A rendering of Moynihan Station at New York's Penn Station
Empire State Development

The $1.6-billion Moynihan Station will be a bright, spacious improvement on Penn Station’s depressing environs—but it will leave many problems unsolved.

New York’s Pennsylvania Station is among the most unpopular places anyone in the Northeast United States has to visit. Today’s station structure, shared with Madison Square Garden, is an urban renewal project from 1963 that replaced a majestic Beaux-Arts building, whose demolition provoked outrage and sparked the historic preservation movement. The late architectural historian Vincent Scully said of the original station, “Through it one entered the city like a god. … One scuttles in now like a rat.” In the current station, passengers have to endure narrow passageways, confusing wayfinding, and a scramble through overcrowded staircases and escalators to reach the tracks.

Passengers wait for track announcements inside New York’s Penn Station, the country’s busiest train hub. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

But now a major overhaul is under way, at a cost of $1.6 billion: Moynihan Station. This project, developed as a public-private partnership and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, began construction last year. It is rehabilitating the James A. Farley Post Office adjacent to Penn Station to turn it into a new station facility for passengers of Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuter trains. Facilities for another commuter system, New Jersey Transit (NJT), will stay where they are.

External view of Moynihan Train Hall (Empire State Development)
Cross-section view (Empire State Development)

Moynihan Station will feature a a vast, skylit courtyard lined by shops and restaurants. A bright and attractive new train hall will be somewhere to stride through, not scuttle. But is this investment really going to fix Penn’s problems? There are reasons for skepticism. Most of the project’s budget prioritizes the station’s form while not addressing the problems with its function.

A train station’s primary function, certainly in New York, is to get passengers between the train and the subway as fast as possible. A station’s form should follow this function. The grandeur of old stations often responded to the functional needs of the steam era and was not just artistic: For example, soaring waiting rooms separate from the station tracks made sense when steam locomotives were belching smoke. In the modern era, the concerns are different.

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) is a venerable institution in and around New York. For almost a century, it has studied and recommended region-wide investment projects, including highways in the 1920s (such as the George Washington Bridge) and more recently, mass transit. In its just-released Fourth Regional Plan, the RPA calls for “a fully integrated, regional transit system” that would “combine three commuter rail systems into one network.”

Today, the situation is the exact opposite. Penn Station’s worst design problem above the track level is that each of the station’s three users—Amtrak, the LIRR, and NJT—treats its part of the station as its own fief. The LIRR has the lower concourse, where ticket machines sell only LIRR tickets and the information screens show no information about Amtrak or NJT trains. Amtrak and NJT use the upper concourse, each with its own ticket offices and information screens.

The result of this inability to share is that the station is confusing. Passengers who arrive at Penn Station often enter the wrong concourse, or the wrong part of the upper concourse, and have to walk down narrow, labyrinthine passages just to find information about their train. Seasoned Amtrak travelers sometimes prefer to go to their train via the lower concourse, but cannot find information about what track their train is on.

Moynihan Station makes this problem worse by moving Amtrak and LIRR to a completely separate headhouse, even farther from NJT.

On the track level, the biggest problem is that the platforms are narrow. Besides leading to crowding, the platforms are only wide enough for single-direction escalators—contributing to the sense of confusion, since the passengers on the platform may need to walk a long distance to the nearest up escalator. None of the recent proposals for improving Penn Station directly fixes the problems at the track level.

Passengers crowd to catch New Jersey Transit commuter trains in Penn Station (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Still, the situation has been improving. Foster Nichols, a former LIRR manager, is now a consultant and a member of the Moynihan Station design team. In the 1990s, under his direction, the LIRR added passageways on the lower concourse. These increased the number of access points to the platforms the railroad uses. (No such provision was made for the platforms used by Amtrak or NJT.) Nichols told CityLab that before the LIRR added these access points, passengers might take 12 to 15 minutes to clear the platform at rush hour; today, it usually takes less than two minutes.

Adding access points to more tracks would allow passengers to clear the platforms faster. Moynihan Station’s Phase 1 just extended one passageway as far as it could go, covering Amtrak and some NJT tracks. Nichols proposed extending another LIRR passageway to make egress from Amtrak and NJT easier; however, this extension did not become part of the plan. The more functional Phase 1 has just finished at a cost of $315 million, a fraction of Phase 2’s estimated cost of $1.6 billion. (Phase 2 is expected to open in 2020.)

The problems on the track level and on the concourses combine to produce another much-hated feature of Penn Station: the scramble. Whereas German and Japanese railroads announce track numbers at stations months in advance, American ones do not announce them until just before the train is scheduled to depart. At Penn Station, as soon as Amtrak, the LIRR, or NJT announces the track of a train, a tidal wave of passengers rushes to the platform, crowding the access points. Fixing this requires both a change in priorities and more punctual trains, so that the railroads using Penn could schedule track numbers in advance and stick to the timetable.

The project’s Phase 2 will even make it harder for Amtrak passengers to reach their final destination in New York City. Penn Station today is between 7th and 8th Avenues; Moynihan’s Farley Post Office site is between 8th and 9th. Subway lines run under 7th and 8th but not 9th, and subway ridership is higher at 7th Avenue. Amtrak is building a nice train hall, but not at the best location.

Then there’s the capacity problem with the tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, which Moynihan Station can’t resolve. Last decade, there was a project to double capacity by adding a new set of tunnels, called ARC; this was canceled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This decade there has been another project, called Gateway, but the Trump administration just rejected an Obama-era plan to give federal funding to the new effort.

There are alternative proposals to Moynihan Station. The RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan endorses the Moynihan project but also calls for future investment in a plan by architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, profiled positively in the New York Times last year. Chakrabarti would use the existing Madison Square Garden structure to enlarge Penn Station proper, creating high ceilings with plenty of light and open space. The problem with this plan is that it would still do nothing about the track level and the scramble. It would improve the station for everyone, but would only address part of the problem with functionality.

All the recent plans for Penn Station seem to assume that function should follow form, rather than the reverse. Moynihan Station is no exception: By moving Amtrak’s facilities a block away from where many passengers want to go, Phase 2 actually makes Penn Station’s transportation functions worse in some ways.

Investments that emphasize function are still possible. Integrating the ticket machines and information screens would make the station less confusing, at almost no cost. Nichols’ proposal to extend one of the LIRR’s concourses to cover the Amtrak and NJT tracks would improve circulation. Making the trains run on time would allow railroads to schedule them on specific tracks in advance and eliminate the scramble, among many other benefits for passengers.

None of these investments would create a monumental train hall like Phase 2 of Moynihan Station, but they’d have tangible benefits. If form follows function, then these, and not a new building, should have the most positive effect for users of Penn Station.

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