Home Penn Station Previdi: Why can’t we all just get along?

Previdi: Why can’t we all just get along?

by Benjamin Kabak
A set from the next Star Trek movie or an actual rendering of SOM's plans for Penn Station?

Interagency cooperation just isn’t as alluring as SOM’s futuristic dreams for a new Penn Station.

There’s an expensive movement afoot to replace Penn Station with something fancy while moving Madison Square Garden and generally spending billions on something that will have only a minimal impact on actual trans-Hudson rail capacity. It’s drawn support of various urban planning groups, and city politicians have granted the World’s Most Famous Arena only a ten-year occupancy permit as the various stakeholders struggle to develop a plan. There’s no doubt that something should be done to improve Penn Station, but I’m skeptical that spending billions on cosmetic upgrades is the right move.

As the debate over the train station’s future has unfolded this year, Bob Previdi, a fifteen-year MTA vet, has emerged as a voice against the new Penn Station. At least, he has argued, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR should try to work together to improve conditions at the old station. In April, he argued for through-running as a simple way to increase capacity, and today, he has an Op-Ed in The Times calling for multi-agency cooperation.

That these arguments need to be put forth in the first place speaks volumes about the provincialism of transit agency fiefdoms in the city, but let’s set that aside for now. Here’s Previdi’s argument:

Let’s face it, though. A new Penn Station, if it happens, would take billions of dollars, agreements between the federal government and multiple agencies of three states, and a decade if not more to accomplish. (Amtrak is expected to move across the street to the Farley Post Office by 2035.) Rather than wait for all of that to unfold, there are a few simple things those entities and Madison Square Garden should do now to improve the experience for the unfortunate 440,000 intercity and commuter rail passengers who pass through the station’s claustrophobic maze every weekday…

As a starting point, the executives of the three railroads that operate out of the station — Amtrak, which owns it, and New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road — should put their heads together to develop a plan to provide seamless customer information and ticketing. Now, New Jersey Transit operates on both the Seventh and Eighth Avenue sides of the station, Amtrak on the Eighth Avenue side, and the Long Island Rail Road below West 33rd Street, where the subways are. For all of the infrastructure issues that plague the station, the biggest problem for passengers is that each rail line operates as if the other two don’t exist. To navigate the station, you need to know where to buy your ticket and which monitor to watch for your train. Good luck if you’re not familiar with the station and its catacombs…

More visible and universal signs that point people to the various railroads, subway lines and street and building exits would help people find their way. So would maps that show passengers how to find the station’s many retail shops and food outlets. Most malls post maps of their layouts. Why can’t Penn Station have one map?

A more inviting retail atmosphere would also improve the customer experience. Grand Central Terminal, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hired a professional leasing firm to manage the retail mix after the station was renovated in the 1990s. Union Station in Washington did the same thing. Both stations are now hugely successful as inviting retail and restaurant locations. Perhaps Penn Station could be, too. These goals — universal ticketing, access to all arrival and departure information, better signage throughout the station, a more engaging (and perhaps more profitable) retail experience — might seem obvious. The problem is that territorial claims within the station run deep.

It’s hard to put forward an argument against Previdi’s claims. I’ve tried to find one and can’t. It would be nice to have a Grand Public Space to welcome Amtrak riders into New York City, but that won’t happen for decades and at a steep cost. In the meantime, every politician worth his or her salt should be pushing Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR to the negotiating table and forcing them to stay there until this is resolved. If the MTA could be pressured so easily by two state governors to hand out refunds over a temporary partial service outage, surely we can act to resolve some of Penn Station’s more fixable and obvious problems.

The problem with inter-agency cooperation is that, ultimately, there is no ribbon-cutting. There is no monument to the lasting legacy of the politicians who fought for the cause or delivered the funding. There’s an uptick in traveler appreciation and a corresponding downtick in stress and inconvenience, but that’s about it. Before we spend billions, though, let’s see what we can do with Penn Station spending just a few million and trying to cooperate. It’s a lesson we all learned in kindergarten.

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John-2 October 2, 2013 - 1:08 am

It’s far more fun for planners to care about Penn Station as a building site, for what grand scheme they can affix their imprint to, as opposed to actually caring about those doohickeys that come in and out of the basement through the tunnels. Which pretty much has been the problem with rail mass transit in New York since after World War II — it’s just not ‘exciting’ enough for key people to care about working to maintain infrastructure and/or increase the capacity of what’s there.

That’s more the grunt work, but if the grunts don’t have support from the higher-ups, the dull stuff (including forcing the various agencies to stop protecting their turf and co-operate) just doesn’t get done. Better to dream about a mega-terminal that might dwarf the Calatrava porcupine in cost but won’t add a single train to the current LIRR/Amtrak/NJT capacity at Penn Station.

AlexB October 2, 2013 - 2:09 pm

City Planners are called that because they plan cities, not government bureaucracies. It’s a function of their job responsibilities and skills, not their egos or what they think is most or least fun.

John-2 October 2, 2013 - 4:53 pm

Going by the concept designs for Penn Station, coming after the Calatrava PATH station situation and what originally was planned for the Fulton Transit Center, it appears when it comes to mass transit hubs, the bulk of thought goes into pleasing the elected bosses, by focusing on the area those bosses care about, which is the designs above platform level.

That may be more of a problem of the egos of the people who are elected than the planners who have to come up with the design options, but the general attitude has been form-over-function, and it doesn’t matter if it improves passenger flow or capacity, as long as it looks spectacular.

Nate October 2, 2013 - 10:20 pm

The concept designs you are referring to were commissioned in a purely speculative, “what-if” manner by the Municipal Art Society, a private non-profit focused on aesthetics in urban life (street furniture design, etc). Since the schemes were only ever going to live in graphic form, with no client, no public hearing process, etc., the firms that were invited to participate understandably concentrated on image and spectacle.

There aren’t city planners to blame here, nor bureaucrats — the city and its officials weren’t involved. There has been no officially sanctioned request for design concept proposals by the city, nor the operators or owners of Penn Station. So I think while you have some valid points, you’re making a bit of a stretch regarding elective bosses. The architects were simply after pleasing themselves and their audience at the MAS. It goes without saying that the design brief and the client — in addition to a good architect — are usually necessary to make good design (i.e. the Path station isn’t ALL Calatrava’s fault, just a good chunk of it.)

al October 3, 2013 - 3:06 pm

PATH terminal price tag includes a large amount of underground infrastructure shoveled into that charge account. The PA shoveled the bills, including turing the 1 train tunnel box into a column supported structure while trains rumbled through, under that carpet.

AG October 2, 2013 - 10:42 pm

correct reading of the situation!!

Matt October 2, 2013 - 1:33 am

Why can’t we do something both functional and beautiful (read: in the style of Grand Central and the Old Penn Station). These futuristic looking designs are ugly and don’t appear to be functional. Today’s ‘isms are tomorrows wasms. How do I get from the floating saucer to the tracks?

John t October 2, 2013 - 8:57 am

He has a good point, and no matter what the agencies can & should work together for the good of everyone (but for some egos).

Still, MSG is an eyesore and an oppressive building over the station. A new building doesn’t have to be a waste of money (like PATH at WTC), and there could even be a skyscraper or two that would use the airrights as well, and even if sharing that same block they would still not press down on the station way MSG does today.

Timur S October 2, 2013 - 9:39 am

Still, the issue that narrow platforms and even narrower stairs pose won’t be resolved by shifting and combining bureaucracies. If the ridership will continue to increase, something would have to be built, to safely accommodate more people. Its a stretch but, doing nothing may as well be a bigger crime than building something. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it needs to be functional. What is not functioning now are; narrow platforms and, limited waiting areas for commuter rail passengers.
The proposed designs are OK, as they address the current issues, what is not OK, is that they waste space and consequently money, take that skylight above, its nice, but I see thousands of square feet that can be used for better cause.

Bolwerk October 2, 2013 - 10:53 am

But it can be fixed by shifting and combining platforms.

Timur S October 2, 2013 - 11:26 am

But won’t that limit the number of trains that can access the station (TPH)?

Bolwerk October 2, 2013 - 12:01 pm

Without through-running, yes. Through-running can increase TPH though.

AlexB October 2, 2013 - 2:12 pm

And almost as important as through running is the fact that wider platforms with more stairs will allow people to clear the platforms more quickly. This increases TPH by speeding up boarding and alighting.

Mike October 2, 2013 - 11:33 am

You can’t shift and combine platforms with MSG in place. The support columns holding up the Garden can’t practically be moved.

Bolwerk October 2, 2013 - 12:07 pm

If two platforms are combined, the support columns can stay and people can walk between them. Pic.

John-2 October 2, 2013 - 1:19 pm

You would have the option sometime in the future of tearing down 2 Penn Plaza and the Seventh Avenue end of Penn Station and redoing/widening the platforms there and repositioning the columns for a new Madison Square Garden. Once that was built, the old Garden could come down and the Eighth Avenue end’s platforms could be widened and the remainder of the station could be built (including, if desired, the glass atrium all the design concepts seem focused on).

You’d only have a limited number of through tracks at any one time during the construction and platform widenings, but a new station could be built with improved platform space and access, while at the same time keeping the big money-making part of the two-block complex as a tenant (and if you look at the other new arenas which have gone up around the country over the past 20 years, an MSG/Penn Station wrapped in a neo-classical look would be just as feasible as the futuristic design in the above picture and certainly more fan friendly that the current 1960s modernistic thing, which was built the way it was because that was the only way to avoid restricted view support columns in front of seats with the technology available 50 years ago).

bob previdi October 2, 2013 - 11:22 am

Narrow Platforms are not a problem here. There is enough tracks to give enough dwell if all trains ran through the station.
If the agencies worked more closely together – and they already do as I say in the piece, then nobody terminates in the station at least for 90 to 120 minutes during the AM and PM peak. Then each through movement spends between 6.5 and 10 minutes per track if we line each tunnel up with 3 platforms. That is only 12 tracks. I give 1-4 to the empire corridor and 8-12 just for Amtrak and that gives them 15 minute dwell times for 16 peak hour moves. Even with lousy stairs cases the LIRR and NJT can board and alight passengers within 6.5 minutes.
It is about using the existing infrastructure more efficiently – which means we must work harder to change the way the agencies operate within the station.

Timur S October 2, 2013 - 12:28 pm

From the railroad point of view, its fine the way it is now. From the commuter point of view it still takes too long to leave the platform due to the bottlenecks at the platform entryway. Its also not very comfortable to be squished into few tiny stairs, especially when everyone is in the rush to get to work.

bob previd October 2, 2013 - 12:30 pm

Yes, agreed. The railroads don’t care, and it does not mean we should not try to fix a few of the platforms to poke some more staircases through. There are opportunities when Farley opens but getting NJT off of tracks 1-4 will also help. Those are horrible.

al October 3, 2013 - 3:36 pm

3 steps.
1) Move AMTRAK, NJT, and LIRR offices to Farley.
2) Demo and consolidate the space they vacate. The track level gets more elevators, escalators, and stairs to the Lower Concourse (current LIRR level). Extend West End Concourse to cover more tracks. The Lower Concourse becomes an in system transfer and waiting area. All tracks can be accessed from this level.

3) There is contactless fare payment (swipe in swipe out payment operation). All NJT, AMTRAK, MNRR and LIRR stations have fare control with compatible fare media. 2 Man operation for all trains except 1 car trains (1 man) and AMTRAK (2 man empty – 4 man revenue).

Alon Levy October 4, 2013 - 12:33 am

When New York’s commuter trains get as crowded as Tokyo’s, it’ll be time to discuss Tokyo’s fare control system. Until then, have a German barrier-free system.

bob previd October 2, 2013 - 12:24 pm

Under a through-routing operation – All NJ Transit trains go to LIRR territory or Sunnyside, all LIRR go to NJT territory or Kearny Yard or West Side Yard and Amtrak running through would increase dwell times for passengers. I’ve laid this out at pennstationblog.blogspot.com The range would be from 6.5 to 10 minutes for each train movement. That is plenty of time to manage even with the worst staircase set up you can think of. The problems today are caused by too many trains terminating and reversing to go back where they came from.

Walt Gekko October 2, 2013 - 10:24 pm

My plan would take it a bit further:

Assuming shoeing and cantenary (with the next generation of train cars) allows for it, trains can go on the LIRR from Jamaica or further east all the way to Trenton while NJT trains can in turn go to Jamaica. Besides opening up more areas to many, a big side benefit of this, especially if LIRR trains originated in Trenton with NJT (maybe even as a joint venture?) would be that people who ride SEPTA from Philadelphia (and as far south as Wilmington with a change of trains at 30th Street) to Trenton who are looking for spots on Long Island could potentially be able to ride from the southern terminal at Trenton all the way to Long Island.

Where this would be the most useful would be if down the road, Belmont Park becomes a “Racino” like Aqueduct is. That would potentially allow for trains on a daily basis potentially from Trenton to Belmont Park. It might be a long ride, but it would be a one-seat ride as well. As it is, such a train on Belmont Stakes Day would be very useful.

Erik October 2, 2013 - 10:36 am

The problems identified in the article are tangential at best.

What % of total rides in an out of Penn Station are made by riders new to the station as opposed to daily commuters in LIRR and NJT and weekly / frequent users of Amtrak?

What % of total ridership involved a dual-system connection (e.g., requiring cross-ticketing)?

I’m curious as to the answer but I am confident that that the first is very low and the second is negligent.

The real problems that impact the majority of riders are related to station capacity and design. And the retail options, which should help to improve whatever the transit experience it, actually make it worse (Grand Central does do a much better job).

In order to alleviate the real issues Penn Station needs to be physically revamped. I agree that a simple, open, elegant building is preferred over anything designed by a starchitect. Starchitecture is about screaming “hey look, I used the newest building materials, CAD software, and design fads to do something no one has ever seen before!”, which all too often leads to an ugly building in 30 years time once the wow factor wears off. Honestly, look at design from the 80s and how dated it looks. What we need is a neo-neoclassical architecture movement that used classic, reliable designs and uses technology and materials to bring down building costs instead of pushing them UP by having novel (and custom) materials that need a specially trained crew to assemble them.

Either Penn Station needs to be rebuilt or the agencies do need to come together and decide that Grand Central is the real gateway to NYC and make Penn a option for convenience sake. LIRR East Side Access will put this theory to the test relatively soon. I will be interested to see how many LIers opt for Grand Central even if it makes marginally more sense geographically to take the trip to Penn Station. I can’t wait to study those new ridership patterns. In the meantime the effort for inter-agency cooperation should focus on station sharing and defeating those ridiculous LI politicians who insist that Metro North should NEVER enter Penn Station. Get on the same page. Route the trains. Give options. Balance the system.

Bolwerk October 2, 2013 - 10:52 am

The major point here is through-running to stop the agencies from working at cross-purposes with each other in a busy inner-city terminal. It buys at least some extra capacity and reduced wait times at Penn.

Maybe you’re right about the small stuff (ticketing, maps, shared administration). Still, I think that makes the experience easier/more pleasant.

The best part: none of the above is very expensive.

Mike K October 2, 2013 - 10:57 am

All excellent points and just a few that I would like to ad:

The M9 railcar is said to be designed with dual running third rial shoes that will enable use on both LIRR and Metro-North for the first time.

Along the same vein, from a capacity standpoint, noting that line consists of four tracks approaching from Jamaica, expanding to 21 at Penn Station and then reducing to two from the Hudson until the Portal Bridge effectively – how much efficiency can be gain with through-running?

It seems to me at a glance, two out of the four LIRR (Amtrak) East River Track must dead-head at West Side Yard, no matter what.

Can that two-track line from Jamaica to Newark eek out a higher TPH with through-running to Jamaica for NJT and Newark (or EWR) for LIRR?

(at the same time opening up both secondary CBD’s to a much larger employee pool?)

Is there dead-head space at Newark? I am confident Jamaica has yard space, but not Newark.

What will it cost to extend the third rail out to NJ? (along with it’s accompanying power substations and facilities?)

I am curious for your thoughts, Erik – 🙂

Mike K October 2, 2013 - 11:08 am

It would be nice for a regional railcar to be developed along the lines of the M8 New Haven Line car – Dual Voltage Catenary and a third-rail shoe.

The only modification would be a dual running third-rail shoe.

The car could then run on multiple systems:

LIRR – with under-running third rail

MNRR – with over-running third rail

New Haven – with 12.5 kV 60 Hz AC Catenary

NJ Transit, Amtrak & Shore Line East – 25 kV 60 Hz AC Catenary

With modern in-cab signaling for all those systems, we will move towards a regional system – the engineers and conductors will have to learn some new tracks and facilities, but it seems that the CSX and NS crews don’t fret with learning trackage and facilities on much larger networks.

bob previdi October 2, 2013 - 11:36 am

Right on. All true. All important. All cost a lot less then building more infrastructure then we can afford. This is the direction the agencies should be working towards. This story is not unlike the old PCC trolley cars that General Motors lobbied congress to force the trolley companies to buy during world war 2 when industry and jobs and ridership were increasing. GM wanted to focus on tanks and jeeps and the different specs of the transit agencies they found to be a hardship.

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:38 pm

Actually, you left out “Amtrak south of New York”, which is 12 kV 25 Hz AC Catenary — and so are parts of NJ Transit.

Also, MNRR is the underruning rail and LIRR is the overrunning rail.

The multiple systems are complete insanity. Furthermore, for the long distances which these lines run, third rail is an electrically inefficient solution; and the Empire Corridor is going to need to be wired with catenary eventually. Everyone should convert the long routes, slowly, to 60 Hz overhead. Some third rail may still be necessary for in-city running on Metro-North and LIRR… but this should be standardized to a single type, probably the LIRR type, since the MNRR type is extremely uncommon worldwide.

Walt Gekko October 2, 2013 - 11:33 am

If you can do it and have the necessary equipment to do it, it would be great to see where a train could run through Penn Station starting at Jamaica and even perhaps running all the way down to Trenton on NJT. A dual third-rail shoe and dual cantenary would make this possible and as noted open up additional CBD’s along the way. You could conceivably as well even have for instance on certain major race days have service run on such a route and continue past Jamaica to Belmont Park. For Belmont Stakes day and if Belmont ever gets the Breeders’ Cup (though for the latter, laws would have to be changed to allow for night thoroughbred racing in New York State and lights would have to be installed at Belmont Park), such would make it very easy to have special trains start in Trenton (or if you ever have a situation like Smarty Jones in 2004, even Philly) with the train going straight through starting at Trenton and going straight to Belmont Park, making many stops along the way and eliminating the need to change trains at Penn Station. That’s just one example I could think of.

SEAN October 2, 2013 - 11:38 am

Part of the ARC project included a reconstructed portal Bridge wich would have expanded the ROW to four tracks between the Hudson tubes & Secaucus Junction, a distance of about four miles. Regardless of ones opinion of that project, doubling the number of tracks through that stretch was such a nessessity, that to believe otherwise would be stupid.

The upshot of such a realinement includes the possibility of the through running of trains so desired by many on this sight including myself. However if you are going to through run between Jamaica & Newark Penn, you might as well extend that service to Newark Airport to maxamize utility.

bob previdi October 2, 2013 - 11:31 am

The arguments made in this piece represent what is wrong with how the station is run. What happens at track level is more critical then at the mezzanine. No trains, people can move. I’ve done another piece at pennstationblog.blogpot.com that talks about through routing and the opportunity to take advantage of the west side yard to improve the operation, give riders more options to reach more of the metro region and reduce the cost of the next Hudson River Tunnel.
This Op Ed is not about the number of through passengers – it is about 2 things. One – how any passenger arrives at Penn and makes their way through the station efficiently getting tickets and finding their departure track without getting lost. The more people don’t get lost – the more the existing space is used efficiently. The same idea with the trains. If we eliminate trains crossing each other’s path as they do when they terminate and originate their trips at Penn – then we can make the station tracks work more efficiently. visit pennstationblog.blogspot.com for more details.

Rob October 2, 2013 - 3:39 pm

Re “how any passenger arrives at Penn and makes their way through the station efficiently getting tickets and finding their departure track without getting lost.” – any documentation that this is not proposing a solution looking for a problem? Are people as really as stupid as you assume? Are they dumber than they were in 1910, 1945, and 1968?

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:30 pm

The layout of the station made sense prior to its demolition. Now, it doesn’t make sense. The people of 1910, 1945, and 1968 would be saying “what the hell” at the current layout. Some of the people of 1968 actually *did* say that.

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:33 pm

I should explain this more clearly. The original station design featured an “arrival concourse” and a “departure concourse”, with the waiting rooms (on ground level) feeding into the departure concourse and then onto the platforms, and the platforms feeding into the “arrival concourse” and then into the waiting rooms.

The current situation, with the ground level missing, has completely muddled the arrival and departure concourses, which are now both used for both arrivals and departures. This has reduced the possible passenger flow through the station a lot, while leaving it with a bizarre combination of multiple concourses which don’t really connect well to each other.

Erik October 2, 2013 - 12:37 pm

Mike K (and everybody),

I don’t know enough about the tech specs of the various rolling stock designs to be able to weigh in on through-tracking knowledgeably. I love the idea, but don’t know enough of the details to add anything meaningful.

I can say, though, that even though it sounds like the TECHNICAL problems are workable (per the comments here), that’s not the problem. The one thing the article does get right is that the far larger problem is an ADAPTIVE one.

A technical problem is one where everyone agrees that X is a problem and you can assign a group of engineers to study it and say Y is the solution. In an adaptive problem, either you can’t get groups to agree that X is a problem or you can’t get engineers to agree on a solution or you can’t clear the various political hurdles that interested parties and groups throw at the problem.

The “real” technical solution is easy: combine the three organizations (LIRR, MTN, NJT), along possibly with the MTA, and create a truly regional FUNDING system that will then have incentives to get it right. But that’s not the way transit if run in and around NYC. Fiefdoms rule. Everyone fights everyone else for scraps.

The new “Metro NYC Regional Transport Authority” would also compete with the Port Authority. If it were included within the PA, well, that would be its own disaster, but it it weren’t, the PA would prevent it from ever happening. But absent such a solution, not one of these agencies will want to host each other’s trains or spend money on rolling stock updates so that trains can run on another’s lines.

The problem then gets back to the crux of the issue. The municipalities of the NY Metro region date from colonial times. There were actual individual hamlets back then. Today, the town borders are nearly meaningless (Long Island being one endless, borderless ‘burn), all rely disproportionately on a city and its infrastructure that they do their best to underfund (thanks, white flight), and the state borders cause even more problems. Good luck solving all that!

For what it’s worth, after growing up on Long Island (as if you couldn’t tell) and living in the city for 13 years after college, I moved to Boston 2 years ago. Part of that was seeing all my friends decamp for the suburbs (or other cities) and in addition to being an urbanite who would like to raise a family in an urban environment (and we can’t really afford NYC with a family), I got front-row seats into all the problems that the lack of addressing these issues have caused in my friends lives and marriages.

I voted with my feet. The MBTA isn’t perfect, but at least the Boston area works more regionally. It’s interesting because Boston tried to pull off a grand unified city just like the 5 boros around the time of NY unification, but failed. Large chunks opted out: Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Newton. The end result is that although some things are more frustrating (like having so many zoning codes), it forced the surrounding communities to work jointly with Boston and the MBTA from the beginning of transit. It also helps that, even though Boston does pull commuters from New Hampshire, that most of the system is in a single state. The unexpected consequences of history!

Mike K October 2, 2013 - 4:48 pm


After several years of intimate involvement in transportation projects in both NY and NJ, most people I have interacted with have told me that “we” dont want our priorities dictated by “those” people.

In the of Light rail, NJ is embracing in strongly and NY wants no part – however, ESA got built and ARC was cancelled.

Another difference is the law that motorists must STOP for a pedestrian in a crosswalk in NJ, but only need to YIELD in NY. The differnce becomes very clear in Bergen County, where the NY License plates blow through crosswalks with pedestrians in them, simply because they don’t get tickets in NY.

In all, would the super NYCMPO set planning policy for the entire region? If yes, then some local control will be lost (which was one of the reason the Tri-state planning commission was disbanded.)

Erik October 2, 2013 - 12:41 pm

One more thing: I agree that train efficiency and capacity is more important that the station experience, however I do think that Penn Station is reaching capacity above track level. I still do a great deal of work in NYC and either have to come in during rush via Amtrak or come in during rush via LIRR if I am staying there.

It’s a madhouse. Not that GCT is not at 8:30am (although Penn is worse), or that there should be space and unlimited comfort for passengers (get real!), but currently it’s enough to off-put a lot of people from using the system, and the worst solution of all is for people to decide they are better off driving!

AlexB October 2, 2013 - 3:01 pm

“What we need is a neo-neoclassical architecture movement that used classic, reliable designs” I fundamentally disagree and think that such a building would do a terrible disservice to our city, much like the bland WW2 memorial in DC. There are plenty of ugly modern buildings in NYC, but there are also a growing number that have stood the test of time. The cost of union labor dwarfs the cost of materials, making material selection not nearly as important as you might think. The way you minimize costs is you build as much of the building offsite as possible and make sure it can be assembled quickly and efficiently on site.

titusjon October 2, 2013 - 3:23 pm

If not rebuilt, Penn Station should at the very least be completely refurbished. Doing away with separate waiting rooms/ticketing areas for NJT/Amtrak/LIRR and creating a unified underground space would go a long ways towards improving interior circulation (if not up and down the stairs, at least between the outside and a given stairwell). Though Amtrak would have to give up their useless ticket prechecking and NJT their recently refurbished boarding area.

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:28 pm

” Doing away with separate waiting rooms/ticketing areas for NJT/Amtrak/LIRR and creating a unified underground space would go a long ways towards improving interior circulation ”

Yeah — unfortunately the layout, which partially dates from the torn-down Penn Station, doesn’t allow for a unified underground space. There are all kinds of “holes” in the layout which means that the corridors will always be a maze unless completely rebuilt. See, the waiting rooms and ticketing areas were supposed to be one level *above* all these corridors….

“Though Amtrak would have to give up their useless ticket prechecking and NJT their recently refurbished boarding area.”
Amtrak needs to give up the ticket prechecking anyway.

Alon Levy October 2, 2013 - 4:32 pm

You’re asking the wrong questions. It doesn’t matter what proportion of total present ridership involves through-riders, but what proportion of the potential travel market does. Because through-travel is such a miserable experience, the rail mode share is lower than what it can be and the total volume of people commuting from Long Island or Queens to Newark or from New Jersey to Queens is reduced.

And if you look at the travel market, it’s quite large: 150,000 people (vs. 100,000 LIRR riders, 75,000 Metro-North riders, and 67,000 at their respective Manhattan termini). This includes every through-market, even ones not directly addressed by Penn through-running, of which the largest is people living in Jersey or Westchester and working in Brooklyn. However, even excluding Brooklyn, Jersey City, and the Erie lines, we’re talking about nearly 100,000 people, with 30,000 working in Queens alone.

The potential travel market is likely to be much larger. Because all commute options between Queens and Newark are miserable, fewer people undergo such commutes. Newark residents look for jobs only in Newark, Jersey City, Manhattan, suburban New Jersey, and maybe in inner Brooklyn if they can tolerate the PATH-subway transfer. Likewise, Queens residents look for jobs in the city (except for unreachable areas like Staten Island and the Bronx) and perhaps nearby parts of Long Island. The opening of easy Newark-Jamaica travel changes all this, and enlarges the volume of potential riders.

By the way, the same logic underlies my support for a tunnel from Staten Island to Manhattan. The present travel volume is 53,000 commuters and an additional 29,000 commuters from Staten Island to Brooklyn, who’d have a relatively easy transfer to Downtown Brooklyn in Lower Manhattan. This is not enough to justify the cost of 8 kilometers of underwater tunneling, at any city’s construction costs (though world leaders in low-cost construction such as Istanbul would come close). However, cutting the Staten Island-Manhattan commute length so much would encourage more development around St. George and the SIR stations, specifically geared toward people working in Manhattan, while encouraging Islanders to look for jobs in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Downtown Brooklyn rather than in the suburban parts of the Island or in New Jersey. If the total travel volume doubles, then the tunnel starts looking more financially justified.

Mike K October 2, 2013 - 4:51 pm

I personally know many people that live in NJ that have turned down jobs in Queens and vice versa.

AG October 4, 2013 - 7:30 pm

Me too!!

Matter of fact I know someone who just quit a job in the Bronx because they couldn’t take driving from Queens… and didn’t want to take the long train route through Manhattan… This person would have been a perfect candidate for Triboro RX.

Daniel October 2, 2013 - 12:59 pm

It looks like there’s at least some small headway being made that would take things in this direction: Combining Metro-North’s Penn Station Access with NJ Transit cooperation.

MNR already cooperates with NJT on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines, which serve Penn Station. If MNR wants to add service from Penn Station along the New Haven line, it should do so by adding through-train service from Jersey to Penn to CT. This would add MNR service without a need to expand Penn Station, since these would be trains that already arrive and depart Penn regularly anyway.

MNR is exploring this option. There was a “Connecticut Presentation” in March of this year which discussed the potential benefits of Penn Station Access. On one slide, they mention that “thru-running between the New Haven Line and New Jersey Transit could link Connecticut and New Jersey business centers and provide access to Newark Liberty Airport”. Hopefully they’re serious about this.

Once that’s up and running, if it ever gets up and running, it could cause people to ask why the MTA doesn’t try the same for LIRR/NJT through service.

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:26 pm

That would be great. The answer to the question, of course, would be “LIRR doesn’t play nice with others”.

Spendmore Wastemor October 2, 2013 - 11:57 pm

I’m not conversant with the technical aspects of exactly what needs to be done, but some things are bloody obvious, even to a curmudgeon like Spendmore Wastemor (I’ve left off the final e in the interest of efficiency).

All renovations to the current Penn Station above track level should be accomplished by dynamite. Dump truck and loader may assist.
Spending to tink around with the sewer system known as Penn Station is waste, because it will still be a sewer.

This one’s going to be expensive, but if it’s done with income plus a bit of uniqueness/style in mind and not as a mere vanity project it should work. Make it a modern GCT or Penn and put a high traffic structure on top of the station. Perhaps move MSG back there into a new, larger facility with a hotel stacked on top. A stadium gains more value from being bang on top of the train than does yet another office tower. Have the footprint above 100ft or so be half that at ground level, so it’s not blocking all light from the west.

Alon Levy October 3, 2013 - 1:44 am

Okay, so you’ve dynamited the station. There’s rubble falling onto the tracks, which are now unusable. What do the trains that need to go through the station do?

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:25 pm

Knock out, then daylight, one pair of tracks at a time.

johndmuller October 5, 2013 - 1:10 am

I thought that many of the problems and/or solutions have been called into question – except, of course for the lack of an uplifting experience.

We have had it reported that there are only 3 or 4 trains per hour per track, and that the passengers from unloading trains clear the platform and the train exits the station (usually forward) in a matter of only a few minutes. With that kind of tempo, one track could handle a half dozen trains per hour of inbound traffic without much trouble; it would probably even be OK if trains sometimes came in on both sides of a platform within a few minutes of each other.

Regarding the outbound trains, I have no idea why they can’t announce at least the platform if not the track in advance. First of all, I have to think that they must at least have a plan where each train is going to go. If an NJT train is coming through from Sunnyside, its track destination should be locked in before it even gets into the tunnels, otherwise there could be logjams while a train waits for a path to be determined. If they match up trains and platforms in the plan and alternate which side successive trains use they should be able to give people decent lead time and still be able to handle minor glitches without stranding platform loads of people on the wrong platform. The same logic applies to LIRR trains coming from the yards.

As for the through running relieving congestion, it seems that the trains themselves are already through running for the most part, albeit into the yards; some of the NJT trains certainly could pick up passengers and take them through the East River tunnels (which they are already doing anyway) to Jamaica wherever, power pickups allowing. The other direction may pose some problems. Unless NJT uses tracks 1-4 to park trains all day, they most likely are sending them back through the Hudson river tunnels as counter-peak trains, probably satisfying whatever need there is for reverse commuting without needing LIRR trains. There is also a limited supply of tunnel slots, especially to the west.

I wouldn’t know if there are capacity limitations due to the switching network; the dance involved with interspersing through and crossing trains must be quite complicated, especially if/when the schedule breaks down.

The dance of passengers through the various territories above the tracks could likely be improved, as many have said, by having more access to the tracks and less partitioning of that access.

That leaves the building …

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:24 pm

” It would be nice to have a Grand Public Space to welcome Amtrak riders into New York City, but that won’t happen for decades and at a steep cost. ”

It could be done in a year if anyone cared. It could be done for a reasonable price, except that all construction in New York City costs a completely unreasonable amount.

In the meantime, I will carefully arrange for my pleasure trips to go to pretty much any city other than New York. This is partly because New York has the worst major-city railway station after Phoenix. It’s also because New York has the least handicapped-accessible urban rail system in the entire United States, by a very large margin, and seems to be trying to have the least accessible system in the world. It’s also because New York has completely inaccessible taxis….

New York is a “can’t-do” city these days. I don’t really know why. Pretty much any other big city government, except perhaps Detroit or Birmingham, AL, would be doing better.

Anyway, through-running is great, and absolutely necessary, but no substitute for improved *passenger circulation*.

AG October 8, 2013 - 9:16 am

“in a year”? except that is completely unrealistic to expect that to happen so quickly in NYC. NYC has many problems – but you make it seem as if it’s a black hole. Strange since it’s the only city not in the sunbelt that is currently at it’s all time high in population and total jobs. Not to mention it leap-frogged other cities as tourist destinations and continues to add faster. So that means that in spite of many things – it’s public transit must be fairly adequate… and ppl still want to live and visit it.

As to international cities – well quite simply – we don’t have the government structure of Hong Kong – Singapore – Shanghai etc. etc. The Moscow system is probably better run than NYC too… but where would rather visit?
London certainly has a “better” system of things… but ppl in London save up all year just to visit NY to shop because it’s “cheaper”… but they’ll gladly go back home for the healthcare… Everything is relative in life.

I’m sick of politics in NYC – but let’s put some things in perspective. Comparing NYC to Detroit and Birmingham, AL is a little much. Currently, the company building the “All Aboard Florida Railway” – just struck deals to build 2 stations – 1 in Miami and at 1 at the Orlando International airport. Well for one they are building from scratch and in places that have nothing of note there.. 2)land in Florida is much much cheaper 3)even though they are going btwn the 2 population centers in the state of Florida – they will see a fraction of the volume that Penn Station does by itself. It doesn’t serve any purpose to compare.

San Fran – their Transbay Center is way way over budget and behind schedule. CA High Speed Rail mounts new problems by the day… and on and on. The DC Metro and new streetcar system (problems with routes and cost projections). Toronto’s problems with deciding how to expand their system (whether subway or light rail – where to go and how to pay for it). It’s not unique to NYC that political problems cause delays and cost issues with transit.


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