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How one New Jersey commuter is living a transit nightmare with Penn Station's "summer of hell"

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It seems that transit headaches are not confined to NYC's aging subway system: Passengers throughout the metro area have been struggling to make it to their destinations on time, with delays and cancellations plaguing commuter trains from Long Island and New Jersey. Penn Station is the source of many of these woes, Crain's explains: The transit hub, which is owned by Amtrak, has been neglected for years, and a surge in ridership means that crowding and technical malfunctions are mounting, leading to multiple recent derailments. 

With the situation becoming untenable, Amtrak has announced that it will undertake much-needed infrastructure repairs this summer. This work means, though, that one group of commuters will be especially hard-hit: According to Bloomberg, service on New Jersey Transit's Morris-Essex lines will be seriously curtailed in the coming months. The effect is so dramatic that Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed it the "summer of hell" for affected commuters.

Those lines, reports NBC, which serve 23,000 passengers every day, will run normally (that is, to Penn Station) until 7 a.m, after which point they'll be diverted to Hoboken. From there, riders will have to opt for either PATH train or ferry service to Manhattan. As a (slight) consolation, New Jersey Transit fares will be honored on both. 

This still means much lengthier, and likely more crowded treks to work for thousands of people every day. To find out more about what the experience of commuting on the beleagured system has been like--and what might be ahead--we caught up with one Jersey local. Angela Bowers O'Neil and her husband, who have a baby daughter, recently bought a house in Maplewood, New Jersey, a community beloved by many former New Yorkers for its good schools, artsy downtown, and (usually) quick commute to the city.

Unfortunately, though, it's also on the Morris-Essex line--and this summer's transportation nightmare has O'Neil wondering if her family would have been better off sticking around in NYC. What it's like to deal with a failing train system, in her own words: 

Why we moved to Maplewood

We owned a place in Brooklyn that we sold a year ago when I was pregnant, and moved to South Orange, New Jersey, where we rented for a while. Then we bought a house in Maplewood, which we're actually closing on in a month. In the meantime, we've been living here for the past year in a rented house. 

I was working in Midtown before the baby, and now I have a new job that's downtown in the Financial District. I have two options: One is a direct train to Penn Station. In theory, it should take 31 minutes. Every real estate person touted Maplewood as being 30 minutes to Penn Station. They literally bus in people from Brooklyn every weekend because Maplewood is this liberal community. Everyone here is like, "We were in Brooklyn, then we had a kid." 

The real estate market was nuts this spring—houses were going for $100,000 to $200,000 over the asking price. My husband and I had really talked about going back to Jersey City [where we lived several years ago], but the problem is that once you make the jump to the burbs, the space and lifestyle are hard to replicate in Manhattan for the money. 

The transit problems begin

I was going to Penn Station and then taking the 2/3 train. When the trains were working, that was the quickest way. But then things got wonky, so I started going to Hoboken and taking the ferry, which was extremely expensive: $7 each way. There's also the PATH, which is about a 15-minute ride to the city. 

When they canceled all the trains after track issues last month, the day when everyone had to go through Hoboken was literally Thunderdome. You couldn't move—it was a dangerous, crushing situation. They had to shut down the PATH because there were too many people, so I don't know how they're expecting everyone to go through Hoboken rather than Penn this summer. This is mental—Hoboken is not designed for this. 

Now, on a good day, my commute is an hour and 10 minutes, which is a little unacceptable. It could go as long as an hour and 40 or 50 minutes. The trains just stop, and you just sit there, because there's only one tunnel into Penn Station because Christie didn't approve a project to create another one seven years ago. (Note: NJ.com has an article exploring whether the tunnel deal killed by Governor Christie would have improved the situation today.)

How the transit issues affect daily life 

It's faster going through Hoboken. What scares me about Penn is the overcrowding—the platforms are just dangerous. In the morning, there's no way out. That's the biggest problem. If they're really doing something, I'd like to see them address the issue with entering and exiting the platforms, because they're not made for that volume of people. 

My husband and I first moved to Jersey City the day of Hurricane Sandy, and we can see how [the resulting damages to tunnels] has affected everything. Penn Station has been canceling all the trains at night because they can't figure out how to move these trains around with these track issues. 

I can't go out after work. It can take me two hours to get home at night. I have a kid to pick up at daycare—it's a serious issue for everyone who has kids and commutes. Getting home for dinner is now a struggle.

We had a mother's helper last year from the Bronx after I had the baby, and the trains were still reliable. I can't imagine doing that now—I wouldn't put her through that. In just six months, everything has changed so drastically. 

We've been saying just avoid Penn—at least now I'm commuting to downtown. But it isn't cheap to ride New Jersey Transit. I'm spending all this money and not seeing my kid, and my work is being threatened because I'm constantly late and can't predict when I'll be able to get in. 

Expectations for the future

I'm hesistant to believe that it could get better. They're not doing a full overhaul. It's embarrassing when you go to any other major city and the trains run with no problem. I was on one with no air-conditioning two weeks ago when it was so hot, and I was just thinking, How is this happening? How am I paying for this? The overall situation has devolved. 

They're offering a 50 to 60 percent discount for people on my line, along with free ferry rides, but here's my question: Are they going to increase the PATH? PATH trains from Hoboken are already at standing room and that's before people don't have the option to go to Penn. Are they going to increase the ferry? The one day there was free ferry service, it was packed to the gills. So how is this going to be executed? 

I was on the train the other day for two hours, and I was thinking, for this commute time I could be living in Pennsylvania or Putnam County. I want to be positive but the most we can hope for is one day I can have friends come visit.