If you have always been forced to enter the city of New York through the basement door — that is, after navigating the Stygian gloom of Penn Station’s narrow train platforms, bodysurfing up a packed staircase, and stumbling into a waiting room that often resembled a disaster-relief center — then the first time you arrive in the new Moynihan Train Hall will be a revelation.
Even before a silent escalator deposits you at street level in the old Farley Post Office, across Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden, you can see glimpses of the city that awaits you. A rippled glass canopy spans the main hall, opening up views of the sky and nearby buildings. Because that gossamer roof is supported by a trio of mighty trusses, there are no columns to clutter the airy room or break your stride as you hustle for your train. A quiet seating area offers work tables that are perfect for finishing last-minute emails. In the center of the main space hangs an old-timey analog train clock that immediately conjures up romantic meetings and cross-country journeys past amber waves of grain and purple mountains. So this is what train travel is supposed to be!
The creation of this civilized transit oasis is the culmination of a 30-year effort to correct a 60-year-old mistake that was imposed on New York when a failing Philadelphia company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, decided to demolish one of the world’s great train stations. Travelers were condemned to come and go from the bowels of the arena that replaced Penn Station: You scuttled in “like a rat,” in the famous words of architectural historian Vincent Scully. But almost as soon as the last of the old Penn Station had been carted off to a New Jersey landfill, New Yorkers began yearning for a proper train station, one befitting America’s busiest rail hub.
As gorgeous as the architectural results at Moynihan are, this is not the station that New York — and the rest of America — deserves. Built by the Empire State Development Corp., an independent state agency, to serve Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad trains, the space is technically not a station at all, which explains why its official name is “Moynihan Train Hall.” The space is a simulacrum, a romanticized stage-set version of what we think a train station should look like.
The hall, which cost a mind-boggling $1.6 billion, lacks many of the basic functional amenities long standard in the rail systems of Europe and Asia. Sure, you can catch a train at Moynihan for New York’s airports. But you can’t get a boarding pass there or check your bags through to your destination. The accommodations for managing ridesharing vehicles are distressingly primitive — basically signs along the curb on 33rd Street. Much more crucially, the completion of this expensive showpiece did little to advance the completion of a new train tunnel under the Hudson River. Until that backup tunnel, known as the Gateway Program, is finished, anything from a hurricane to a terrorist event could bring the Northeast Corridor to a standstill.
Along with bringing daylight into the station, perhaps the biggest achievement by the architects, Roger Duffy and Colin Koop of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was connecting the new hall to the subways and NJ Transit trains (which remain in Penn Station). But once the initial dazzle of Moynihan’s glass roof wears off, you begin to realize how modest in scale the new train hall really is; the waiting room at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is a third bigger (and more breathtaking). If commuters ever return to New York, the stingy space underneath the clock designed by Peter Pennoyer will be as jammed as the area around Penn Station’s digital schedule board used to be.
Although the new hall debuted with much fanfare on Jan. 1, the old waiting room remains in use — something I discovered to my misfortune when I arrived from Philadelphia to tour the new train hall. After climbing the stairs expecting to be dazzled by the light, I found myself in a Groundhog Day-like flashback, trapped in the same dismal basement. That’s because Amtrak’s trains still park under Penn Station, and you must make an effort to exit from the western end of the platform if you want to enter New York through the new hall.
For all that, Moynihan’s opening couldn’t be better timed. With the election of the train-loving, Amtrak-riding Joe Biden as commuter-in-chief, there is finally a chance that the United States might start to properly fund its transit systems. Getting more people onto trains and buses is crucial to fighting climate change, one of Biden’s top priorities. Transit funding will also play a big role in steadying the health of cities such as Philadelphia in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. That makes Moynihan a template for what is possible — and what to avoid.
The project is particularly instructive for Philadelphia’s William H. Gray III 30th Street Station, which has always been joined at the hip with New York’s Penn Station. It’s not just that Alexander Cassatt’s Pennsylvania Railroad figured out how to build the train tunnels that connect Manhattan to mainland America, and then constructed a spectacular terminus there in 1910. From its sprawling Philadelphia home, the company ruled the Northeast’s rail network until its demise in the late ’60s and subsequent conversion into Amtrak. Philadelphia’s train station is now the third busiest in Amtrak’s system. But like Penn Station, 30th Street (recently named in honor of the late Congressman William H. Gray III) has not gotten the improvements it needs to adapt to a fast-changing world.
After several false starts, Amtrak finally produced a master plan in 2016 for upgrading the station and surrounding real estate, including the train yards on the north side. But Amtrak didn’t get around to picking a team to implement the plan until last summer, and the contract with the group (which includes the Skidmore firm) has yet to be signed. According to several transportation sources, the Federal Railroad Administration has been dragging its feet for reasons that are unclear.
Like Moynihan Train Hall, the early phases of the 30th Street Station project will focus on the user experience, starting with bringing better retail to the building and reconstructing the plaza on the station’s south side. But the plan also calls for important functional upgrades, including a new bus station, a dedicated zone for ridesharing vehicles, improved traffic circulation, and better connections to the Market-Frankford Line.
Important before the pandemic, these projects are even more urgent now, as Philadelphia’s economy becomes increasingly reliant on the life sciences companies that are flocking to the area between the station and the universities. As working from home becomes institutionalized, Philadelphia’s great train connections, along with its easily accessible airport, help give Philadelphia a competitive advantage in attracting new residents from the East Coast’s more high-priced cities.
The problem is that Amtrak is really interested in only one thing: monetizing its real estate. It isn’t focused on helping Philadelphia transform itself into a biotech hub or create much-needed new jobs. Nor has the railroad taken much interest in realizing a first-class, intercity bus station — an idea Amtrak itself proposed in its 2016 master plan. While those long-haul buses are America’s fastest-growing form of mass transit, Amtrak mainly views them as competition. But it’s in Philadelphia’s interest to encourage bus service, and that means improving the dismal conditions for people waiting on the JFK Boulevard sidewalk in the sun and rain for the Bolts and Megabuses.
If ever Amtrak did get serious about building a bus station on the north side of 30th Street Station, it would need lots of help. Before construction can start, PennDot must reorganize the I-76 ramps next to the building. Under the current schedule, it could be a decade before the first shovel goes into the ground, said Michael Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for transportation — “unless someone in the next administration loves this project.”
Such love won’t happen by chance. The improvements at 30th Street require the same kind of passionate advocates that New York had with its new train hall. New York seemed to be stuck with the situation at Penn Station until 1994, when then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan floated the idea of moving its passenger facilities across the street, into the elegant beaux-arts Farley post office, designed by Penn Station’s architects, McKim, Mead & White. Since the tunnels that serve Penn Station also run underneath the former post office, it seemed like a simple matter of shifting the waiting room just a few hundred feet to the west.
But the project languished for three decades until New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo intervened in 2016 and declared the project a personal priority. Now that there is a sympathetic ear in the White House, who will advocate like that for Philadelphia? (Looking at you, Mayor Jim Kenney and Reps. Dwight Evans, Brendan Boyle, and Brian Fitzpatrick.)
Cuomo not only pushed for the completion of Moynihan Hall, he also is helping to move along other long-delayed improvements. The Long Island Railroad, a heavily used commuter line that also terminates at the new train hall, is now refurbishing the dank Penn Station corridor that connects Moynihan with the west side subways. A bright new station entrance just opened. And New York is preparing to undertake the biggest challenge of all: Penn Station South, a southward extension of the existing station that will create eight new platforms and accommodate trains from the proposed Hudson River tunnel, whenever it might be built.
Even without those functional improvements, Moynihan Train Hall promises to help boost Manhattan’s once-desolate west side. In the last few years, that area has been a nonstop construction zone, as developers erected offices and apartment towers, including the luxury enclave known as Hudson Yards. What’s happening on the west side of 30th Street Station, an area dubbed Schuylkill Yards, is a smaller version of that construction boom.
Philadelphia already has a great train hall. A beautiful, classic station can help persuade more people to ride transit, but it’s not enough. Philadelphia, like New York, needs a workhorse that will knit together all modes of transportation and help our cities compete in the difficult years ahead.