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‘Summer of hell’ ends; Penn Station repairs now put to the test

NEW YORK — It was billed as the "summer of hell." Thankfully, it was more like the summer of "meh," New York rail commuters say.

Amtrak wrapped up an extensive summertime track repair project at New York's Penn Station on Thursday that officials had warned could create an infernal bottleneck in the nation's busiest rail hub.

Predictions back in the spring, when the station had just gone through a series of major disruptions related to train derailments, couldn't have been more dire. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said track closures and service reductions for the maintenance work would be a "potential crisis" and told rail riders to brace themselves for a "summer of hell."

But now that the repairs have been completed and normal service is returning Tuesday on Amtrak and the two regional railroads that also serve Penn Station, many riders say their commutes have been surprisingly fine. They've been better than normal, actually.

"I've been commuting out of Jersey for two years now and this is the best it's ever been," said Christina Jantzen, an executive assistant from Wayne, New Jersey. She said her New Jersey Transit trains have been arriving on time, if not early.

Wanda Phillips, also a New Jersey Transit rider, said she had prepared herself for a bad summer but was pleasantly surprised. "It was all good. Got a seat and everything," she said.

"It's been a summer of fun," said Long Island Rail Road rider Dylan Mitchell. Mitchell, a lawyer, said he didn't experience delays or crowded trains on his daily commute from Manhasset to Penn Station.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota, who is in charge of the Long Island Rail Road, said the railroad's July on-time percentage was not only higher than July of 2016 but higher than any other month to date in 2017.

Amtrak owns Penn Station and the aging tracks that carry hundreds of thousands of daily riders. This summer's repairs involved fixing tracks and switches that route trains between New York and New Jersey and to the Long Island Rail Road's West Side railyard.

Amtrak co-CEO Wick Moorman said Thursday that workers installed 897 track ties, 1,100 feet (335 meters) of rail, 176 yards (161 meters) of concrete and four track crossover structures, called complex diamond crossings.

The work started after three Penn Station derailments in three months, none of which caused serious injuries. They included a New Jersey Transit derailment on July 6, just two days before the repair project started. Moorman promised that the just-completed repairs "will result in greater reliability in the future."

Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit all curtailed service into and out of Penn Station to accommodate the project. The regional railroads offered discounts and incentives to use alternatives including buses and ferries.

Normal service on all three railroads resumes Tuesday.

New Jersey Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro thanked riders "for their patience and flexibility."

"While many had to adjust their personal schedules, we tried to provide them with enough options and support to make the transition as smooth as possible," he said.

Cuomo said the crisis he had warned about was averted "due to government response" and hard work.

Amtrak says additional Penn Station repair work still to be completed between now and early 2018 will be done on nights and weekends and won't affect service. That work will include upgrading Penn Station restrooms and waiting areas.