July 2014 Union Strike

A tentative deal between the MTA and LIRR Unions to avert a July Strike has been reached. See this post for more information.

Tuesday, January 14

NY Penn, Track by Track: Tracks 1-4 (The Stub Platforms)

Over the course of the next 3-4 weeks I'll be talking a lot about Pennsylvania Station.  New York Penn, while not exactly a LIRR station itself, is a station used by upwards of 225,000 LIRR passengers per day.  As I illustrated yesterday, the 21 tracks in Penn Station are not all alike, and over the next couple days I'll go through the various "categories" of tracks at Penn Station and the various characteristics of each bunch.

Today I'll talk about the lowest four tracks, tracks 1-4 (the Stub Tracks).  While these three tracks are not exactly alike, they're close enough for the purposes of our discussions.

Perhaps the most notable distinguishing factor about these four tracks is that they are stub-ended.  Tracks 5 through 21 are tracks that are open to the interlockings on either side of the station.  A train can come from the East River Tunnels, through track 11, then out again through the North River Tunnels without hitting any walls or anything like that.  However, if you're Boston-bound Acela Express trains winds up on track 3, you're in trouble, as those four tracks can only be accessed from the west end of the station.

This stub-endedness limits the practical use of tracks 1-4.  Conventional trains, particularly Amtrak regional and long-distance trains, are made up of a locomotive in the front and then a string of unpowered cars trailing behind.  At the end of the train you either have a caboose (in the olden days) or a red light hung on the back door (more commonly seen today).  Under this operation, once a train gets to its final destination, the locomotive (or entire train) has to be physically turned around so it can make its return trip (as there is typically no way to control the train from the back door).  Typically, this is done by either looping the train (as is commonly done at Sunnyside Yarad in Queens) or having the engine "run around" the train (in this case the engine is uncoupled from the front, run around the train on an adjacent track and then coupled on to the back of the train.

Both of these ways of turning trains require something other than a bumper block and a wall to be in front of the train.  There is also another alternative that is frequently used at other terminal stations (like Boston's South Station) that involves backing the train out, but in New York Penn's case, where chances are there are six other NJT trains and nine LIRR trains darting this way and that in the dark basement of Madison Square Garden, that option is undesirable.

Therefore, trains that only have a locomotive in the front of the train are kept off of tracks 1 though 4.  Many commuter operations have adopted the use of cab cars which allow a train to reverse direction and push out of the station with the engineer operating normally from the head end, and the LIRR and NJT even use MU's, which always have cabs at both ends of the train.

In these cases, where trains have cabs on both the front and back end of the train, there is no issue in regard to their use on stub-ended tracks.  They still cannot continue through the station to get to a yard facility, so it's not a perfect fit, but if the train is turning around and going straight back out, tracks 1 through 4 can work just fine.

Most Amtrak trains that operate into Penn Station from points west usually (A) have just a locomotive leading and no cab car on the rear (almost everything but Keystone trains) or (B) will have to continue through the station anyways to get to a yard facility for servicing (the case for practically every Long Distance and most Aclea and Regional trains).  For this reason, Amtrak trains rarely fit the criteria necessary to use tracks 1-4.  They don't have cabs on both ends and they are rarely turning around and heading straight back out.

For these reasons, you will almost always see Amtrak trains depart on tracks 5 and higher.

But where does that leave tracks 1-4?  In this case, NJTransit gets to make heavy use of those tracks.  Due to the fact that every NJTransit train has either a cab car or is made up of MU's.  NJTransit trains don't have diners or sleepers that have to get serviced, so they can easily turn around and go if the schedule allows for such.

Therefore, NJTransit is usually given free reign over tracks 1 through 4.  An odd Amtrak train might end up on those tracks if someone messes up or there's no other options, but for the most part, it's all NJT all the time.

And while reading this, you might think "why don't they just connect those to the East River Tunnels then?"  While this has long been on the wishlist for Penn Station improvements, the fact that the PATH tracks lie fairly close to the ends of tracks 1-4 on the other side of that wall have made constructing such a connection fairly difficult.

Other than the fact that these tracks are stub-ended, the four tracks are 9 cars long--which is just long enough for 8 cars and a locomotive (but if they try to put 8 cars and the new, longer ALP-45DP's on 1 track they might be cutting it a bit close!

Furthermore, these tracks are powered by overhead wire only.  There is no third rail on these four tracks, so LIRR trains and trains that are powered by P32-ACDM's will be in rough shape if they ended up down at these tracks.

All told, the Stub Tracks are the most unique of the lot, being they are so restricted and so different compared to the others--there is no way to get through to Queens, there is no third rail on the tracks, and these four tracks, at 9 cars long, are the shortest in the station.  Over the next few days (picking up again on Thursday), we'll work our way up to track 21, going through the different station tracks and adding to the air of craziness that surrounds New York Penn.

Jump to other posts about New York Penn Station's Tracks:
Tracks 1-4, Tracks 5-8, Tracks 9-14 Tracks 15-16, Tracks 17-19, Tracks 20-21


  1. Are you sure the PATH tracks are in the way? Those tracks end before 7th Ave. And PATH is directly under 6th Ave, a full Avenues width away.

  2. The IND 6th Avenue expesss tracks do get in the way. They start dropping to lower depths south of the 34th Street station.

  3. In the UK at terminal station we have loco releases, these are a set of point between two platforms. So in the example above there would be connection about a loco length from the buffer stops between Track 2 and 3. Train would come in to say Track 2, stop short of this set of points, uncouple and draw forward to the buffers, driver would change ends and depart via the crossover to Track 3. An inefficient way of working I guess but works back in the day, it obviously limits length of train into the platform too. It also wouldn't work for obvious reasons on Track 1. They still exist at some UK rail terminals but most see very little use bar engineering trains running round which are few and far between.

    Running round a loco is a common every day occurrence in the UK though on freight lines. Locomotive hauled passenger services are very rare these days, anything loco hauled has a driving van trailer on t;other end.

    1. The concept of running a locomotive around a train is still quite common here among freight carriers and Amtrak. Commuter operations have adopted the widespread use of either cab cars or EMU/DMUs, as they allow for faster turning at terminal points (and much easier turning too, as you don't have to bother with yard crews or anything like that...just a matter of the engineer walking from one end to another).


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