As the LIRR returns to normal operations following Tuesday's snow storm, so does The LIRR Today. To play a bit of catch-up, I am going to pool platforms I and J together for the purposes of our discussion. While they may not seem alike, it is difficult to discuss one without mentioning the other, so perhaps it's better off anyways.
The most unique characteristic about platform I (track 17) is that it is exceptionally narrow while platform J's (tracks 18 and 19) unique characteristic is that it is exceptionally wide. For the most part, all of the platforms at Penn Station are around the same width--roughly 30 feet wide. However, platform I, the narrow platform, is a mere 26 feet wide at it's widest point, and in many sections of the platform, particularly the eastern end, the platform is even narrower than that. Platform J is the other exception to this rule, coming in at 51 feet wide for much of its length.
I will leave the question of "why" these exceptions arose until tomorrow's post when someone who knows a lot about Penn Station's history will delve into that matter further. For today, I'll focus on some of the operational characteristics that arise from such exceptions. The following diagram is not necessarily to scale, so it does not give credit to the disparity in the platform widths, but Hellespont it does help visualize their locations:
when the track numbers are occasionally posted before the train arrives at the track, it can be extremely difficult to make one's way down the platform when there is a train's worth of people standing on this platform.
The lack of passenger flow on platform I can quickly create dangerous situations. As if the fact that the platform was very narrow to begin with wasn't bad enough, there are a number of support columns dotted randomly down the platform's length. The platform also curves substantially near it's ends, and navigating around all of the obstacles even more difficult. In the evenings, the masses piling down the staircases tend to bunch up at the foot of those staircases more often than not and to a greater extent than they do on the other platforms. It is difficult to move down the platforms since there are so many obstacles and there are so many things in your way. In the mornings, the narrow staircases leading up to the concourses can make getting on with your day very slow if you happen to be placed at an inconvenient part of the train.
17 track also holds the distinction of being the highest station track that can still access lines 1 and 2 of the East River Tunnels. However, while it is possible to access lines 1 and 2 from this track, doing so would require taking a crossover that is about three-quarters of the way down the platform, so for any train of reasonable length, track 16 is the effective northern boundary for access to lines 1 and 2.
Also worth noting is the fact that 17 track is also the highest station track to currently have overhead wires over it, so this is also the highest track you will see an Amtrak or NJTransit train depart from.
Many years ago, trains arriving at Penn Station would discharge passengers on the platform I-side and load passengers on the platform J-side. However, as railcars changed and quarter-point doors became all the rage, trains would no longer be able to open their doors on the platform I-side.
The main issue here is the fact that the location of the staircases coming down to platform I block off a number of doors from a train arriving on 18 track. The staircases are aligned all the way to the track 18-side of platform I so that passengers can have the most room on the track-17 side of platform I. The following three photos illustrate the issue at hand here:
So while 18 track does have the unique ability to open its doors on both sides of the train, in practical use it does not. Naturally, in the event of an emergency one can sneak out on the wrong side (or if you have a sleepy conductor who will accidentally open the doors on the wrong side of the platform), so it's not like there is an invisible wall that will zap anybody who tries to exit a train onto platform I, but by special instruction, trains on 18 track are not supposed to board from platform I.
The fact that platform J--and the staircases leading down to this platform--are so wide, the LIRR will frequently board and discharge its busiest trains here. 19 track--on the other side of the platform--is the host to the Friday Cannonball, which, during the summer, is likely the LIRR's most heavily loaded train. I take this train every Friday (during the winter) and it always leaves from 19 track.
There was a period of time, however, where the LIRR's Dual Mode trains were not allowed to use track 18. In the 1990's when the DM and C3 equipment first arrived, there equipment had some clearance issues negotiating the S-cure on the track, and therefore they kept the equipment off there to be safe.
To pirate a story from someone else: when the C-3 clearance tests were being made on 18 track, a MofE guy named "Flash" was in charge. He jumped off coming into the station to get coffee and wasn't there to see the color light signal protecting the platform get knocked off the ceiling.
At five the next morning, the first westbound found the signal, which was laying on its back on the platform and called the Stationmaster.
"If it's better than stop, keep going" was the reply.
From that point up until somewhat recently, the DM's were kept off 18 track. I have been told that that restriction has since cleared up and dual modes can now operate through on 18 track. With that being said, I haven't seen too many dual modes operating through those tracks. The Cannonball/2710, the first Port Jefferson dual mode, and the Speonk dual-mode are frequently boarded from 19 track, the second Port Jefferson dual mode from 17 track, and the Oyster Bay dual mode from 16 track, though I'm not saying it has never happened.
19 track right above 18 is a pretty run-in-the-mill track. It only has a platform on the south-side of the track and there are no restrictions on what equipment can operate through there, so it's quite standard.
You will only see a LIRR train on tracks 18 or 19, though, as the overhead wire on these tracks are no longer active. Word is that the overhead wire on these tracks were "temporarily" removed about eight months ago in parts of KN interlocking with no sign of them returning, so NJTransit and non-P32 powered Amtrak trains now have to be kept off those station tracks.
Like I said above, tomorrow's post will feature a bit more of the history behind platforms I and J, so be on the lookout for that. We'll cover the final platform, platform K (tracks 20 and 21) on Saturday, so stay tuned!
Jump to other posts about New York Penn Station's Tracks:
Tracks 1-4, Tracks 5-8, Tracks 9-14, Tracks 15-16,
Also, see "The History of Platform J" for more background on why platform J is so wide.