NYC design group: New Amtrak train hall only a partial solution for Penn Station’s issues

Rendering of a rebuilt Original Penn Station east of 8th Avenue showing widened platforms and natural light, Rendering by Jeff Stikeman based on the ReThinkNYC track and station proposal.

ReThinkNYC, a New York City non-profit specializing in transportation infrastructure, released a statement on Wednesday saying that while the opening of Amtrak’s new Moynihan Train Hall across from Penn Station is an important step toward improving the commuter experience, it falls short of addressing the root of the station’s problems.

The organization has proposed that the state rebuild the original Penn Station, create a unified regional transit network to reduce transit congestion, and redevelop the neighborhood around the station, moving Madison Square Garden to Herald Square or another location in the area. The group has also proposed that along with Penn Station being converted to a through station, regional hubs along the Northeast Corridor be expanded.

“The new Moynihan Train Hall will undoubtedly improve the present wholly unacceptable commuting experience for thousands of train riders,” said Samuel Turvey, chairperson of ReThinkNYC. “For decades, Penn Station suffered from chronic overcrowding, narrow corridors and platforms, and a less-than-inspiring design. The former James A. Farley Post Office, designed by the same architects as the original Penn Station, is a beautiful historic building that is well suited to serve as part of a new gateway to New York City, but much more remains to be done at the track level and east of 8th Avenue. Credit is nonetheless due for this ambitious start.”

Turvey said Moynihan will make waiting for a train more pleasant, but it won’t make the trip more reliable. “The root of Penn’s problems lies at the track level — two century-old Hudson River tunnels, inefficient train movements, and narrow platforms limit capacity and are the source of frequent service disruptions. Solving these core issues will require a radical transformation of how Penn Station functions– not just how it looks,” Turvey said.

Modifying Penn Station to accommodate through-running train service where trains no longer return to their point of origin empty and clog tunnels or inefficiently sit in train yards during off-peak hours and adding transit hubs in places like Sunnyside Queens would serve to expand the region’s core and stimulate economic development in Long Island and New Jersey, Turvey said. “Operating commuter rail service through Manhattan instead of terminating it there is the straightforward solution for adding capacity, reducing congestion, and improving regional connectivity and our quality of life,” he said.

ReThinkNYC has submitted an alternative plan to New York State in response to plans for the Empire Station Complex that is proposed for the present Penn Station site and several blocks East of 8th Avenue.

“Through-running would allow Penn to handle more trains on fewer tracks. Extraneous tracks can then be removed so that platforms can be widened, greatly improving circulation throughout the station. If this were to be topped by a modernized high-ceiling recreation of the original Penn Station, as we have proposed, it would be a perfect and historic complement to the Moynihan Train Hall,” Turvey said. “The city and region would then truly be moving towards a genuine solution to the problems of Penn Station. It is hoped momentum from completion of the Farley Post Office conversion to the Moynihan Train Hall can continue in this direction.”

Turvey said the antiquated rail network has not kept pace with growth in the greater New York City area. “A recreated Penn Station– modernized above and below ground to handle an economy and population that is increasingly decentralized — is desperately needed. Ignoring this reality will only squander the region’s full potential,” he said. “The quality of life in Manhattan, the rest of the city, and the region is at stake in just a few square blocks in Midtown. We need to be ever vigilant to get this right. The Moynihan Train Hall should be seen as the beginning, not the end.”

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign also released a statement regarding the Jan. 1 opening of the new train hall on Wednesday, praising the project but also acknowledging that more needs to be done.

“After a year of devastating news and major setbacks for transit agencies, Moynihan is opening just in time for what will hopefully be the start of a renaissance era for the region’s transportation infrastructure,” reads the statement. “As businesses reopen in the coming months following the COVID-19 pandemic, this expansion of Penn Station represents a bold statement that New York City is prepared for future growth. Our region deserves a station that symbolizes the power and influence of New York and the central role of mass transit; the opening of Moynihan is one big step toward reaching this goal.”

The Biden Administration is expected to move ahead with Amtrak’s Gateway Program, which includes building two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River. “We must move ahead quickly to build this critical part of the Northeast Corridor. Once complete, train capacity between New York and New Jersey will nearly double and the region will have more reliable and resilient rail service,” reads the statement.

“Amtrak’s new train hall will not only reduce overcrowding in Penn Station, but it will also provide better commuter access for workers and residents in the new Hudson Yards district. Additionally, improved wayfinding for riders and more spacious waiting areas will no doubt make commuting through Penn Station a more enjoyable experience,” reads the statement. “Even as we applaud this signature moment at one of New York City’s major transit hubs, we know there is still more work to be done at the track level to resolve chronic train congestion, which is often the source of service disruptions and significant delays that negatively impact riders and the economy.”