During the 1960's, in a great lost battle of the historic preservation movement, the Pennsylvania Railroad's magnificent Penn Station at New York was demolished to permit air rights development of an office building and a new Madison Square Garden. Station facilities in the "new" Penn Station were housed in a sterile, subterranean facility that seemed little more than a large subway station. But from that dismal point, things have been steadily getting better for Penn Station, and what is now North America's busiest rail passenger station is now likely to begin the 21st century with an elegant new intercity terminal recalling the original grandeur of the original building that opened in 1910.
The battle to save the original Penn Station was lost in 1963, and the Pennsylvania and its developers wasted no time in carrying out their plans. Demolition of the 1910 structure was begun before the end of the year. Taking down the old building and erecting new ones in its place, while 650 trains and some 250,000 passengers still used the station was not an easy task, and it took the builders 4 years to do it.
Section by section Penn Station gradually disappeared, with the last section coming down during 1966. New foundations were built below track level, and almost 500 new supporting columns for the new buildings were threaded throuhg three levels of operating railroad station. Te new structures were complete by fall 1967. The new Madison Square Garden Center at the Eighth Avenue end of the site seated more than 20,000 in a large 13-story circular building, and there were a smaller 5,000-seat amphitheater, a cimena, exhibition space, and a bowling center as well. On the Seventh Avenue side, the 29-story Two Penn Plaza Building towered over the site.
The new below-ground station that gradually took shape as construction progressed was largely at the concourse level of the old station, except for the Long Island Rail Road facilities, which remained as before on the 33rd Street side at he level of the original arrival concourse, midway between the main concourse and platform levels. The new station was air-conditioned and equipped with dozens of new escalators, more than any other building in the world it was claimed. Six main entrances were provided at street level, and each pair of escalators installed btween the street and concourse level was capable of moving 90,000 persons an hour. The last word in electronic train information boards was installed. Horn & Hardart spent a million dollars for a new restaurant near the waiting room. The new Penn Station was all very functional, but is unadorned, low ceilinged spaces had none of the grandeur of the great rooms they had replaced. Unlike the original, the new Penn Station would inspire neither artist nor writer, nor anyone else.
"Through it one entered the city like a god," wrote Vincent Scully, comparing the old Penn Station with the new in his AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE AND URBANISM."Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat."
Overlooked in all of the anguish over the loss of architect Charles Follen McKim's monumental Penn Station was the fact that it was only the building, the most visible element of the Pennsylvania Railroad's great vision, that was gone. The telminal tracks and platforms, the tunnels, the electrification, and the Hell Gate Bridge were all still there, still functioning as well as ever.
Even as Penn Station was falling to the wrecker's ball, the Pennsylvania itself, no longer the moneymaker of old, was nearing the end of its long history. Seeking the economies of consolidation, the railroad early in 1968 merged with its old rival, the New York Central, to form the new Penn Central Company.
But merger proved to be no solution for the problems of the two railroads. Penn Central ran up growing deficits in every year of is short history, and in 1970 the new company became the largest U.S. bankruptcy ever. From the wreckage of Penn Central emerged government-owned Conrail in 1976. While all of this was going on, another public corporation, Amtrak, had been formed in 1971 to take over operation of intercity passenger services. The Long Island, Penn Station's principal user, had become a government ward itself five years earlier, when the State of New York purchased it from the Pennsylvania.
By the early 1970s, these tumultuous changes in the eastern railroad situation had brought a whole new set of operating conditions to the New York terminal, and they were not ones that made anything easier. Where the Pennsy had once controlled everything that went on in Penn Station, there were now three principal players. One government corporation, Amtrak, ran Penn Station's long-distance passenger trains, while another, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), owned and operated the Long Island. The bankrupt Penn Central owned and operated the station and ran its New Jersey commuter trains.
The unhappy events of the 1960s, it turned out, marked the nadir of the fortunes of Penn Station and the New York tunnel and terminal system; things have been getting better ever since. There was no one "turning point" for Pennsylvania Station, but rather a series of them.
Perhaps the first important step on the way back had been taken way back in the late 1950s, when the Pennsylvania began to think about a high-speed train program for the New York-Washington Corridor. With federal support, the Pennsy initiated a $55 million program to develop new high-speed trains for the corridor. The outcome was the Metroliner fleet that began regular service early in 1969. If they fell short of many of their speed and performance goals, the swift new trains did succeed in bringing some different activity and excitement to Penn Station and the corridor. By their second anniversary in regular service, the Metroliners had transported more than 2 million passengers, and the long decline in rail passenger travel in the corridor had been reversed.
Even more important to the reviving fortunes of Penn Station was the formation of Amtrak. The Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor represented the most important segment of the new national system. Close to 20 percent of the U.S. population lived within this ubanized area along the northeastern seaboard, and more than half of all Amtrak passengers traveled on the Northeast Corridor. And Penn Station, located at the heart of the corridor, was its gateway to the nation's largest city.
Along with Amtrak came a commitment of federal funds to rebuild the corridor for 120 mph speeds, and new equipment to operate it. Even before the work began, ownership of the corridor, together with Penn Station, had shifted from the bankrupt Penn Central to Amtrak.
By the early 1980s, with much of the corridor upgrade complete, Amtrak's improving high-speed services had assured the continuation of the passenger revival in the Northeast Corridor that had begun with the Metroliners. By the end of the decade, Amtrak was transporting more than 11 million passengers there. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak had become the dominant commercial carrier, with close to half of the total air-rail travel market. Together with this reinvigorated corridor traffic, a fleet of long-distance Amtrak trains linked New York with destinations as diverse as Florida, New Orleans, Chicago, and Montreal. For a time there was even a restored through-sleeping car service to Los Angeles. Penn Station stood unchallenged as the principal intercity rail passenger station in North America.
By the beginning of the 1990s, Amtrak was ready to notch up Northeast Corridor speeds once again under an extension of the earlier improvement program. The $1.3 billion Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project of 1991 provided for further upgrade of track and signals for 150 mph speeds, extension of electrification from New Haven to Boston, and procurement of new high-speed trainsets that should begin running late in the decade. These new trains will permit further acceleration of New York Washington schedules; while the new equipment, electrification, and other improvements in the New York-Boston segment should cut running times between the two cities to three hours or less, compared to over four hours under the best current schedules. Amtrak expects this new high-speed service to attract a total of 3 million new passengers a year from competing air services or highway travel.
As Amtrak was rebuilding the intercity passenger services operating from Penn Station, the commuter services using the station were getting a similar overhaul at the hands of new public agencies.
The first revamping was a comprehensive rehabilitation of the Long Island Rail Road. Soon after the LIRR came into state ownership in 1965, the newly established MTA began a $360 million program that would remake the line into a model commuter railroad. Over the next 20 years, the Long Island acquired a new fleet of almost a thousand high-speed multiple unit cars. Its track, power, and signaling systems were upgraded for 100 mph maximum speeds, and the entire railroad was brought to a state of good repair.
The expanded capacity provided by the work came none too soon, for Long Island's suburban population continued to grow, bringing with it ever-increasing traffic into Penn Station. By 1989, the Long Island was accommodating a weekday average of al most 221,000 passengers.
The former PRR New Jersey suburban lines operating into Penn Station came in for much the same sort of rehabilitation. New Jersey Transit, a state agency, took over the lines in 1983, and over the next decade invested some $1.6 billion in equipment and improvements for its commuter rail system.
The work helped NJ Transit meet a steadily rising tide of commuters from the growing suburban communities in northern New Jersey. By 1990, NJ Transit was operating 156 revenue trains daily in and out of Penn Station, with an average weekday traffic of almost 60,000 passengers.
By the beginning of the 1980s, the combination of this growing commuter traffic and the reviving Northeast Corridor intercity business had begun to push Penn Station's daily passenger count towards levels that hadn't been seen for 40 years. By the end of the decade, the 21 platform tracks would be handling a total of some 786 weekday train movements and a daily average of almost 295,000 passengers-and another 100,000 pedestrian visitors-would pass through the station.
A much greater share of this traffic was now made up of commuters concentrated in the morning and evening peak periods. Both the subterranean station of the 1960s and the terminal's basic platform, track, and signal systems were hard pressed to handle it, and Amtrak and the commuter rail authorities began a series of improvements to upgrade both quality and capacity.
In 1984, Amtrak began a two-and-a-half-year, $13 million upgrade of its passenger amenities, followed five years later by a second, four-year, $73 million rehabilitation effort. It was still the same underground station, but intercity passengers had much improved ticketing facilities, waiting areas, and access stairs, and first-class passengers could wait for their trains in a comfortable new Metropolitan Lounge.
Even more extensive improvements were started by the Long Island, which by this time accounted for three-quarters of all passengers using the station.
During Penn Station's two daily commuter peaks, the flow of LIRR trains had reached the full capacity of the four East River tunnels. To decrease congestion and operate additional trains during rush hours, the LIRR reduced the number of empty trains deadheading through the tunnels to or from storage yards on Long Island by building an enormous storage yard and servicing facility on the west side of Manhattan.
Completed in 1986 after four years of construction, this $175 million yard was built on the site of a former New York Central freight yard along the Hudson River between 30th and 33rd streets. Capable of storing, cleaning and servicing 320 LlRR commuter cars, the 20-acre yard has some 25 miles of track, as well as an inspection and light maintenance shop.
Built concurrently was a new north access tunnel, passing under the yard site to link Penn Station with Conrail's west side freight line. This line, acquired and rehabilitated by Amtrak, provided a connection along the Hudson River to Metro-North's Hudson Line at Spuyten Duyvil, and a route into Penn Station for Amtrak's Empire Corridor trains. Opening of this new west side connection in 1991 enabled Amtrak to consolidate all of its New York services at one location, adding 20 daily trains and a million annual passengers to the traffic at Penn Station.
With the East River tunnel capacity rectified, the Long Island next had to deal with platform capacity problems in Penn Station itself before more peak period trains could be added. The problem here was with the exits. Passengers had to walk several hundred feet to get from the front of a train to exit stairs at the center of the platforms. This, together with the limited stairway space, added to the time it took to empty rush hour trains and clear the platforms for other trains. The Long Island solved the problem by building a new west side concourse near the west end of the platforms and beneath the post office west of Eighth Avenue. This was placed at the intermediate level between the platform and main concourse levels, and linked directly to the Eighth Avenue subway station and the street.
Still another major Penn Station improvement came out of a 1988 agreement between Amtrak and New York's MTA, under which the two agreed to jointly finance a new $110 million, six-story control center for the station and its approaches, at Ninth Avenue and 31st Street. Interlocking control was cut over from the four 80-year-old electro-pneumatic plants to new all-relay interlockings, and a computer aided centralized traffic control system began operating out of the new control center in September 1994. When the full project is complete, the control center will have remote control of interlockings throughout Amtrak's New York terminal area. Scheduled for completion this fall, the system will be based in a new operating theater within the center, where it will share space with Amtrak's New York Division Centralized Electrification and Traffic Control (CETC) system.
By late 1991, still another major project was under way at Penn Station to further improve and expand the Long Island's facilities for a flow of commuters that had reached an average of 1,000 every 90 seconds during peak periods. Significant elements of the $198 million project included a new glass-enclosed entrance structure on 34th Street, with stairways, escalators, and elevators leading directly from street level to the LIRR concourse level, and a complete renovation of the connecting concourse under 33rd Street, which links the Long Island's facilities with the Seventh and Eighth avenue subways. Improved passenger circulation was provided by two new corridors for access to the LIRR platforms, one at the center of the station, and another near the Seventh Avenue subway. This work, together with other new stairways, escalators, and elevators, increased the vertical circulation capacity between platform and concourse levels by more than a third.
Completed During 1994, the improvements brought an architectural quality back to Penn Station missing since Charles McKim's station was torn down 30 years before. Design features such as marble wall panels, granite flooring, and a grand barrel arch ceiling over the long connecting concourse under 33rd Street give a richness and character to the spaces. At the Seventh Avenue end of the concourse, at its juncture with the wide corridor leading to the new 34th Street entrance, a sculpture Eclipsed Time by Maya Lin, a clock that marks time based on the concept of solar eclipse, is mounted on the ceiling. In the corridor leading to the new entrance, terra cotta murals designed by artist Andrew Leicester depict the fallen columns of the original Penn Station, while another terra cotta design at the Seventh Avenue end of the connecting concourse replicates the clock entablature that stood above the Seventh Avenue entrance. Still other links with Penn Station's past include a clock from the old building now suspended above the stair ways, escalators in the new 34th Street entrance, and a decorative wrought iron entrance gate incorporated into the entrance to a new LJRR waiting room.
By 1994, still other work was under way at platform level that would further expand LJRR capacity by building a new access track to the west side storage yard and extending the Long Island's Platform 11 to accommodate a full 12-car train with all doors open.
Changes were in store for both NJ Transit and Amtrak areas of the station as well.
Two major NJ Transit projects will bring still more New Jersey commuters into Penn Station. Scheduled to go into service this year is the $61 million Kearney Connection east of Newark, which will allow some trains from NJ Transit's fonner Lackawanna commuter lines to operate over the Northeast Corridor directly into the station. A second, $350 mil ion project, started in 1994 and scheduled for completion in 2001, will build a new Secaucus Transfer station in the Hackensack Meadowlands, permitting passengers to transfer between trains operating on NJ Transit's former Erie lines and its Northeast Corridor trains.
This additional New Jersey commuter traffic, together with planned increases in Amtrak service, is expected to add as many as 10 trains an hour to the Hudson River tunnels and Penn Station platforms shared by NJ Transit and Amtrak trains. Within the station itself, NJ Transit plans to install additional stairways and escalators to handle the crowds, and will spend $100 million to build a new concourse in the southeast quadrant, with its own entrances from Seventh Avenue and 31st Street. Architectural design will be consistent with the recent work in the LIRR area. The work will begin in 1997, and should take three years to complete.
The greatest change of all for Pennsylvania Station, however, may come through an extraordinary project that could create a new intercity station for New York.
The opportunity to do something came out of U.S. Postal Service plans to complete a new mail-handling facility a few blocks away that will vacate part of the James A. Farley post office building on Eighth Avenue. Constructed in air rights directly above the sta tion platforms, the building seems ideally situated to provide the additional space needed to accommodate this growing traffic.
Equally important, the elegant Beaux Arts architecture of the 1913 building, designed by the McKim, Mead & White firm that crafted the original Pennsylvania Station, can inspire creation of a new gateway facility recalling the majesty of the original station.
Plans developed for Amtrak by architects Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum envision the conversion of a mail-handling room in the central court of the building into a Great Hall, with a high skylighted ceiling, housing a waiting room and concourse for intercity passengers, as well as restaurant and retail space. The existing floor will be removed and the new concourse established below street level at about the same level as that in the old station. Stairways, escalators, and elevators will lead from the concourse to the west end of the station platforms, and an inactive mail platform will be converted to passenger use.
New entrances from street level will be established along Eighth Avenue at the 31st and 33rd street corners of the building, with stairways and escalators leading down to the concourse, while a new access ramp will carry automobiles and taxis down to the concourse level. The underground passageway along 33 rd Street will be widened to link the new facilities with those in the existing Penn Station and the subways.
Amtrak has developed a plan to finance the $315 million project, with a third each coming from federal, city and state, and Amtrak sources. The state and local funding seems solid, and Amtrak plans to finance its share through a revenue bond issue. While the outlook for the federal share had seemed uncertain in an austerity-minded Congress, strong bipartisan support from the New York Congressional delegation, and some fancy legislative footwork by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan late in 1995, seemed to have all but assured this final element of financing. At the end of 1995, the federal commitment to the project had reached $77 million. The prospects, then, are good that Pennsylvania Station could begin the 21st century with a restored elegance it hasn't known for many years.
Even as Amtrak and its two Penn Station tenants have been busy rebuilding and expanding their station facilities, planners for the New York metropolitan area have begun to consider imaginative strategies that could give the station an even greater role in regional transportation.
A Penn Station capacity study completed for New York's MTA in 1992, for example , suggested the possibility of new commuter services into the station from the north, operating from Metro-North's Hudson Line via Amtrak's new west side connection, and from Metro-North's Harlem and New Haven lines via Hell Gate Bridge. A 1993 report of the Regional Plan Association proposed a New York regional rail system that might include through-routed services from New jersey via Penn Station and the LIRR to Queens and Long Island points, and via Hell Gate Bridge to New York's northern suburbs. Perhaps Penn Station and Grand Central could be connected, and Metro-North lines through-routed with both NJ Transit and LIRR lines, suggested the planners. A third Hudson River tube into Penn Station was still another proposal.
Early in 1995, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in a joint venture with NJ Transit and the MTA, started work on a two-and-a-half-year Access to the Region's Core study considering alternatives for improved access to Manhattan. Among them is a proposal for a new Hudson River tube that would reach Penn Station and then continue via a new Manhattan tunnel to Grand Central. This scheme would use and expand upon Penn Station facilities and its connectivity to the New York transit system. Direct connections at both Manhattan Stations would permit through-routed services between New Jersey and points on both LIRR and Metro-North.
Whatever specific plans for the future of the New York rail system emerge from these studies, it seems certain that they will place an even greater reliance on Penn Station and its related tunnel and terminal facilities.
Conceived and executed at the beginning of the 20th century, this remarkable work of the Pennsylvania Railroad today fulfills a larger role than ever, and will likely meet even greater demands as it begins the 21st century. Few works of engineering and architecture have met the test of time so well.
Note: This article is adapted from the author's new book, MANHATTAN GATEWAY, a history of the Pennsylvania Railroad's extraordinary New York tunnel and terminal project that gave the railroad direct access to Manhattan and reordered the entire pattern of railroad passenger service to New York City. Published by Kalmbach Books, MAHATTAN GATEWAY is now available.