Streams

With No Display Map at Penn Station, Amtrak Misses an Opportunity

Monday, August 15, 2011

WNYC
Amtrak commuters at New York Penn Station Amtrak commuters at New York Penn Station (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

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.

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Comments [12]

Erik Lundell from Manhattan

Truly one of the greatest tragedies this city has known is the loss of Pennsylvania Station. However, the author makes no mention of the fact that Moynihan Station will be a reality and will totally change the 1968 Penn station by relocating Amtrak. Also, it will have a huge map.
BTW Steve from Manhattan, the ceilings in the original Penn were 150 feet high not 60.

Aug. 17 2011 05:15 PM
Patrick from Washington, DC

Must be a very slow news day at WNYC and they could not find anything meaningful to complain about.

I have never seen an Amtrak system map in ANY Amtrak station, even Union Station in Washington.

While I agree that the destruction of Penn Station was the hugest civic rape known to man, the terminal itself is not unpleasant, has great rest rooms, and is a great place to catch a train, regardless if it is the Acela Express to Washington or the Downtown Seventh Avenue Local Subway.

Aug. 16 2011 07:01 AM
Irvin Dawid

You forgot to mention that LIRR has a map, and a rather nice one at that, in a good display area too.
I've only known the current Penn Station, and I actually like it - then again, I no longer live in NY. If you want an embarrassment of a train station, come to SF - you're lucky if you can even find the commuter rail station! (yes, there is one - I use Caltrain daily, but stay on the Peninsula, zones 3-2).
And I like Pt. Authority too - you guys are sooo too spoiled - you compare Penn to Grand Central and the great European rail stations - get a life!

Aug. 16 2011 12:36 AM
Derrick Anderson from New York NY

I use Penn Station everyday for NJ Transit I think it is a fabulous transportation hub. There are things that can be done to improve the station but whenever I am there I never get the impression that this is the worst place in th eworld.

Aug. 15 2011 02:22 PM
cynthia from Oakland, NJ

Penn Station lacks any kind of spatial awareness/landmarking feature and was entirely impossible for me to comprehend for about the first two years of arriving into/departing out of it. I can remember walking in circles up one concourse down the other. It was built in a time when no appreciation for maps, arts, heritage, legacy, etc, existed. I don't know how the damage can be undone.

PS. Seacaucus is no cake walk either!

Aug. 15 2011 01:27 PM

Penn Station is an embarrassment but not just to foreign visitors but to US citizens as well. Other stations such as Washington Union Station have much better atmosphere and information on the national rail passenger network.

Aug. 15 2011 01:24 PM
Peter T. Daniels

Penn Station is also where AmTrak comes in, so it's what any long-distance traveler first sees.

Aug. 15 2011 11:48 AM
Mitch Eisenman from Oceanside, NY

It's simple really. Grand Central is where Westchester and Connecticut commuters come in. Whiter, richer, old monier.

Penn Station handles travelers predominatly from Long Island and New Jersey.
On the whole, not as rich, not as white, not as white collar. Second class citizens and a fourth rate embarrassment.
BTW, the men's rooms are so disgusting that I would rather not wash my hands than wash them and risk coming in contact with anything.

Aug. 15 2011 11:08 AM
Steve from Manhattan

Puleeze! Where in the world would they put it-- the ceiling is 8 ft high. When Penn had 60 foot ceilings they had one; I believe it would have went into the dumpster sometime in 1965!

Aug. 15 2011 11:04 AM
Roz from Brooklyn, NY

I couldn't agree more. As a first year New Yorker I travel quite a bit for both work and pleasure. In the midst of the chaos that is Penn Station, I would love to take a look at a map and get my bearings!

Aug. 15 2011 09:14 AM
Suzartist from Montclair NJ

I agree with Mr. Lotz above. An absolute embarrassement. As is Port Authority Bus Terminal. I dread bringing out of town guests through these portals.
I dread going through them myself. Especially when I see Grand Central Terminal. Then I have commuter envy.

Aug. 15 2011 07:40 AM
Frank Lotz from Fort Lee NJ

For anyone who has traveled outside the United States, Penn Station is an embarassment and a burden to a traveler.
The Mayor may travel the subways, but he must never get off at Penn Station.
How a city has put up with this place since the demise of the beautiful
old Penn Station is beyonf belief.

Aug. 15 2011 01:04 AM

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