The Pennsylvania Railroad isn't coming through that tunnel — so how come we keep going through its doors?

If you ride Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor enough, you've probably witnessed the Penn Station mix-up. A conductor announces Newark Penn Station and some passenger — either uninitiated with Amtrak or in a car without great speakers, or maybe both — gets a little frantic wondering if it's New York Penn Station. Amtrak seems to be aware of the problem: I've noticed that many conductors now announce "Newark, New Jersey, Penn Station" just to be clear. This doesn't resolve the problem, but it helps.

Granted, the idea of a few passengers getting a shot of nerves every now and then, or in the worst-case scenario actually missing a stop early, ranks pretty low on the scale of human tragedies. Still the situation got me wondering, recently, why so many stations have bothered to keep the name Penn Station. The Northeast Corridor claims three (New York, Newark and Baltimore); Pittsburgh uses the name too. But private passenger rail in the United States is long gone, and even if it does make a little comeback — well, the Pennsylvania Railroad isn't coming through that tunnel.

The Penn Station name extends from the fact that the old Pennsylvania Railroad built many of these stations back in the early 20th century. At that time, different railroad companies typically used different stations, especially in major cities or towns, so the station usually took the name of the company. If various railroads combined to use the same depot, the place often took the name Union Station. (That's why you see so many of those, too.)

"They're all named for the Pennsylvania Railroad," says historian Albert Churella of Southern Polytechnic State University, in Georgia, and author of The Pennsylvania Railroad: Volume 1, Building an Empire, 1846–1917. "In small towns, people would not have said, the Pennsylvania Station. They would have just said, the railroad station, or the depot, or what have you. They probably wouldn't have given it a formal name."

As private railroads began to fail, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged to become the Penn Central. Some stations then became Penn Central Station. In very short time that situation failed too, giving way to the national passenger rail service we have today. Amtrak now owns most of the old stations — with Newark Penn Station, owned by New Jersey Transit, being an exception — and presumably also the ability to give stations whatever name it wishes.

A spokesman for Amtrak says that while he wouldn't want to say it was impossible for Amtrak to change the name of a station it owns, he certainly didn't know of any such efforts underway, nor would he want to give even the slightest encouragement to the idea that new names for Penn Stations were being considered.

Still, one needs look no farther than Philadelphia to see a precedent for the name Penn Station evolving into something more unique. When the full station entered regular use, back in late 1933, its official name was the "Pennsylvania Station," according to a New York Times report from that day. There were a number of stations in the city, though, and locals referred to the Penn by its street, and over time the railroad accepted "Pennsylvania Station-30th Street" as a moniker. In the Amtrak era it became just 30th Street Station.

Since then, debates about the name have popped up now and again. A 1991 letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer noted the irony of other cities using the name Pennsylvania for their stations, and soon the paper itself endorsed the idea of a "Pennsylvania Station, Philadelphia." Just a few years ago, Pew Charitable Trusts suggested changing 30th Street Station to Benjamin Franklin Station. The mayor liked the idea, but while neither Amtrak nor then-Governor Ed Rendell expressly opposed it, some people objected on the grounds that — get this — passengers might confuse "Ben Station" with "Penn Station" in Newark or New York.

The discussion will become largely moot if the long-awaited Moynihan Station in New York is ever completed. (That station wouldn't be owned by Amtrak, so it would be free from the same name pressures.) Churella points out some logistical problems with changing these names; in the case of Baltimore, for instance, "Pennsylvania Station" is chiseled in granite on the façade, so any re-naming effort would have to obtain permission to alter a registered landmark.

He suspects the name endures for a much simpler reason: tradition.

"There doesn't seem to be any real need to change the name," says Churella. "But I don't know that there's any reason Amtrak has retained the name other than perhaps nostalgia or simply a recognition that everybody's known it as Penn Station."

Top image (Clockwise from top left): Baltimore Penn Station (Konstantin L /Shutterstock); Pittsburgh Penn Station (SeanPavonePhoto /Shutterstock); Newark Penn Station (Daniel M. Silva /Shutterstock); New York Penn Station (littleny/Shutterstock)

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