July is one of the most important months in the 113-year history of Penn Station. Madison Square Garden’s lease above the station expired this month, and the park’s management is insisting it be renewed. At stake is not only Penn Station itself but rail service throughout the entire New York metropolitan area.”
July is one of the most important months in the 113-year history of Penn Station. Madison Square Garden’s lease above the station expired this month, and the park’s management is insisting it be renewed. At stake is not only Penn Station itself but rail service throughout the entire New York metropolitan area.
The New York metropolitan area covers more than 4,000 square miles covering New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and is home to 20 million people. The 2020 GDP was over $1.8 trillion, the most of any metro area in the country. To maximize the productive potential of these 20 million people and provide them with sustainable, world-class transit, a modern rail system needs to connect the entire region together.
The two main points of the rail transit system are Grand Central Station and Penn Station. These two stations were dead-ends for the private railways that collapsed in the mid-20th century. If connected to traffic, it could serve the entire metropolitan area with existing Long Island, Metro North, and New Jersey Transit commuter lines.
The new Grand Central Madison Station (officially East Side Access) brings the LIRR to Grand Central Station and creates access to Penn Station. This new station had four tracks that continue today five blocks south of 42nd Street for cleaning and maintenance purposes. Extend those routes four more blocks, and it becomes possible to use single-seat cross-traffic from New Jersey via Penn Station to Grand Central Madison, and to the Metro North and Long Island systems.
With the opening of Grand Central Madison this year, Grand Central Terminal is almost ready for regional operation. Penn station is not prepared at all. In fact, it’s a potential wreck.
Penn Station serves 600,000 commuters daily and is the busiest rail hub in America. Today it is in capacity. What is most important about a train station is not the appearance of the waiting room but its tracks and platforms. Tracks move trains and platforms move passengers. 21 tracks and 11 platforms at Penn Station today is the most it can handle.
Even worse, the platforms, which mostly date from 1910, are too narrow to handle passengers arriving and departing at the same time. Platforms must be emptied of arrivals before waiting passengers can be allowed onto trains. Not only are the platforms very narrow, but they are obstructed by the many concrete pillars that support Madison Square Garden. Then heavy congestion restricts the movement of trains.
The tracks themselves are in crisis. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused significant damage to the only two tunnels connecting the station to New Jersey. The tracks in each tunnel carry Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. If they fail, it will be a disaster for the entire Northeast. Gateway’s program to build two new tunnels began this year, but there is currently no room for the new tracks and platforms that the new tunnels will bring to the terminal.
Finally, there is a need to rebuild the tracks and platforms to take advantage of Penn Station’s connection with Grand Central Madison and create cross traffic. As they were originally built over 100 years ago, both stations were terminal stations. Trains enter the station on a track and reverse to leave on the same track. This results in a congestion as incoming and outgoing trains intersect at the station entrance. Crossing tracks significantly reduce congestion and increase capacity as trains enter the station on one side of the station and then leave in the same direction to the exit on the other side. The platforms serving the tracks are also wider, allowing passengers to leave on one side of the train while ride passengers enter on the other side. Through the service means that the current requirements for switching passenger lines for travel in the region can be significantly reduced.
By connecting Penn Station to Grand Central Madison Station and using existing tracks and tunnels under the East River, transit through the Long Island and Metro North region can become a reality. However, Penn Station could not be achieved using the century-old relic under Madison Square Garden. As it has happened four times before, the park must move. The argument that there is nowhere near the current site is not serious: 10 large commercial buildings were proposed to fund improvements at Penn Station. These locations still exist, even if the Empire Station Complex proposal fails. MSG has a shelf life of 55 years. The modern park could only benefit from a new, larger capacity Penn station.
The currently discussed design for the waiting platform light proposed by European engineering firm ASTM does nothing to address platform or track issues, let alone service through the area. The plan includes removing the theater at MSG fronting Eighth Avenue and opening up a glass perimeter around the existing park. While commuters will be allowed out to Seventh and Eighth Avenues, the main direction will be Eighth Street, not where most commuters are headed. Most problematically, as current projections show, the southern extension of the station to accommodate new tracks and platforms appears to have been cut. In short, the scheme will make waiting to get off your train on a 113-year-old platform more fun while making serious modernization more challenging.
Achieving integrated, district-wide MTA rail operation requires rebuilding Penn Station to 21st century capabilities. Track rationalized, wider, unobstructed platforms and modern technology could not be achieved in a renovated 1910/1968 structure, particularly not below Madison Square Garden.
It is necessary to transport monosodium glutamate. The issue is money. MSG wants to keep its current lucrative deal going. New York City has been here before. In 1879, Jay Gould had a monopoly on the city’s new elevated train network to avoid expansion beyond dense and lucrative Manhattan. In 1913, IRT operator August Belmont resisted the city’s efforts to extend subway service to new outer boroughs to keep IRT revenue high. The clash between profit and service has been ongoing in New York’s transit history.
Sacrificing a major crossover in the 21st century for a 55-year-old circuit is awful. In the end Jay Gould and Auguste Belmont prevailed in the city. Hope to do it again in July.
Charles Luster is an architect in New York City.