There is something magical about the approach to New York on a Penn Station-bound train. Arriving from points North, the train rumbles under the George Washington Bridge before racing alongside the Hudson River and the West Side Highway’s traffic. Trains from points South pull out of Newark and within moments are flying through the Meadowlands with Midtown’s skyline glistening in the distance. Both of those entrances pale in comparison to the beauty of the Hell’s Gate approach. Rising over the confluence of the Harlem and East rivers and the Long Island Sound, a passenger with a window seat at sunset or in the evening feels like they are gliding through a movie before rushing over Astoria and diving underground towards Midtown.
This magic is fleeting. That bridge – Hell’s Gate – is named after the impact that the confluence of rivers has on the water, but it could very well describe what awaits any passenger getting off the train at Penn Station.
It’s important to remember the Penn Station we have today is not our grandfather’s Penn Station. Especially, as the MTA made a big to do yesterday about Grand Central Terminal’s upcoming 100th anniversary next year. Rightfully so. It is the Crown Jewel of American Rail Terminals, up there with Union Stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and DC, respectively.
There is another rail terminal anniversary coming up in 2013 that New Yorkers would be wise to take note of. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the demolition of the original Penn Station, knocked down to make room for Madison Square Garden and a handful of non-descript office buildings.
At the time of the demolition of the Beaux-Arts station structure which had opened in 1910, The New York Times wrote, “a city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.”
That editorial central message still resonates. Especially when it comes to Penn Station. The modernized Penn Station is a haphazard bunker doubling as the entry point for hundreds of thousands of travelers. Beyond just the aesthetic shortcomings, long painfully obvious in this “improvement,” the station is now reaching a critical juncture.
Long at capacity, Penn Station’s future is joined at the hip, in some ways, with the future of high-speed rail in the United States. As it stands today, the station serves as the mid-point in America’s only answer for high speed rail, the Acela-traversed Northeast Corridor. In spite of Congressional obstinance and construction delays, I’d be willing to bet Mitt Romney’s $10,000, we will one day see European style high-speed rail in this country. Amtrak has already proposed a next-generation HSR corridor that would halve travel times between DC and Boston.
The only way to bring more trains into New York City is to increase the number of tracks coming in – currently two under the Hudson and four under the East River – and the number of platforms available.
This is where that Times editorial is just as relevant today as it was almost fifty years ago. We get what we pay for and what we deserve. Maybe you’ve heard about Moynihan Station. The efforts to restore the grandeur of old Penn Station would be achieved by moving Amtrak across the street to the equally Beaux-Art Farley Post Office. In 2006, construction for both phases of Moynihan Station was projected at a cool $3.2 billion dollars. Want to guess how many more trains that $3.2 billion would be able to bring into Penn Station? Or how many of those would be new High-Speed consists? If you guessed zero, you’d be spot-on. Right now, just phase 1 which includes the entrance at the post office and some new stairs has been funded, with construction set to wrap up in 2016
I get the desire to bring the Beaux-Art Penn Station back from dead. In a perfect world, I’d be camping out like there were new Apple products about to be sold in the run-up to its opening. But, we live in a world of finite resources, especially when it comes to public transit in general, and passenger rail infrastructure in particular. If we throw money to aesthetic projects, we make it harder to increase train capacity and improve the infrastructure to the point that it can handle next generation high speed rail.
Historian Vincent Scully may be right that where “One entered the city like a god one scuttles in now like a rat.” Penn Station remains the busiest passenger transportation facility in the United States, serving 1,000 passengers every 90 seconds. As our population continues to grow and rail becomes a more popular mode of traveling, once again, our infrastructure will need to meet this increased demands. Count me as one scurrying rat who wants federal and state funds going towards increased capacity and improved infrastructure in lieu of cosmetic improvements. It would be our generation’s Penn Station demolition to do otherwise.