Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
To the list of things not to like about Penn Station — the too-low ceilings, the lack of natural light, the unmemorable food — add this: no display map of Amtrak train routes.
From Penn Station, you can take the train to Montreal or Miami or Montana. But if you stand under the departure board, according to Railway Maps of the World author Mark Ovenden, “You can't see a map for love nor money."
"In Europe, in a lot of the big old stations, there were these great big, tiled maps made from ceramic or painted on the wall. There’s one at Bordeaux for example, a massive map of the whole of the south of France," Oveden said.
But in Penn Station, there are advertisements — for food, drink, even train travel — but no map. An Amtrak spokesman conceded there was no wall map, but said you can find the information in other ways.
Ovenden said that's missing the point and an opportunity. The station is a confluence of railway systems — Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the MTA subway and Long Island Railroad. A map, he said, is an advertisement for travel.
"These wonderful display maps really give you the sense of getting on board, the joy of the journey and the experience of traveling by train," Ovenden said.
At the Amtrak information desk, the agents do hand out booklets with a fold-out map — a network of red lines stretching over a green background that displays mountains, waterways and cities.
But the current map shares no resemblance to a train map from 100 years ago. The lines on the old map are so thick that they’re barely discernable from each other.
"We had almost a railway in almost every town and hamlet in the U.S.," Ovenden said. "The old 1918 map looks like the blood vessels and the arteries and the veins of a country. It was the lifeblood of this country and when you look at it now, it's just a skeleton."
Through World War II, the railways were booming in the U.S But after the war, the country made a choice. There was a huge infusion of federal funds into the interstate highway system. Air travel took off. Passenger rail was passé.
During parts of the day, Penn Station was almost empty. And, then, it was torn down, replaced by a thicket of anonymous office towers, Madison Square Garden, and this crabbed space, where even the idea of an Amtrak map is foreign.
NJ Transit has a nice map -- pretty, but smallish. The MTA nails it, with huge subway, bus and Long Island rail maps.
Ovenden’s energy ratcheted up about 10 notches when he saw these maps: "That’s what you need on the wall of the station, that’s fantastic! Look at it!"
New York has tourists from France, China and parts of the U.S., and these maps are about more than way-finding. They are entertainment. They are art.
"Maps are part of the journey, and we shouldn’t forget that," Ovenden said.