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.

Saturday, January 25

NY Penn, Track by Track: Tracks 20-21 (The Rapid Transit Platform)

At long last we've made it all the way to the top of New York Penn Station, tracks 20-21 (if this such tour was of Grand Central we would only be a fraction of the way done!).  This is the eleventh of eleven station platforms at the continent's busiest rial station, and it is perhaps the most peculiar of them all.

This platform has little in common with the rest of the station.  While it goes to Penn Station and it hosts LIRR trains, it is the odd one out in many respects.

Perhaps the most notable "feature" of platform K is the fact that its staircases do not lead to the concourses.  When I first started this barrage of Penn Station posts two weeks ago, I posted a rough diagram of the concourse layouts at Penn Station.  You'll notice that every platform, but one, empties into some sort of vertical concourse, be it the LIRR concourse, 7th Avenue concourse, central concourse, exit concourse, west concourse, what have you.  However, one platform does not have its staircases in line with all the rest--platform J.

The staircases and escalators down to the twentieth and twenty-first tracks are located in a slightly different location than all the others.  The stairs down are located directly within the 33rd Street Concourse, the long east-west passageway that runs underneath 33rd Street.  Travelers new to Penn Station are often perplexed by this oddity, since when track 20 is posted they can look around, see all the staircases for tracks 13 through 19 in one place, and then have to scratch their heads until they can find this "hidden platform."  During most times you can simply follow the mobs, but by that point, you've lost lots of ground on the competition to get in that door first.

I see you hiding!  (Photo credit: The LIRR Today on Flickr)
And this oddity, like many others, can draw its origin to the original design of Penn Station.  When the LIRR first started rolling into Penn Station, the limits of electrification were much further west than they were today.  At this time, trains from points east were still switching to third rail powered locomotives at Jamaica (much like they did at Manhattan Transfer to the west).  However, there were small segments of territory that were electrified by this point, so the LIRR used this platform to run short MU trains to those points.  MU trains were the minority at this point in time, so tracks 20 and 21 were more than enough to handle this service.

The LIRR treated these short MU runs as their "intraurban" or "rapid transit" services.  Since this service ran with greater frequency and catered to a different crowd, the designers of Penn Station thought it best to keep this platform slightly separate from the rest.  The passengers coming off these trains would be able to empty directly into the concourse.  It's distance from the others is not significant, it's not like one has to walk all the way to the other side of the station to board a train here, but their location is different enough to be noticeable.

These days, the LIRR's mere "intraurban" service has morphed into hundreds of MU trains scurrying across the island to places like Babylon, Ronkonkoma, Huntington, and the like. Needless to say, the LIRR would be unable to support that many trains on platform K alone, so they have spread to the entire upper part of the station.

It is not likely that this such oddity will be resolved anytime soon, as it's really not worth it to do so.  Perhaps the next Penn Station (whatever and whenever that will be) will keep the staircases in line, but we'll have to see.

Other than this, platform K is pretty similar to it's neighbor below.  While it's not nearly as wide (31 feet wide, keeping in standard with the rest of the platforms) it's tracks are the home to LIRR trains exclusively.  These two tracks are the only station tracks that are unable to reach down to the North River Tunnels, so any train to New Jersey and points south/west would be unable to depart from here.  The tracks do have a pretty seamless path to West Side Yard, so it is not uncommon for the LIRR to send all trains arriving here to West Side Yard while electing to have trains that turn in the station use the lower tracks.  Also, trains looking to use C yard tracks 8C, 9C, and 10C (the only really long enough tracks in C yard) must arrive and depart from tracks 20 or 21, as it is not possible to reach those three tracks from any other station track.

From the east, the tracks can only reach Lines 3 and 4 of the East River Tunnels, so that fact also has to be taken into consideration when routing train moments.  Also, just like tracks 18 and 19, the overhead wire for tracks 20 and 21 has been "temporarily" removed at the west end in KN interlocking, so that is yet another stipulation.

In conclusion, hopefully this has cleared up what likely has been a vexing question for many LIRR riders.  When closely examining Penn Station one can see there are hundreds of small oddities and uniqueness-es that make this insanely busy rail station insanely complex.  In casually talking with one of my friends about the LIRR many years ago, I found out that, for the majority of his life, he was under the impression that there were in fact 21 tunnels under the East River for the 21 station tracks at Penn Station.  It would be fantastic if it were that simple, but unfortunately, Penn Station's track layout is far less simple.

The Pennsylvania Station we make use of today is both very different and very similar to its original form.  The track level at Penn Station has remain practically unaltered since it's opening.  Since then, the original Penn Station has left us and a new Penn Station that has had thousands of other little tweaks to it has been put in its place.  Lining up the 'new' concourses with the 'old' track layouts wasn't the simplest of tasks and therefore even more oddities arose.

All things considered, Penn Station is truly a crazed madhouse.  When you think of all the people that pass through the station and all of the trains that come and go over the course of the day--and they manage to do this all on just 11 platforms and 21 tracks--one cannot help but be amazed that the entire circus is orchestrated so well each and every day.

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 comment:

  1. Are the railings shown in the photo above from the original Penn Station? They are different from the other LIRR railings and are more detailed/classic.


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