MAP/VIDEO: How To Survive, And Occasionally Thrive, In New York Penn Station, The Continent's Busiest Train Hub

Tuesday, August 07, 2012 - 07:17 PM

Passengers moving through the Connecting Concourse on Penn Station's lower level.

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York's Penn Station is rail hub as ant colony: tight-cornered, winding and grimly subterranean. Like ants, 600,000 passengers per weekday course through it, pausing only to stare at an overhead information board until their departure track is revealed and then, toward that specified bowel, they descend.

Even the transit executives who run the place understand that it needs a makeover: they've hired Los Angeles construction firm Aecom to draft a renovation plan, expected by the end of the year, called "Penn Station Vision." There's talk of moving back walls, upgrading signs and improving the lighting. But that won't happen until Amtrak decamps across Eighth Avenue into a new space at the Farley Post Office, which is at least four years away.

In the meantime, what can a traveler do to make her time in Penn Station more bearable? [VIDEO BELOW]

Typical fare on the lower level.

That's the question I set out to answer with Nancy Solomon, an editor at WNYC who's been commuting from New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan through Penn Station for more than ten years. Our tour of the station on a sweltering summer afternoon revealed a bi-level, nine-acre public space that, in some places, barely functions. "The station is doing what it was never, ever designed to do, which is accommodate more than a half-million commuters," says Ben Cornelius, a former Amtrak worker and TN reader who toiled in Penn Station for six years. "It was designed to be a long-haul, long-distance train station, not a commuter barn."

Yet, Nancy and I turned up a handful of grace notes: a hidden water fountain, a sanitary restroom, decent sushi. And to our surprise, we stumbled upon a large, and largely overlooked, piece of the original Penn Station.

More than most municipal facilities, Penn Station is haunted by the ghost of its earlier incarnation--a Beaux Arts masterpiece by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White.

Postcard of the original Penn Station.

That station rose in 1910 and fell, against a howl of protest, in 1963. Its dismantled columns, windows and marble walls suffered the same fate as a talkative two-bit mobster: they were dumped in a swamp in New Jersey. On the levelled site rose Madison Square Garden and a nondescript office tower; station operations were shunted to the basement, where they remain. Here's one way to navigate it:

Penn Station users: What do you do to make it more bearable? Where do you eat, rest, go looking for shortcuts? We want to know!


Comments [10]


Where can I meet an arriving Amtrak passenger who is not familiar with Penn Station?

Oct. 01 2013 12:05 PM

Oh Well, we cant do anything to restore the original Penn Station. But anyway Penn Station
here so you can take your train not drink outta a water fountain. Besides, I like the way Penn is today. So the crowds yea yea.. so what Moreover, Penn Station is more functional than fancy.

Aug. 15 2012 08:50 PM

To be really truthful, the old station wasn't leveled and all operations weren't simply moved to the basement. The levels that exist today underground were (more or less) there with the original station. The floor you wait on on the Amtrak level is essentially the same floor (covered over) you waited on in the great glass concourse. It was just ceilinged over. And the lower level today was used as an exit concourse with direct access to the subways (which weren't all finished when the station was built). We lost the building, and with it, all natural light that once bathed the lower levels. The great rotunda today was the same entry point from the taxi stands that existed in the old terminal. Today's Penn St. is an ugly, unappealing ghost of the former layout, without the building above it.

Aug. 09 2012 08:31 PM
Kenneth Fingerman

Penn station is where u go in, find your train, and get out...nothing more

Aug. 09 2012 05:31 PM

To reach the 7 Av Subway quickly from an Amtrak train, I ride near the front (east) end and exit through the NJT East End Concourse. This allows me to avoid the claustrophobia-inducing "birth canal" escalators.

Thinking about the destruction of Penn Station always makes me extremely angry. I love the old photos, but it's hard to look at them. I'm with RJ--let's tear down MSG and rebuild our civic treasure.

Aug. 09 2012 01:01 PM

Every time I go to or think of Penn Station (I do both often), I am in total disbelief and angered by the fact that they were ever allowed to demolish the original Penn Station. It was really one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Madison Square Garden and the current Penn Station is a complete embarrassment and crime compared to the original.

Aug. 09 2012 01:11 AM
Stephen H

I have worked above Penn Station in the office tower that sits directly above it for nearly thirteen years. In fact, at one point when I was taking school courses in the same building,I was spending nearly every waking hour-7am to 10pm-above and in Penn Station. And still I am hard pressed to offer hidden gems. One may be the the neglected and frequently overlooked Maya Lin sculpture on the LIRR concourse. And if you are willing to step outside Penn Station and walk a quarter block down 33rd, the 33rd Gourmet Deli makes an excellent chicken cutlet with cheddar on a roll.

Aug. 08 2012 06:52 PM

Just go eat at TRACKS RAW bar in the LIRR concourse by entrance to Tracks 18 and 19.. Great food, great staff, huge Shrimp cocktail...

Aug. 08 2012 05:58 PM

From my perspective as a frequent passenger on both AMTRAK and the LIRR, there many things I'd like to see changed or added to Penn Station. But your computer critic neglected to mention some of its charms, e.g. Penn Books on the lower level and the "outdoor" cafe space at Kabooz on the upper level, where the food is good, the beer cold and the observations priceless. Also quite good is Raw Bar- the woman who was interviewed expressed concern about eating there, yet with apparent unconcern recommends drinking from a public water fountain. I would also recommend wandering around the Penn Station K-mart for a suburban style break from city life.

Aug. 08 2012 04:49 PM

I work above penn station and have for years. nice segment, with a couple of caveats. the first is don't rip on Tracks raw bar and grill. it is the only good restaurant in penn station and it is not at all an embarassment or to be laughed at- as seemed to happen during the audio portion played during ATC. secondly the "connecting concourse" labeled above is not the one described in the segment. In the segment the narrarator described one of the corridors that go north/south and have low ceilings; the one marked connecting concourse above goes east/west has very high ceilings. Overall yes there are few redeeming qualities about the place but you can get a cheap beer as mentioned and as i said tracks is pretty good. if you need to get any shopping done there is always Kmart.

Aug. 08 2012 04:48 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.