Penn Station: A Citizen’s Guide to an American Tragedy
Pennsylvania Station, opened 107 years ago as a great entry to New York City and destroyed in reckless fashion over the past six decades, has become the poster child for America’s crumbling infrastructure; a dubious honor which tragically undersells the magnitude of cultural disaster lurking among its three subterranean levels. Recent media attention on derailments and signal failures may give the impression that the station’s current troubles happened overnight. They didn’t. Penn Station is not an aberration. It is not a dark twist in an otherwise happy story. It is the product of chronic cultural ills and stunning societal failures allowed to fester unchecked for over 50 years. Where hand-carved stone eagles once watched over an acclaimed architectural and engineering triumph, the pigeons of our collective inaction have come home to roost.
To understand Penn Station is to understand America. For better or worse, the station has always been a reflection of the times.
A Product of the Gilded Age
The very reason for the existence of Penn Station stems from the most American of traditions: corporate rivalry. At the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central railroads were economic giants equivalent in power and riches to Google and Facebook today. Their mainlines battled for business between New York and Chicago, while branch lines skirmished in smaller markets across the midwest and northeast. Although the companies were relatively equal in stature and service, the New York Central had one great advantage. By nature of its “water level route” along the east bank of the Hudson River, the railroad gained direct entry into Manhattan. Freight trains served the bustling West Side, while passenger trains called at a series of depots constructed over the years, culminating in the magnificent Grand Central Terminal.
The Pennsylvania (or Pennsy, and please pronounce that PENN-zee) wasn’t so lucky. Its route over the Allegheny Mountains resulted in a western approach to Manhattan with terminals on the New Jersey side of the North River (pardon my personal peccadillo, but in the late 19th century, the lower portion of the river separating New York and New Jersey was called the North River with the Hudson River starting further north). Freight for New York City was transferred to barges and lighters guided by tugboats through New York Harbor, while passengers boarded ferries or rode the Hudson & Manhattan tubes into the city.
Lack of direct access to Manhattan stuck in the craw of Pennsylvania Railroad President Alexander Cassatt (yes, Mary’s brother), while the inequity of the situation delighted the Vanderbilt family whose New York Central had Gotham to itself. Cassatt was determined for the Pennsy to reach Manhattan, and to do so in a manner overshadowing the Vanderbilt enterprise. After dreams of building a railroad bridge from Hoboken to Chelsea, Samuel Rea (Cassatt’s right-hand man) pushed a massive engineering effort which not only lead to the Pennsy tunneling under the North River, but all the way across Manhattan, under the East River and into Queens. Unlike the one way in/one way out design Grand Central Terminal, the Pennsylvania built an electrified through route connecting the Chicago mainline to the west with the Long Island Railroad and the New Haven Railroad to the east (the latter via the landmark Hell Gate Bridge). Atop the subterranean mainline, in an infamous red light district known as The Tenderloin, Cassatt’s dream of a station besting Grand Central in design and efficiency came to life. When completed in 1910, the McKim, Mead & White designed Pennsylvania Station was arguably the most beautiful building in the country. It was a masterpiece of engineering and architecture, with a swagger befitting the Pennsy and America at the height of the industrial revolution.
Public Investment Changes the Game
Of course, by the time Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910, America was already entranced by the automobile. The rapid mechanical advancement of cars, busses and trucks challenged the dominance of the railroads, but it wasn’t until the government entered the highway building business that serious damage was done. The railroads built their own rights-of-way, paid property taxes and updated equipment via their own finances. Private automobile owners, bus companies and trucking firms faced lesser burdens once government-supported highways connected American cities. Airlines later reaped similar benefits at federal, state and municipal levels.
By the 1960’s, the inequity between the cost of railroading as a private concern and its subsidized transportation competitors had taken its toll. Despite mighty Penn Station being just over 50 years old, the Pennsy authorized demolition of the landmark. Beneath the city streets, railroad operations would remain relatively unchanged. On top, the “air rights” would support a relocated Madison Square Garden arena and new office buildings; the Pennsy would profit from the real estate while travelers who once disembarked into a magnificent space would now follow broken corridors through the basement of a sports complex.
The destruction of Penn Station gave rise to the historic preservation movement in New York. It is widely credited as setting in motion the process that prevented Grand Central Terminal from facing a similar fate. That may be the only positive outcome from the demolition, as the infusion of money from redevelopment proved insufficient to save the Pennsy. The company succumbed to bankruptcy and vanished forever, while Manhattan never recovered from the loss of its grand entrance.
Good Intentions, Bad Planning
As the rest of the developed world was learning, passenger trains (just like airlines and bus routes) could not survive without government assistance. In 1971, Penn Station and a sizable portion of America’s sagging passenger network were transferred to a new government entity: Amtrak. It was a Hail Mary effort to save American passenger rail travel.
Salvation, according to the government planners swooping in to help struggling railroads, would come through consolidation. “Rationalization,” a streamlining of infrastructure, was their mantra. While the loss of old Penn Station was an aesthetic failure, at least the trains were still running. What would come next not only led to the five-decade decline of the station but the entire physical plant of the railroad east and west of the passenger platforms, as the aging infrastructure was called upon to carry more and more trains despite chronically insufficient budgets for maintenance or upgrading.
The trouble began in New Jersey.
The North Jersey waterfront once hosted no fewer than a half-dozen rail-to-ferry commuter terminals serving Manhattan. By the late 1960’s, only two remained open: the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad’s Hoboken Terminal and the Jersey Central’s Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City. The Pennsy had closed its own tidewater terminal at Exchange Place in 1962, rerouting those trains to Newark or New York. Commuter trains were money-losers, and the railroads that ran them were sinking into bankruptcy. The New Jersey Department of Transportation became directly involved with the operation of commuter trains, eventually transforming into the public agency we know today as NJ Transit. The strategists at NJDOT were expert in the short-sighted, dark art of rationalization. Communipaw was closed to passengers in 1969, with all trains serving it rerouted on the old Pennsy mainline to Newark Penn Station. There, passengers were expected to transfer to the PATH rapid transit or change trains and continue on to Penn Station, New York. Thus began a 48-year trend of increasing demands upon Penn Station.
NJ Transit, seeking to offer new options for riders while easing congestion at the Hoboken terminal, opened a new rail connection in the meadowlands allowing additional trains from northwestern New Jersey direct access from the west to Penn Station. On the east side, the Long Island Railroad steadily increased service while also building a huge rail yard as an appendage to Penn Station’s west end. Amtrak, seeking consolidation of depots and easier passenger transfers, made significant track changes allowing the national carrier to move all of its trains then calling at Grand Central Terminal to rails on the west side of Manhattan leading directly into Penn Station. This came shortly before Amtrak introduced the high-speed Acela trains and additional Boston — Washington service, that (you guessed it) all ran through Penn Station… which was now a basement mall serving more trains and more people than the original grand building had been designed for.
Had these changes been governed by a carefully executed master plan, the railroad through Manhattan might have been systematically improved and upgraded. Instead, the changes were handled on an ad hoc basis, driven by convenience, cost and the awkward relationship between Amtrak and its tenants NJ Transit and the LIRR. The absolute minimum was spent, with little investment towards improving the aging infrastructure. Worse, funds were not available for basic maintenance. The physical plant designed before 1910, upgraded in the 1930’s and incrementally increased in size during modern times was somehow, some way, expected to cope.
And that was just what was happening at track level.
Upstairs, the station was quickly deteriorating. Amtrak, with a woefully small railroad police force and a dearth of passenger-facing employees, let its portion of NYP (Amtrak’s three-letter code for Penn Station) decline in status from a depressing basement in to something approaching a homeless shelter at the gates of hell. Around the turn of the millennium, NJT and the LIRR invested in new corridors for their passengers while Amtrak rebuilt a few escalators (which actually reduced foot traffic capacity). The resulting patchwork of halls further disassembling the brilliant traffic flow of the original station. With Amtrak apparently indifferent to addressing the overall need, NYP operated as three separate concourses, each with its own issues, and all funneling passengers to the same broken 100-year-old railroad infrastructure.
Politicians understood that there was a problem. Rather than fix it, their plan was to turn the massive Farley Post Office adjacent to Penn Station into a new hub harkening back to the glory days of old Penn Station. Now called the Moynihan Station project (named after a politician, of course) the work has moved glacially slow, and even when finally complete will result in nothing more than a prettier space over the same failing tracks and platforms. A decade ago the State of New Jersey began digging new North River tunnels designed to connect NJ Transit with a planned addition to the Penn Station complex. As is typical of the partisan politics choking progress across the country, one party of politicians started the project; the next party in power ended it. Nothing but finger-pointing has happened since… nothing other than the accelerated deterioration of the entire situation.
If only the problems of NYP were an anomaly. Take a look at the state of things a full 46-years after Amtrak was created, and you will find that America’s passenger rail service lags far behind the rest of the first-world. This is where the story of today’s Penn Station really begins.
Falling Behind the World
Amtrak never really stood a chance. It still doesn’t. While European and Asian countries were experimenting with public or public/private models of improving passenger rail, the United States Congress spent most of the past five decades trying to kill what few trains America still had. As a pawn in a partisan game, the best Amtrak can ever hope for is to be underfunded. They system should have been a crown jewel of American foresight, but it ended up a victim of the two party system. At the very best, one could argue the Democrats usually have half-baked plans to save Amtrak while the Republican’s revere half-crazy plans to kill it. Neither party has a long-term solution.
Arguments over Amtrak funding tend to slide into the same ideological rift that threatens to split the Union, itself. Objectivists and hardcore conservatives view Amtrak as a welfare case covering short falls from ticket revenue with tax dollars. Progressives tend to take a more charitable view of passenger rail as an essential public service, but they have been ineffective at pushing through a cohesive agenda. The greatest victory for Amtrak, the launch of higher-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington, was accomplished with the smallest investment possible. How minimal? The center point of the route (the only close-to-high-speed-rail America has) is none other than Penn Station. That’s right, the tragic failure at the heart of this story is also an integral part of our best passenger rail story.
In the 50 years since the demolition of the original Penn Station head house, Japan expanded its famous bullet train network, France continued to improve the TGV system and China invested in state-supported high-speed rail. America? Not so much. No matter how the rest of the world funds transportation, we continue to force Amtrak to limp along under the constant threat of zero-funding.
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
While the failure of America to fund transportation initiatives has directly impacted Penn Station itself, our fear of spending on infrastructure has lead to the severe deterioration of the right-of-ways leading in and out of Manhattan.
Trains heading east from Newark cross the New Jersey meadowlands on a two-track route built specifically to handle trains in and out of New York’s Penn Station. The rest of the Pennsylvania mainline was four tracks. Why do only two sets of rails venture through the swamps? The Pennsy maintained other freight yards and passenger terminals in the region, with branches radiating out of Newark to those points. Two tracks were sufficient for passenger traffic into New York.
The aforementioned NJ Transit connections added to this stretch of track, along with the new Secaucus Junction station, have dramatically increased the number of train movements through the meadows. Other than a few sidings at the station, the line remains the double-track, specialized use route it was designed for — even though expectations have changed.
Deep in the swamps of Jersey, fast by the shadow of Snake Hill, lies one of the most despised bridges in America: Portal Draw. A “swing” bridge spanning the Hackensack River, Portal dates back to the construction of the line 1910. The structure has been plagued by operational difficulties; burned by numerous fires among its creosote-soaked pilings; and beset by malfunctions that — among other events — derailed an Amtrak mail train into the swamp in 1996. In response, dreams of a one-billion dollar replacement have been floated, but it reality all that has been done is slowing the speed limit of the trains across the bridge.
Lowering train speeds is a common solution railroaders call “deferred maintenance.” Rather than fixing infrastructure (which would cost money), putting up a speed restriction eases the stress on the failing parts and staves off the inevitable repair for just a little longer. (Current riders will note this was the same remedy put in place at Penn Station earlier this year). Of course, slowing trains down means they take longer to travel through an area, and that has a domino effect. If traffic levels were low, it wouldn’t matter as much. The opposite is true. In 2005, NJ Transit estimated 40,000 passengers a day rode across this bottleneck. Today, they estimate 150,000–200,000 people a day are carried over Portal Draw, and that figure doesn’t include Amtrak figures.
If Portal fails, the entire Boston to Washington D.C. Northeast Corridor will be severed. There is no back-up. The best estimate for a replacement is 2024, if the government agrees to fund the project immediately.
Assuming Portal manages to stay intact, the next risk is just a couple of miles east: the North River Tunnels. Attempts at tunneling under the North River wasted a lot of money and killed a lot of people until the Hudson & Manhattan and the Pennsylvania Railroad tubes were successfully completed. The Pennsy tubes are still in use today and like Portal they only support two tracks and there is no back-up. Current riders may not like this tidbit: they really are tubes. After tunneling through the rock under Union City, NJ the tracks lie in iron tubes designed to float in the silt at the bottom of the North (Hudson) River. They were a feat of civil engineering when built and haven’t had significant improvements made since. Whether this is a testament to the quality of the Pennsy’s work or dumb luck is anyone’s guess. As political leaders continue to block alternatives, the tunnels lie aging in the muck. The timer on “dumb luck” is ticking.
Once through the tunnels and into Penn Station proper, everything falls apart. Literally. The switch tracks which give access to the station platforms (known in railroad parlance as an “interlocking”) have been at the center of 2017’s woes. The derailments and track failures that have put NYP back on the front page have occurred in this spot. As Amtrak has admitted, the deterioration of the tracks was well known, but widely ignored. It was something to fix “later” when money was available. Once the derailments happened, Amtrak’s first reaction was to lower speed limits through the station. Just like over at Portal Bridge, trains now take longer to move through the area, creating systemic delays. This is why NJ Transit trains can no longer adhere to their schedules; they can’t move through the interlocking as fast as the scheduled requires.
The signal system which governs movement through the west end interlocking has also been blamed for systemic failures. In fact, the signal system and the tracks need modernization all the way through the station, past the east end interlocking, into the East River Tunnels and out to Sunnyside Yard in Queens. Most eastbound NJ Transit trains move to Sunnyside after dropping passengers at NYP; most westbound counterparts originate in Sunnyside. The reason is simple: there is no place in Manhattan for NJ Transit to store trains between runs. The Long Island Rail Road built a compact yard in Manhattan. NJ Transit did not. Thus, most NJT runs involve traveling through the entire failing physical plant from Portal in New Jersey to Sunnyside in Queens, New York. For an NJT train to negotiate its daily run, all the ancient infrastructure needs to work flawlessly.
Trouble from the Rails, Up
The obvious outcome of an under-funded Amtrak is its under-maintained infrastructure, but that’s only one of America’s ills haunting NYP. The tragedy of Penn Station is also societal. All of our misbegotten plans, fears and inhumanity are on display there seven days a week.
The most noticeable change over the past 20 years is the militarization of the station. Throughout the passenger concourses, travelers are watched over by a large force of soldiers, Amtrak police and city forces armed with machine guns and other large-scale weapons. This is a post-9/11 phenomenon that has played out in many public spaces. One does not need to be well-versed in domestic security to see how the situation at NYP reflects the national dilemma: we are great at funding military expansion but stingy when it comes to investing in our core societal needs. Some people can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. America can’t have adequate homeland security and take care of its society at the same time.
The soldiers on duty are hardly the only military men and women at NYP. The surging homeless population includes what appears to be a growing number of vets (as self-identified by the signs used in panhandling). Penn Station has always had homeless people, but not the extent of today’s problem. Under the Bloomberg administration, options provided for helping the homeless reduced the number of lost souls seeking redemption in the basement. The administrations before and since we not as successful. Today, homeless people are flocking to Penn Station and the adjoining street corners. Public toilets are in daily use as sleeping accommodations, while restroom sinks become makeshift showers.
After an incident this spring when the NYPD triggered panic by tasing a vagabond in the middle of the rush-hour crowd, many commuters mumbled about the need to “clean up Penn Station.” That is not the answer. Instead, New York City has to take ownership of the homeless problem and accept responsibility for it. Whether it is a veteran suffering from PTSD or a person with life-long mental health problems, the moment when leaving them to wander a train station becomes acceptable is the moment our society fails. Moving these citizens out of NYP without a proper program for treatment may address the optics, but not the human need.
The silver lining, as faint as it may be, is Amtrak’s new CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman. An unabashed railroad advocate with decades of experience, Moorman has begun the process to fix what his predecessors declined to. He can’t finish the job unless Congress comes around to appreciating the severity of the issue. Moorman is expected to focus on track and signals within NYP. The tunnels and bridges still sit waiting for political budget approvals. Anti-rail New Jersey governor Chris Christie will be out of office soon. A rail advocate in the Jersey statehouse could help things dramatically, as would consistency in support and funding from New York officials.
Moorman also has the task of changing the way NYP operates. Penn Station, once the envy of cities worldwide, is now a laughing stock of mismanagement. Poor dispatching choices regularly dump 1,500 passengers onto the platforms at one time. Station workers are overwhelmed by simple tasks like making sure escalators are running in the right direction when trains are called for boarding (it is hard to believe how often this doesn’t happen). Amtrak passengers stand in lines that cross the entire waiting room, blocking the flow of people through the facility. A new digital signage system beams train information throughout NYP, but the updates are often unreliable. The digital voice employed to announce departing trains mispronounces over half of the New Jersey station names. Is that a big deal? Maybe, especially for folks with English as a second language. It also conveys something larger and unsaid: that nobody cares. Your train will come when it comes and leave whenever it leaves. The same system that can’t pronounce town names has no soul… and no empathy for you.
Fixing Penn Station will take billions of dollars and year after year of construction. The need is inevitable. It either gets fixed now, or it will succumb to age and cripple northeastern America’s transportation core.
Are we up for the task?
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Robert John Davis is a marketing executive, NJ Transit commuter, railroad historian and past vice-president of the Jersey Shore Commuters Club (which was the last private parlor car service in the east).