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Rail Riders Brace For Delays, Frustrations As Major Penn Station Repair Work Starts Monday

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Just when you thought the morning commute couldn't get any worse, just wait until Monday.

That's when the Penn Station summer construction project -- ominously dubbed the "Summer of Hell" -- gets underway, and commuters can expect plenty of delays.

Signs at ticket booths on Long Island asked riders to prepare for what might be a challenging summer commute, as train service into Penn Station is cut by 20 percent.

The night before, Marie Newkirk of Port Washington, Long Island was already feeling the stress about her commute to Penn Station Monday morning.

"I'm kind of like holding my breath in anticipation of it, but I'm sure it's going to be interesting," Newkirk said.

"I don't really think there's ever really a convenient time to be shutting down the train station or at least making all these changes," said commuter Jacquelyn Bloomenthal.

Penn Station Repairs: What You Need To Know Starting Monday

Sunday appeared to be the calm before the storm around the embattled transit hub. Starting Monday through September 1, three to five of Penn Station's 21 tracks will be shut down, meaning trains that do manage to pull into Penn are more likely to be both crowded and delayed.

The repair project follows months of train breakdowns, long delays, and several derailments as recently as Thursday night. The tangled tracks below Penn Station which Amtrak considered most in need of repairs is known as 'A' interlocking.

A Interlocking Tracks
"A" interlocking tracks set for repair this summer at Penn Station. (credit: Amtrak)

"We've been doing renewal work for a very long time," Amtrak Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek said. "It's coming quicker for us and as pointed out by the derailments the repidity with which the infrastructure has declined has sped up."

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota, who recently returned to the job, outlined all the contingency plans that have been put in place Sunday afternoon.

He noted that high-occupancy vehicle lanes will be set up in the East River tunnels, and 200 buses will be available. Many trains will also have two additional cars.

Long Island Rail Road workers in orange vests will also be wearing buttons reading, "Ambassador – how can I help you?" and answering questions, Lhota said.

"Every day this summer, we'll evaluate what's going on," Lhota said.

As 1010 WINS' Roger Stern reported, Lhota said the MTA has long been prepared.

"We've thought long and hard how to make this – what's going on with Amtrak; the work that's being done – trying to make this as easy as possible so everyone can get to work on time and home in the evening," he said.

Of the 98 morning peak LIRR trains that go into Penn Station, 83 will still be running along with three new trains. Lhota said they should arrive on time.

"We have time slots for each one of the trains that are due into Penn Station," he said.

If there is a problem, Lhota said, the MTA has set up a war room to adjust things for the following day.

But Lhota also advised people to look for alternatives themselves – including looking to other terminals and using ferry service. Riders will be diverted to Atlantic Terminal and Hunterspoint Avenue, where they can jump on a subway or ferry.

Free Ferries will also be traveling between Glen Cove and 34th Street or Wall Street.

"We're asking Long Islanders to change their habits," Lhota said. "We need to be flexible."

Indeed, productivity will not come without patience. For the next eight weeks, Amtrak will be repairing interlocking tracks to help remedy ongoing track issues – as seen in the most recent derailment Thursday night that had NJ TRANSIT passengers stuck for two hours.

"What we've been doing at the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road is making sure all of our riders all have an opportunity get into the city as quickly and efficiently as possible," Lhota said.

Commuters were none too excited about the situation Sunday.

"Me and my friends are looking to find alternate train stations, and we're going to have to wake up extra early to make sure we can find a spot on the trains," said LIRR commuter Brett Kleinberg.

"The service is terrible. It's getting worse. Fares are going up," said LIRR commuter David Marcus, "and instead of maintaining it every year like you do with a normal system, they let it go to pot, and then they say, 'Oh, we've got to disrupt you for months and months.'"

Most commuters WINS spoke with were as calm as Kim, but Matt from Rockville Centre says he has it all planned out.

"If it takes two and a half hours to get in, I will probably work from home a few of those days next week," he said, adding that his company already has a contingency plan.

Amar Majid of Garden City said his plan is to avoid Penn altogether.

"I work out of downtown, so hopefully, I'll be going in and out of Brooklyn a lot more often than I have been," Majid said, "But I don't know about prepared. I don't know if anyone is prepared. We all do the best we can."

Speaking at a news conference Sunday night, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) took issue with the fact that repairs had fallen behind.

"Trains have to be upgraded. Trains have to be maintained – railroad ties, brakes, signals get old," Schumer said.

Schumer added that there are $450 million that could be used to repair the East River tunnels – which are to blame for some of the disruptions involving LIRR trains – but Amtrak and the MTA are fighting over it.

Meanwhile, Morris and Essex Lines on NJ TRANSIT will end in Hoboken after 7 a.m. After that, commuters can take the PATH, a bus, or a ferry into New York City.

As CBS2's Reena Roy reported, many NJ TRANSIT riders have likewise been dreading the disruption.

"It's kind of nerve wracking that that's going to happen," said Tannya Singh.

Commuter John Mendola said he expected conditions to be "packed," as people are forced to find another route to get to work.

"First couple of days, lot of people won't know where they're going," Mendola said.

"Hopefully I can get to where I need to get," said commuter Eterneti Gallimore.

"I expect my trains to be much, much more crowded than usual," said commuter Timothy Golding.

Officials will be cross-honoring tickets on PATH trains, buses and ferries. They are also adding more early-morning trains to get riders to Penn.

"I'm going to be well-prepared for the changes and move accordingly," Gallimore said.

The evenings will not be any easier. There will be no Morris and Essex trains leaving from Penn; to take a train home, commuters will have to go to Hoboken.

New Jersey commuters are expecting Monday morning to be even worse than usual.

"That's the last thing we want is to wake up Monday morning and be crowded with even more people," said Xuanky Le.

And in fear of confusion, crowds and delays, some are simply opting out.

"Me and my people were thinking about carpooling -- you know, going back and forth on vans and stuff like that," said commuter Michael Casabianca.

"Maybe going extra early or a bit late, but I don't want to be stuck in rush hour," Le said.

"I just don't want be a sardine in there," Ritterbach said.

Commuters also complained that conditions on Amtrak-owned rails were allowed to get to this point.

"I don't know why they weren't better maintained over the long term," Golding said.

"If things are getting held up even more because of repairs and such, yeah, it's frustrating," Singh said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is urging commuters to stick with mass transit.

"We've heard the phrase 'car-pocalypse' before to describe situations of excess traffic due to whatever reason," Robert Sinclair from AAA said. "I think that term could be applied to what we're going to be seeing."

Meanwhile, Amtrak will be canceling three roundtrip trains to Washington daily and rerouting several others to Grand Central Terminal.

Commuters are urged to check their train status online with their smartphone apps.

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