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Horrible Train Stations: NY Penn Still on Top

Last week we posed the question: “What Train Station is More Horrible Than Penn Station?”

Penn Station has been described as confusing, menacing, and inhumane. It’s been called a rat warren, a stygian chamber, and an underground strip mall. The nation’s busiest rail terminal is crowded, it lacks amenities, there are not enough platforms, not enough bathrooms…the list goes on. That's not even getting into the horrific pedestrian environment surrounding the station.

In our view Penn Station is the Absolute Worst Train Station Ever. Yep, that's right.

The question is: What station is worse than Penn Station? Or if you'd like to admit that Penn Station is #1, what would be #2?

Here are the top nominations:

Johnstown Amtrak Station, Johnstown, PA

The horrible thing about this station is that this historic and beautifully-proportioned 1916 waiting room is closed to the public (see picture at right). There might be a telling correlation in this rust belt city's declining economy and the decrease in railroad passengers over the second half of the 20th Century. There may also be some hope that a reviving economy in Johnstown and other small towns may mean a revival in intercity rail and sustainable transportation.

Union Station, Chicago, IL

I have learned to navigate New York's Penn Station in its original form and now since the 1950's, so while it's presently ugly and often crowded, I think Chicago's Union Station, at least for long-distance Amtrak patrons, is worse. Coach and sleeping car passengers are corralled into separate holding pens with insufficent seating at peak times. Many are making connections here with waits of several hours. Since demolition of part of the station years ago, the soaring main waiting room is now too far away from the track gates to be of much use (NPS note: nearly every picture of the train hall shows it empty). Most trains are accessed from terminal platforms, necessitating long walks along narrow platforms for those accommodated towards the front of the trains. Coupled with that, Union Station is poorly run by the station personnel, while Penn Station is rather well operated given what the staff has to work with.

Both are excellent nominations, but Penn Station is still #1. We tend to agree with this reader, who nominated Penn Station because it “guarantees an unpleasant arrival and miserable departure by rail from the best city in the world.” Among her reasons:

Penn has neither signs nor a direction to an information booth for people who do not speak English.

Signs directing people to the street are confusing. There are no signs informing a person as to what level of the station one is on.

Bathroom facilities are inadequate.

The information system about arriving trains is archaic. Access to a train, when one learns its track, borders on the dangerous: passengers surge towards the one narrow stairway to the platform. The only way to attempt to board an Amtrak train in comfort is to tip a Redcap in order to be escorted to the train before it is announced. I do not mind paying someone for service, but this is unfair to the public.

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Wednesday at the MAS: World-Class Train Stations

Wednesday, April 30, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m., at The Municipal Art Society

Join Hugh Hardy, FAIA, founder H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, LLC, Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer, NYC Department of City Planning and former public works advisor to the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, photographer Christopher Brown, author of Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Stations, and architect Andrew Whalley, partner in charge of the New York office of Grimshaw Architects, for a wide-ranging discussion on the design of today's train stations and those to come. $15, $12 MAS members. Purchase tickets or call 212-935-2075.

Coverage of our previous Moynihan Station programs:

”Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd"

”What if They Gave a Crisis…”

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Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd

On Wednesday at the MAS, historian Jill Jonnes delivered a fascinating presentation on the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, the subject of her recent book: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic.

With the aid of some amazing photographs rescued from the depths of the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, Jonnes recounted the “titanic battle with nature” that culminated in the construction of the original Penn Station.

“The received wisdom was that this whole project was a folly,” said Jonnes.

She contextualized the construction story within a political and human drama involving a determined PRR president, Alexander Cassatt, a corrupt politician, Boss Croker, who ran Tammany Hall by cable from the UK, and Samuel Rea, a brilliant young engineer and eventual PRR president who lost his own son in one of the project’s many horrific accidents. And of course she also told the bittersweet story of Charles McKim’s last major building in New York.

Jonnes did not hesitate to draw parallels between the subject of her book and the current attempts to “re-conquer Gotham,” Moynihan Station and ARC. Conquering Gotham book coverApparently, she has even been offered a ride in the ARC tunnel machine when the project starts rolling!

In conclusion, Jonnes noted that Penn Station “was a work of many decades, not unlike Moynihan Station.” In fact, the full project, from its earliest conception in 1871 to its completion in 1917 with the opening of Hell Gate Bridge lasted over four decades.

“I do want to buck everyone up,” she said. “And remind you how enormously difficult it was to build the original station. Everyone always says, ‘Back then they knew how to get things done.’ No they didn’t! When Penn Station opened it took them another 8 years just to build the first subway connection. And the second subway stop took another 8 years!”

Please join us next Wednesday for a panel discussion about “World-Class Train Stations.” Click here for more info

Click here to purchase Conquering Gotham

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What Train Station is More Horrible Than Penn Station?

Penn Station has been described as confusing, menacing, and inhumane. It’s been called a rat warren, a stygian chamber, and an underground strip mall. The nation’s busiest rail terminal is crowded, it lacks amenities, there are not enough platforms, not enough bathrooms…the list goes on. That's not even getting into the horrific pedestrian environment surrounding the station.

In our view Penn Station is the Absolute Worst Train Station Ever. Yep, that's right.

The question is: What station is worse than Penn Station? Or if you'd like to admit that Penn Station is #1, what would be #2?

Here's the deal:

You send a couple of sentences (or poem?) explaining why another station is more horrible than Penn Station along with a photo (if possible) by Monday at 5pm. E-mail your response to ewerbe@mas.org, with “Worst Train Station” in the subject line.

We’ll post the responses here and select the top 5 submissions. Each winner will receive 2 free tickets to next Wednesday's event, “World Class Train Stations.”

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Rail and the Earth

In celebration of Earth Day we thought it would be fitting (or rather obligatory) to provide some data on the environmental advantages of rail travel.

According to U.S. Department of Energy data, rail is 17 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel and 21 percent more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis. When combined with all modes of transportation, passenger railroads emit only 0.2 percent of the travel industry's total greenhouse gases.

This reminds us of what Walter Zullig said during our recent program on the future of rail:

“The biggest opportunity for rail is the environmental considerations, especially as energy prices continue to climb,” said Zullig. “Education about the benefits of rail – in terms of energy, air quality, quality of life – can go a long way. We need to create a ground swell of public demand. Then the politicians would be forced to listen.”

[images courtesy of Amtrak]

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Your Mind on Moynihan: Win Free Tickets to Wednesday’s Event

Question: What was the nickname of the neighborhood surrounding Penn Station at the turn of the century?

The first five people to email the answer to khughes@mas.org will each win a pair of tickets to see a presentation from Jill Jonnes, the author of Conquering Gotham, at the MAS on Wednesday evening.

Below is a description from Conquering Gotham – fill in the blank!

“As [LIRR president William] Baldwin well knew, the great Pennsylvania Depot – if it ever came to be – would be rising not just in a rundown, marginal neighborhood, but in one of Gotham’s most notorious vice districts. Their four blocks were part of an area infamous far and wide: [_______], an area bounded by Fifth Avenue, West Twenty-third Street, Forty-second Street and Ninth Avenue.

Many respectable and hard-working folk lived and toiled here, as the recent census recorded, and by day it appeared to be just another shabby city enclave. Yet Baldwin’s Committee of Fifteen’s own inquiries had pin-pointed more than a hundred know whorehouses in the blocks due north and dozens more in the blocks toward Fifth Avenue. When night enveloped Gotham, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers and grand hotels glowed with the wondrous electric light, the streets here became a hotbed of vice. Conveniently close to the Broadway theaters and better hotels and restaurants, [_______] catered not just to the rougher elements, but also to slumming (married) middle-class men and daring out-of-towners. Nighttime Sixth Avenue, with the brightly lit elevated trains rumbling overhead, was often jammed with pleasure seekers. [________] was, odd to say, a neighborhood that the well-to-do Baldwin knew far better than most, for he had reviewed hundred of the committee’s private detailed vice reports for his reform work…

Anyone abroad in [________] late at night had to beware. In the tenebrous side streets, the hardened criminal classes sway, and brazen streetwalkers lured unwary rubes to panel houses where sliding bedroom walls made stealing watches and wallets easy. Murder was not unknown either. Just as Wall Street gloried in its fearful financial power, so [________] gloried in its lurid menu of vice and corruption – luxurious French brothels with “cinema nights,” high-stakes gaming halls, “badger” games, and opulent opium joints. Every professional gambler, saloonkeeper, white slaver, and madame in [_______] dutifully bribed the police and worked to fleece the unwary. The Democrats of Tammany Hall turned a blind eye to what reformers had long denounced as Satan’s Circus. And just as many a tourist had to see Wall Street, so many of the men among them had to see [________].”

[image courtesy of the New York Public Library]

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Ask George: About the Port Authority and Moynihan Station

Recently, we asked George Haikalis for his thoughts on the possibility of the Port Authority taking over Moynihan Station. The focus has been on the funding advantages of the move, but Haikalis emphasized that having a bi-state agency take over the region’s transit hub is a major opportunity to force the commuter railroads to cooperate and, possibly, to realize the Grand Central – Penn Station connection. What do you think?

Question: What would a Port Authority takeover mean for the Moynihan Penn Station redevelopment project?

George: It would certainly be within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's purview to operate, maintain and expand Moynihan/Penn Station. PA's recent toll increases (and unfortunately, PATH fare hikes) permit the agency to offer each state three billion dollars for transportation capital investments over the next decade. Some of that could be directed toward the MTA, NJ Transit and Amtrak to produce an enhanced Moynihan/Penn Station facility.

But for the Port Authority to be more than just a funder, and to actually take the lead in advancing this project, the Governors of NY and NJ need to seriously think out what role this bi-state agency should best play. Just replacing ESDC with the Port Authority as the lead on Moynihan Station will do little to advance the single biggest regional mobility opportunity in the near term – getting the three commuter rail operators to develop a collective strategy for "thru-running" at Penn Station.

Even more ambitious would be for the Port Authority to advance a plan for bringing the new Hudson River tunnel into existing tracks and platforms at Penn Station (See ARC), connecting these tracks to Grand Central and extending this thru-running concept for efficient use of this link. With thru-running, conflicts at station approach tracks are avoided and peak hour train capacity gains of 25 to 50% can be realized. This is the core of the "interoperability" concept that MTA CEO Lee Sander showcased during his State of the MTA Address on March 3, 2008.

Using its cash investment as a nudge, the Port Authority could play a leadership role in getting the four operators (NJT, LIRR, MTA, and Amtrak) to agree to work together to select common rail car designs, coordinate operating procedures and unify customer information and ticketing – critical steps needed for interoperability. While Amtrak and its predecessors have operated trains thru Penn Station and over the Hell Gate Bridge for nearly ninety years, a full-fledged thru-running "regional rail" service has yet to be put into place, even though such a plan could be accomplished in as little as six months if the will were there to do it!

Going well beyond just "nudging" the rail operators to cooperate, the Governors could request that the Port Authority go much further, leasing and fully merging the commuter rail operations and Grand Central Terminal, and acquiring Amtrak's Penn Station assets.

With traffic congestion reaching catastrophic levels, maybe its time for independent transit agencies, or at least the commuter rail operators to be brought together, but this time under the umbrella of the Port Authority. Such a merger could archive the efficiencies of consolidation, permit the introduction of innovative new services and most importantly, lead to advancing the ultimate of train station connections - linking existing tracks and platforms at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

Read more about the Regional Rail Working Group’s Regional Rail operating plan

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Daily News: Penn Station’s Buried Glory

On Sunday, the Daily News ran a great story about John Turkeli’s monthly tours of the remnants of the original Penn Station. An excerpt:

Inside Penn Station, remnants of the old station are as difficult to spy as stress-free commuters. But at the west gate of NJ Transit tracks 5 and 6, an original brass-and-iron staircase still leads to the platform. Its survival, Turkeli says, is simple economics: It was too expensive to tear out during a mid-'80s renovation.

There are classic plaques and pictures of the old Penn Station scattered throughout the building. But the biggest piece of nostalgia sits in a cramped office, hidden by chairs, cardboard boxes and twin filing cabinets: a 300-pound, baseball-shaped clock that once hung in the station's main room.

Its two hands are missing, and the decades-old timepiece looks every year of its age. To Turkeli's eyes, it remains a thing of beauty.

"Wouldn't it look great hanging out there?" he asked with a wave toward the station.

The article contains a list of a few others:

• Overlooking a wine rack inside Penn Wine & Spirits is a segment of vintage glass bricks, once a floor and now a ceiling.

• Across the hallway sits a storage room, its cracked and stained marble floor a remnant of Penn Station's once ornate men's room.

• An Amtrak baggage station at the far southwest end of the station holds a piece of the last track indicator left from architects McKim, Mead & White's creation.

• On the stairway to Track 17 of the Long Island Rail Road, a woman rushes for the 12:49 p.m. to Port Washington, oblivious to the detailed work to her right: a pair of decorative steel arrowheads, rising up from decades-old glass-wired windows.

"All of this was done by hand," Turkeli says, as if studying the craftsmanship for the first time. "The amount of money you'd have to spend now to create Penn Station is mind-boggling."

Read “Penn Station’s Buried Glory,” by Larry McShane for The Daily News

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The Struggle to Build (New) Penn Station: Jill Jonnes at MAS on Wednesday

Conquering Gotham book cover

Conquering Gotham, Jill Jonnes’s entertaining history of the building of the original Penn Station and its tunnels, concludes: "All these decades later -- as our love affair with cars and airplanes has soured -- there is hope that New York can once again reclaim the grandeur of arriving by train in Gotham.”

Indeed, around one hundred years later New York is attempting to re-conquer Gotham with a new station (Moynihan Station) and set of tunnels (ARC). Whereas the original Penn Station project was driven forward by a single private company – the Pennsylvania Railroad, the current projects involve a multitude of public agencies and private interests.

Recently, the New York Times summarized the state of the city’s “grand development plans in an editorial entitled “Construction and Hard Times.” “Work is slowing, stalling or stopped altogether on too many of the projects we hoped would transform some of the bleakest sections of the city,” it said, crediting a faltering economy and a lack of leadership as the main causes.

In this environment, it is important to remember that the original Penn Station was a roughly twenty year project and a triumph over incalculable odds. Alexander Cassatt, president of the Penn RR, rejected the corruption of Tammany Hall, faced off against the city’s most powerful robber barons, remained unshaken by the persistent attacks of the Hearst media empire, and emerged - along with the sandhogs - to give New York “a monument worthy of his railroad and their city.”

On Wednesday evening, find comfort in the story of the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels. Jill Jonnes will appear at the MAS for a lecture and discussion about how the construction of the first Penn Station can inform the building of Moynihan Station, ARC, and other major civic projects. Here are the details:

Learning From The Past: The Struggle to Build Penn Station

Wednesday, April 23, 6:30–8:00 p.m., at the Municipal Art Society
Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels, wanted to write about “an American success, about a monumental project that everyone would be familiar with.” That she has done. As Gilbert Taylor wrote in a Book List review, “…New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was the visible manifestation of a titanic subterranean project. Its sweeping story…comes together marvelously in Jonnes’s admiring history of the undertaking.” Jonnes’s presentation will include compelling historic images not featured in her book, which closes with the hope that Moynihan Station will be “…a return to the grandeur of the past.

Presented in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center Books. Signed copies will be available at the bookstore following the presentation.
$15, $12 MAS members. Reservations and prepayment required. Purchase tickets online or call 212 935 2075

Here are some links:

Listen to Jill Jonnes talk about Conquering Gotham on NPR

View an interactive graphic and listen to an audio explanation of the tunnel boring techniques 100 years vs. today from the New York Times.

Read “100 Years Later, An Attempt to Re-Conquer Gotham”

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Farley Tax Day Pictures


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