Riders Lament End of Summer of Heck and a Return to Penn Station

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit commuters were promised a two-month nightmare as New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was partially shut down for track work. Pffft. It’ll go down as the summer of comparative comfort and civility.

On free Hudson River ferries, many displaced rail riders revel in sunshine and seating -- and don’t fret that the crossings add minutes to their commute. Gone from the daily grind is humanity’s stench wafting through Penn’s dim hallways and stairwells, replaced by soul-soothing, vaguely salty breezes. Cranky escalators and elbows violating one’s personal space? But a memory.

Riders Lament End of Summer of Heck and a Return to Penn Station

The respite, though, ends on Sept. 5, with the wrap of $30 million in repairs by Amtrak, the station’s owner, which crammed years of scheduled intermittent maintenance into a burst of round-the-clock work after two derailments in March and April. If these eight weeks were the “summer of hell” predicted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, many riders say, sign them on for flames eternal.

Kim Mullaney, who does public relations and marketing for a Manhattan non-profit group, stopped at a bakery for treats on Wednesday before taking the train from Maplewood, New Jersey, to the Hoboken waterfront. “This commute turned out to be a delightful surprise! Thank you,” she wrote on the goody boxes.

Not that everyone’s commutes inspired such bonhomie.

Twitter users kvetched that NJ Transit’s schedule changes forced them to buy tickets to out-of-the-way stations, or they lost time because of missed connections. Some commuters who chose a free ride on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH subway, rather than the ferry, complained of occasional crowding and equipment breakdowns. In recent weeks, multiple trains have been scratched -- “combined,” in NJ Transit parlance -- without explanation. Express buses from some Essex County suburbs whisked riders to midtown Manhattan in the mornings, but at night it was subway or ferry back to Hoboken, then to the train.

By comparison, the Long Island Rail Road, affected by the Penn work but less extensively than NJ Transit, scored its best on-time performance of the year in July, according to its operator, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. As train riders altered their routines to add subway transfers to and from Manhattan, the authority canceled or reduced some free though little-used East River ferries and park-and-ride shuttle buses. Though only 35 percent of riders say they’re satisfied with the railroad overall, according to a poll by the Nassau County comptroller’s office, the MTA says it has committed billions of dollars for improvements.

No such grand spending is in the works for New Jersey Transit, the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad. Starved of operating cash by Republican Governor Chris Christie and dependent on capital transfers for day-to-day expenses, it has posted the most mechanical failures and accidents among its peers, federal data show, while riders endure crowding and slipping service. Eight weeks of lost ticket revenue was expected to total $15 million -- a trade-off, riders said, for their own sanity.

“The ferry is never late, canceled, or otherwise messed up (so far),” Andrew Jones, a software engineer from Maplewood, said in an email message. “The reduction in stress of not having to go through Penn Station is completely worth an extra 15 minutes. Jammed train platforms, homeless people sleeping in every corner and just an overall filth and claustrophobic feeling make Penn remarkably bad.”

From July 10 through Aug. 29, ferry operator New York Waterway had 140,000 riders more than a year earlier, according to spokesman Pat Smith. The route between Hoboken, New Jersey, and West 39th Street in Manhattan -- added temporarily to accommodate the riders blocked from their usual Penn route -- proved so popular that it will be a regular run come Sept. 5.

Mikayla Petrilla, an actor from Manhattan who commutes to New Jersey, reflected on the herd-like atmosphere at Penn and her horror on that May evening when a broken sewer pipe caused a waterfall of sewage from the ceiling. She regretted that her budget will allow only a ferry trip perhaps once a month, as the New Jersey Transit fare subsidy will end when Penn returns to the regular schedule.

“I had pretty good conversations with a few other people who were waiting for the ferries,” Petrilla said. “It’s a nice sense of community.”

Ferry travel is subsidized within New York City, with fares at $2.75, same as the bus and subway. New Jersey has no comparable deal, and a monthly pass between Hoboken and West 39th Street will run $272 come Sept. 5.

Mullaney, the bearer of bakery goodies, enjoyed a 60 percent discount on her train fare for two months, NJ Transit’s compensation for inconveniencing riders. In September, she’ll be back to $227 a month -- and for the first time will kick in $83 to cover 10 ferry trips as a treat, mostly on Fridays.

“I can look out at the water, be greeted with a smile, take it easy for 10 minutes,” she said. “I’ll take the added time. I’d rather get to my family in a great mood.”