the Tri-State area is fast asleep.

Actually, Amtrak had been trying to do just that (nights and weekends, at any rate), but the several-years-down-the-road project deadline was no longer deemed acceptable after two recent derailments. Although, fortunately, there were no serious injuries, the accidents provided a wake-up call to the fact that decades of neglect had reached a point at which lives were in danger. So it was decided to accelerate the repairs before anything more serious occurred.

It was a wise decision. But it inevitably entails rail work during busy daytime hours, causing a reduction in scheduled trips and an increase in delays. There were those who warned that the more than 650,000 Amtrak riders who go through Penn Station on 1,300 trains every day would rebel against onerous reroutings, sardine-can overcrowding and generally unpredictable conditions.

They predicted a summer that would live in infamy. The jaws of chaos were opening wide. Amtrak riders would soon wish they’d never been born.

Well, the first few days of repairs have been a setback for naysaying.

Amtrak COO Scot Naparstek said they were a little ahead of schedule, though he would not go out on a limb with a promise of finishing before Labor Day, as projected on paper.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph Lhota was “cautiously optimistic” that predictions of commuting doom will not materialize.

As for the public, they earned the accolade of New Jersey Transit spokesman Charles Ingoglia, who said, “The measure is how good are you when things are bad … We’re pleased with what we saw. Our customers seem to have done their homework,” Ingoglia said.

This is not to say all went so smoothly that travelers hardly noticed a change.

“A lot of confusion and too many people gathered in one space,” Lex Marshall, 35, of Morristown, NJ, said at the Hoboken Terminal. “Everybody’s just bumping into each other, pushing each other, to get to their destination.” Jesse Krakow, of South Orange, N.J., described being packed “like sardines” on a Port Authority Trans-Hudson train that stopped repeatedly between stations to allow for other trains passing up ahead. His commute took about 45 minutes longer than usual, he said.

There have been inconveniences, but not the nightmare scenarios — like overhead wire failures and mass panic — that had robbed officialdom of sleep in recent weeks.

Those who “did their homework” and avoided the crowded regular routes also relieved some of the pressure on those routes. Like Vicki Kapotis, of West Orange, who rode the ferry for the first time from Hoboken in the morning and took a shuttle bus to her job at a private equity firm. She planned on taking a PATH train home from a station a long block from Penn Station.

Riders are reportedly adapting a fear-avoidance strategy, extending their travel times to beyond the rush hours. There are fewer riders these days during both morning and evening rush hours (though with fewer trains, it looks like rush hour-plus).

The transit agencies are helping, offering alternate subways, ferries or buses and lower fares on New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road lines that are most affected.

The future funding, management, and upgrading of Amtrak remains a long, dark tunnel. Some are demanding that the federal government step in and provide the money that was earlier promised. There are different opinions as to whether the Port Authority or a private entity should take over Penn Station.

These are difficult problems that require answers, and answers will surely not be ready before Labor Day.

In the meantime, the present is a well-lit tunnel. The politicians and transit officials were conspicuously nervous about the upcoming repairs, and not without some justification. Their dire warnings may even have had a beneficial effect, making those in charge of the work do their utmost to accomplish it speedily while minimizing disruptions.

The summer is not over, and things can still go wrong, of course. But the people have demonstrated (so far) that they are not only in favor of renovation, they are willing to put up with the hardships involved as well. One can’t ask for more than that.