Cramped for space inside the scrum during evening rush hour, scores of commuters wistfully stare at a screen, either at a television hanging on the walls or at a mobile phone in their hands. Despite wearing masks as a precaution against COVID, everyone is huddled together, standing shoulder to shoulder in what they call “the pit” – the concourse for New Jersey Transit passengers at Penn Station.
There is not speck of natural light or ventilation in the dingy pit, just the light from the fluorescent lamps hanging from rafters.
Anum Shah, a 27-year-old New Jersey Transit commuter, expresses her anger at the congestion in the concourse for NJ Transit passengers and hates being part of the scrum. “There’s only about two or three places you can stand for NJ Transit, and everyone is on top of each other,” she says. She is trying to get back to Princeton Junction from her job as an analytics manager in Times Square.
As a daily commuter, Shah is aware what happens when the track number flashes inside the scrum. “Waiting around for the track number to be called is not friendly,” she says.
Within a matter of seconds, the screens refresh. A flashing number ignites a stampede. The hypnotized folks break from their trance and bolt toward a door whose number just flashed on the screen.
As they rush a single-lane escalator that leads underground, a bottleneck quickly forms. COVID guidelines are all but forgotten as commuters inches away from each other attempt to get downstairs so they don’t have to stand all the way back home to Trenton.
“First of all, you don’t know if you’re getting a single-decker, or a double-decker train,” Shah says. “And even in peak rush hour, with a double-decker train, you’re not always going to get a seat.”
Busiest Rail Station
Located under Madison Square Garden from 31st to 33rd Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, New York Penn Station is the busiest rail station in the Western Hemisphere. Penn Station was initially built for 200,000 daily riders. Today, the station serves more than 650,000 daily commuters.
A new station was inaugurated this year. Across the street from Penn Station between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets, Moynihan Train Hall is a glitzy $1.6 billion building with new concourses and larger waiting rooms converted from the city’s former main post office.
Serving only Amtrak commuters and some tracks for Long Island Rail Road passengers, Moynihan does little to alleviate the commuter pressure at Penn Station. A recent estimate shows with only 30,000 daily riders, Amtrak passengers account for less than 5% of the total daily commuter traffic.
While LIRR and Amtrak passengers have moved on to greener pastures in Moynihan Hall, NJ Transit commuters are still left to scrum in the pit.
Shah is blunt in her criticism when trying to comprehend why customers of NJ Transit have been have been ignored, while other riders have moved to Moynihan Station.
“It is just because probably NJ Transit is New Jersey run that we’re not getting priority over Long Island Railroad and Amtrak,” she said. “That is super frustrating. At the end of the day, we are sharing the same station so we should get upgraded as well.”
In February 2021, a Penn Station expansion proposal was released by former Governor Andrew Cuomo. The plan called “NJ Transit Central Concourse Extension” is part of a larger development project called the “Empire Station Complex.” Current Governor Kathy Hochul revised the plan and last month announced a $6.7 billion project to renovate Penn Station.
The proposal includes removal of an upper level to make room for higher ceilings and natural light as well as an expansion of current waiting halls and concourses by over 40%. The renovation would see the installation of an additional 18 escalators and 11 elevators for easier navigation to facilitate passengers embarking and disembarking trains.
Parizeh Malik is a recent graduate from Syracuse University and works at BNP Paribas in Midtown. She often commutes from Plainsboro, New Jersey, to Manhattan. Echoing Shah, Malik is frustrated at the current status of the busy hub. “I hate Penn Station. I think it’s dirty, and it’s so crowded,” she says.
Malik has noticed a difference in the intensity of the scrum after the spread of the deadly COVID virus. “I feel like the scrum is different, pre COVID, it was actually crazy,” she says. “One had to fight your way to get to the platform. Now, it’s not as bad. But you still have that crowd of people that just stand in the pit.”
Hopeful that the renovation project at Penn Station will alleviate the frenzy at Penn Station, Shah and Malik are eager to see work getting started. Lifelong residents of New Jersey, they have often heard promises of upgrades at Penn. Tired of being at the NJ Transit concourse, they anxiously await a shiny, new pit.