Inside America's worst train station

What makes New York's Penn Station suck so bad?


Once upon a time, New York’s Pennsylvania Station was not a hell hole. In fact, it was one of the grandest places in America. Built in 1910 on the West Side of Manhattan, the original structure was majestic, a reflection of principal architect Charles McKim’s vision to celebrate "the entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world." And celebrate it did, from its Beaux Arts exterior of pink granite and marble, to its stately colonnade, to its cavernous main waiting hall inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla. It was one of the architectural jewels of New York City.

Today, Penn Station is more like a polished turd, except it’s not really polished. It’s been called “the worst place in New York City,” “the worst transit experience in the US,” and “the worst place on Earth” — and that’s just from Googling one adjective. It’s home to three different railroads: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Rail Road, but it is almost entirely owned by Amtrak. Madison Square Garden squats on top of the station, choking off all natural light and air. Its cramped corridors, suffocating odors, confusing signage, and baffling layout make the overall experience of traveling through Penn Station equal to a very invasive, very unnecessary surgery. Without anesthesia.

But forget all that, because Penn Station is getting a makeover. In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his grand plan for the nation’s busiest-but-dingiest train station (600,000 passengers a day, 200 million a year). Calling it the “biggest construction project in our state’s history,” Cuomo said he would remake the current rat’s nest under Madison Square Garden, while also transforming the nearly vacant James A. Farley Post Office across the street into a new passenger waiting area. He called for the creation of a new glass-walled entrance, the razing of a 5,600-seat theater under Madison Square Garden, and brand new retail. The hopelessly tarnished name “Penn Station” would fade from memory. This would be the “Empire Station Complex.”

To truly appreciate how transformative a redesigned Penn Station could be for the New York region, one must first embrace the misery that is Penn Station today; only then can one understand how a new station would be not only cathartic to the public, but also crucial to the future of transportation in the Northeast. To do that, I called up James Ramsey, founder of Raad Studio, former NASA engineer, co-creator of the Lowline project, and all-around keen architectural eye, and asked him to give us an expert's look at why exactly this place sucks so much — to play Virgil to our Dante as we descend into the hellish circles of New York's Pennsylvania Station.

There are three circles, or levels, to Penn Station, each corresponding to a different railroad. Each section is distinct with its own signage, its own lighting, its own color scheme, and its own idiosyncrasies for frustrating riders. That was one of Ramsey's takeaways after our slog through the transit hub: the lack of a unifying theme. "Three fiefdoms," Ramsey said, "being smashed by a giant commercial interest."

We started in Amtrak's concourse, with its mirrored columns, baby blue color scheme, and shadow-canceling lighting overhead. The departures board is hung ponderously in the middle of the room like a giant guillotine blade. Surrounding it were hundreds of frowning commuters waiting for the numbers to change so they could get the hell out of here. Classical music drifted from somewhere above in an all-too-obvious attempt to create a cultured environment. It failed.

 Amelia Krales

Ramsey pointed out that the surrounding signage was unlit, hard to read, featured a hodgepodge of fonts, and was often overwhelmed by nearby ads for the musical "Wicked." "There’s no visual hierarchy," he said. "Lighting-wise or signage-wise." The floors are a "durable palette" for ease in cleaning. The waiting area for passengers is almost completely closed off, with unintuitive access points. And the room itself is undersized, and thus frequently feels overcrowded even in the middle of the day. "We don’t have to treat public space like this," he said. "We really don’t."

Walking through Penn Station, it’s impossible to ignore the crushing power of Madison Square Garden overhead. The ceiling always seems lower than it needs to be. Columns are squished into fat, unhappy looking things. And the various sections of Penn Station seem to be incongruous, creating architectural oddities like the Long Island Railroad concourse that runs underneath 33rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues. The long, vaulted ceiling doesn’t line up with the floor above, causing a section to jut out into long and unnecessary overhangs. The designers lined the overhangs with mirrored panels — more of a mylar coating, actually — in the hopes of creating the optical illusion of an uninterrupted arch. "It’s like some intern did the measurements wrong," Ramsey said. "That’s a hashtag fail. You don’t do that."

 Amelia Krales

The wayfinding issues that plague Amtrak carry over to the LIRR concourse: poorly lit signage, a total lack of visual hierarchy, and self-contradicting directions. Vendors hawk cheap beer and pizza from garishly lit retail hovels that line the corridor. Seasoned commuters shove their way passed tourists, while heavily armed National Guardsmen crack wise with equally heavily armed NYPD officers. Is this occupied territory?

But what's that ahead? At the eastern end of the LIRR concourse? Is that public art we spy? Ramsey is shocked to find himself standing under a piece by famed sculptor Maya Lin, who is best known for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. "I had no idea this was here," he said. Lin's piece at Penn Station, called Eclipsed Time, is embedded in the ceiling near the 7th Avenue exit, and has the appearance of a downward-facing clock mashed up with a sundial. "A solid disk hangs between the light source and a stationary glass disk," the description reads. "Light shines through the glass disk, illuminating the rotunda below. The solid disk travels from east to west and back."

 Amelia Krales

We stare up at the piece. It doesn't appear to be moving. Is it broken? Or has time stopped? Things certainly seem to slow down when you're stuck in Penn Station. There's no natural light, no way to tell if it's day or night. A Russian woman in furs wanders around in a daze, clutching a train ticket in her hand. "It's so aggravating," she mutters to herself. She repeats, "so aggravating."

If Amtrak gives off a 1950s bus terminal vibe, then the LIRR concourse is like a tonally flat office from the 80s. The coffered ceilings and acoustic paneling create a much better lighting scheme than Amtrak, where commuters passing through actually cast shadows. This enhances the visual palette, Ramsey explained, and helps keep your eyes from becoming overly tired. The way the light reflects off the metallic columns is pleasing but also helps them blend in with their surroundings, an effect Ramsey calls "dematerializing."

 Amelia Krales

We bypass the escalators and follow a pack of fast-walking commuters through a cramped corridor, underneath a length of exposed wiring, past a series of baffling signs, and up a flight of stairs into the New Jersey Transit concourse. Peach-colored marble lines the floors and walls while a line of columns bisect the room, topped with fluorescence meant to simulate a skylight. This room feels less retro than the others; more '90s than anything else. "I mean, I hate postmodernism," Ramsey said. "But this is definitely OK."

The NJ Transit concourse is on the upper level of Penn Station, along with Amtrak, with the LIRR running a grade below. But even this upper level has multiple sublevels, forcing riders to dash up a set of stairs to purchase tickets, down another set of stairs to find their gate, and down even more stairs to get to the train platform. It's an MC Escher painting of commuting chaos.

 Amelia Krales
"This area here," Ramsey says, "in light of that area down there — being these two distinct separate spaces — is emblematic of the overall masterplan of this thing. There's like an aversion to consolidation and it makes no sense. It's a like a little microcosm here."

By this point, we've come full circle and are standing in the Amtrak concourse, but on the opposite side of the waiting room. The ceiling is significantly higher here, with unadorned columns, topped by rings of recessed, lighting dominating the space. A bearded young man with a large rucksack stares at the signs, his brow furrowed in confusion. A jazz trio is performing for some reason. The room is almost completely empty. A pair of escalators lined with shifting LED lights stretches up to street level, inviting us to escape. We oblige.

 Amelia Krales

"Oh look, natural light," Ramsey says gratefully as we emerge out onto the street. But only barely. Despite being outside, we are still directly underneath Madison Square Garden. Our tour of Penn Station lasted a little less than an hour, and while it started out as a lighthearted romp through America's worst train station, it ended on a dour note. We feel worn down, a little grimy, and thoroughly depressed about the state of things. The governor's $3 billion plan to transform Penn Station into a futuristic terminal made of glass and steel is still years away. Will it even happen? The 106-year-old tunnel under the Hudson River could collapse before then, exacerbating Penn Station's congestion problems. Another recession could hit. Or maybe another hurricane. Donald Trump could be president. Mere anarchy could be loosed upon the world. "I feel like I need to take the rest of the day off," Ramsey says, before stumbling away into the mid-afternoon gloom.

But then I remember the Maya Lin sculpture, or the number of commuters who stopped to offer us help when we seemed lost, or that sad little jazz trio and their sincere effort to bring some culture and refinement to an otherwise joyless place. And I remember the framed photograph of the old Penn Station tucked away in the Amtrak concourse, a reminder of past grandeur, and briefly wonder if Penn's best days are still ahead of it.

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