Thursday, March 6, 2008

Penn Station: What do we Really Want?

In previous posts I've discussed the destruction of the old Penn Station and Senator Moynihan's vision for a new Penn Station. In that last post, I pointed out that the benefits of the planned Moynihan Station would be largely symbolic. Yesterday the Observer ran a report on the current troubles that the recession is causing for the plans. So let's go back to the drawing board (for a moment) and ask ourselves, what kinds of benefits could we actually hope for?

I've taken trains from Penn Station on many a pleasure excursion, and I've commuted regularly through there. I'm just one guy, but I do keep my eyes and ears open. The biggest problem I've had at Penn Station is the scramble. Because there aren't enough tracks, the tracks are posted close to departure time. This means that everyone's standing around in the halls (we can't sit because they took the benches out) until the train is announced, and then they all swarm towards the track, anxious to make sure they get a seat. Contrast this with Washington Union Station, or Grand Central, where the tracks are announced half an hour or more before departure. People go sit on the train and wait; it's much more relaxed and restful.

There's not much that can be done about this right now. The LIRR/Grand Central link will help, and so will the "THE Tunnel," to open up some track space. But that's a short-term improvement; the plan is for those tracks to be used up pretty quickly with trains from the LIRR Third Track. The planned Moynihan Station will do nothing for that problem.

One often-touted benefit of the planned station is more waiting areas. It's true that the halls and waiting areas of Penn Station used to feel very crowded. But since the LIRR and New Jersey Transit have expanded their waiting areas and added stairs, they don't feel dangerous or overwhelming anymore. There's almost always enough space. Not really any need for more space at this point - until you get more track.

The connections are good, but they could be better. You can get to the Seventh and Eighth Avenue subways, but the Gimbel's tunnel that connects you to the Sixth Avenue trains has been closed for years. The main entrance on 32nd and Seventh should have a prominent subway entrance, but doesn't. There's no connection to the street at 31st and Seventh; you have to either go out on 32nd Street or the pre-September 11th taxi stand. However, the LIRR has built a connection to 34th Street, and NJ Transit is planning to build a connection to 31st Street near Seventh Avenue. If anything, Moynihan Station would make things worse, because some people will get off the train and be over by Ninth Avenue, far from the subways and shops. Maybe shops will be built by then, but it's a hard sell.

The main thing that the modern Penn Station lacks is high ceilings and sunlight. It's true that there are relatively high ceilings in the Amtrak main hall, and NJ Transit and the LIRR have built some fairly large spaces. But they have almost no natural light, and a large part of the waiting still goes on down in the lower corridors, where the ceilings are low and it's all fluorescent.

This is one thing that Moynihan's plan offered us, and it's a big deal. Can we have it for a reasonable price?


Alon Levy said...

If Penn Station becomes a through station, so that NJT trains immediately continue to the east as LIRR, it could go down to four tracks and still work.

Cap'n Transit said...

Really, Alon? Wow, I didn't know that through-running could be that efficient, but I guess it makes sense. That's the way the RER works in Paris.