With more than half a million commuter and intercity passengers passing through its concourses every day, New York Penn Station is the busiest rail hub in North America and a gateway to the nation's largest city.
New York - Penn Station, New York
8th Avenue and West 31st Street Pennsylvania Station New York, NY 10001
- Annual Station Revenue (2015)
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New York Penn Station occupies two full city blocks between 7th and 8th Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets in the West Midtown area of Manhattan. With more than half a million people passing through its concourses every day, Penn Station is the busiest rail hub in North America. Amtrak passengers at New York may board the high-speed Acela Express or the Northeast Regional trains to travel to Washington, D.C. or Boston, or may take short or long distance trains whose destinations include Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans. Penn Station also serves Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and New Jersey Transit (NJT) commuter rail, and is readily accessible from 14 lines of the New York City subway (MTA). The Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) rapid transit system has a station one block away at 33rd Street and 6th Avenue.
The original Pennsylvania Station, which took the name of its owner and builder, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), was opened to the public in the fall of 1910. Considered a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture, the station consisted of an above ground structure that contained the general waiting rooms, and a complex 50 feet below street level that accommodated 11 platforms. Four platforms continued west where they were accessed by workers at the new main post office, a two-block long structure on 8th Avenue. When the postal facility opened in 1912, it received about 40 percent of the city’s mail over the PRR lines. Mail sacks were transferred to and from the rail cars through a system of conveyor belts, chutes, and slides.
From the Great Depression onward, American railroads saw a decline in passenger traffic as federal policies and funding favored the creation of infrastructure to support personal automobiles and jet planes. Consequently, the vast station became a financial burden for the PRR, and in the late 1950s the company optioned the air rights over the facility. From 1963 to 1966, the station building was demolished to make way for the current Madison Square Garden sports and entertainment arena, as well as the 2 Penn Plaza office building. While the new buildings rose above the underground concourses, the trains continued to run. In 1984, Amtrak and LIRR undertook a modernization of Penn Station that emphasized improved access for persons with disabilities. Today, the platforms are shared among Amtrak, NJT, and LIRR, and each company maintains its own concourse.
When the above ground portion of Penn Station was destroyed, the city lost one of its great gateways. Subsequently, rail travelers arrived in the city via a warren of underground tunnels that gave out to the street, a seemingly unfitting introduction to a metropolis that dominates the nation’s economic and cultural life. To remedy this perceived deficiency, in the 1990s, New York’s U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed using the old post office building—renamed the James A. Farley Building in 1982—as the grand ceremonial entrance to the station. The Postal Service no longer needed all of the space and was considering relocation. Designed in concert with Penn Station by the same architectural firm, the post office’s 8th Avenue entrance is marked by a block long colonnade of Corinthian columns accessed by a ceremonial set of stairs. Inside, the lobby is lighted by soaring windows which show off the intricate, geometric coffered ceiling. After the senator died in 2003, the concept of transforming the post office into the entrance of Penn Station took the name “Moynihan Station.” Viewing the new rail facility as a plausible catalyst for the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhoods, the city then rezoned the adjacent blocks to allow for denser commercial development.
Plans for Moynihan Station have shifted many times since they were first proposed, but the key transportation elements have remained in place. The majestic 8th Avenue façade would be used as the grand entrance to the complex. Travelers would pass through the imposing lobby to enter a glass-enclosed train hall in what is now an open courtyard. Much as in the original Penn Station, light would filter down to track level to help alleviate the cramped feeling of the low-ceilinged concourses. The non-transportation related elements of Moynihan Station, coordinated by private developers, have been subject to greater change. Ideas have included building a new Madison Square Garden inside the structure’s western half and placing a boutique hotel and retail shops on the building’s upper levels. Developers have also proposed transforming the area with a series of new skyscrapers to take advantage of excellent transportation connections.
One of the primary project challenges has been securing the necessary funding, estimated at more than $1 billion, especially in light of the national economic downturn of the late 2000s. In 2007, New York state’s economic development agency—ESDC—, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the private development team of Vornado Realty Trust and Related Companies purchased the Farley Building from the Postal Service for $230 million. Following extensive discussions in 2009 between state and city governments, the Port Authority, ESDC, and the private development team, it was decided to divide the redevelopment plan into two phases: the expansion of the below ground West End Concourse and the renovation of the Farley Building. Amtrak agreed to relocate its operations into the new facility, and NJT and LIRR will remain in the existing station.
Phase I ceremonially broke ground in October 2010 with federal, state, and city leaders and Moynihan Station advocates gathered on site. Scheduled for completion in 2016, it includes the expansion and enhancement of the 33rd Street Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse; the extension and widening of the West End Concourse to serve nine of Penn Station’s eleven platforms; new vertical access points and passenger circulation space; new entrances into the West End Concourse through the 31st and 33rd Street corners of the Farley building; and installation of an emergency ventilation system that will improve life safety. The project is being managed by the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the ESDC, in cooperation with Amtrak.
The approximately $300 million Phase I plan is funded in part through $110 million in federal earmarks; $35 million from the MTA; $14 million from the state; and $10 million from the Port Authority. In addition, Moynihan Station received an $83 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Phase II, currently unfunded, will include the new train hall, which is estimated to cost between $1 and $1.5 billion. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, which has broad experience in complex transportation projects, has drawn up preliminary designs of the space.
In early 2011, Amtrak also unveiled the Gateway Program, a proposed set of strategic rail infrastructure improvements designed to improve current services and create new capacity that will allow the doubling of passenger trains running under the Hudson River. The program will increase track, tunnel, bridge, and station capacity, eventually creating four mainline tracks between Newark, N.J., and New York Penn Station, including a new, two-track Hudson River tunnel.
The program includes updates to, and modernization of, existing infrastructure, such as the electrical system that supplies power to the roughly 450 weekday trains using this segment of the Northeast Corridor, and rebuilding and replacing the damaged components of the existing, century-old Hudson River tunnel, which was inundated with sea water during Super Storm Sandy. By eliminating the bottleneck in New York and creating additional tunnel, track, and station capacity in the most congested segment of the NEC, the Gateway Program will provide greater levels of service, increased redundancy, added reliability for shared operations, and additional capacity for the future increases in commuter and intercity rail service.
Prior to 1910 and the opening of Pennsylvania Station, trips to New York from the west and the south ended at Jersey City, N.J. on the west side of the Hudson River. The broad Hudson was a formidable obstacle for bridge and tunnel builders, and schemes advanced in the late 19th century would have required vast sums of money to complete. Financial panics in the early 1870s and 1890s also precluded any major investments. Railroads instead settled upon ferry service across the watercourse to reach the island of Manhattan.
In 1871, the PRR leased the New Jersey Railroad for its ferry franchise and water rights on the river. Over the next century, the PRR’s Jersey City station and ferry facility was rebuilt numerous times as a result of fires. A seven story terminal, considered the largest in the nation, was completed in 1892 and featured a dramatic single span roof with a width of 250 feet. After detraining, passengers walked a short distance to the ferry terminal to board one of the double-decker vessels headed for Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Staten Island. The busy area around the PRR facilities at Montgomery and Hudson Streets was popularly known as Exchange Place.
At the end of the 19th century, only one railroad had a terminal in Manhattan. The New York Central’s various lines followed the east side of the Hudson River, crossing into Manhattan from the Bronx over the Harlem River. In 1871, the railroad, under the control of Cornelius Vanderbilt, completed the first Grand Central Terminal in what is now East Midtown. Alexander Cassatt, a railroad engineer who came out of retirement in 1899 to head the PRR, believed that his railroad also had to obtain a station in New York City, which had become the country’s largest metropolitan area, dominant port, and business center. Under his leadership, the railroad weighed its options for crossing the Hudson, eventually settling on a pair of tunnels to run between Weehawken, N.J. and the western Midtown neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, known for its brothels and flop houses. In order to obtain a charter for a bridge, the railroad would have had to share its facilities with other carriers, and so tunnels, although expensive, became a more attractive option.
Pennsylvania Station was really just one piece of a larger $114 million (approximately $2.5 billion in today’s money) puzzle that included a new right-of-way from Newark to Manhattan; bridges; tunnels underneath the Hudson and East Rivers and Manhattan; and a new rail yard in Queens. By this point, the city had banned steam locomotives within the urban core. Therefore the network—including the tunnels—had to be run by the relatively new technology of electric catenaries. To comply with this mandate, a station known as Manhattan Transfer would be constructed at Harrison, N.J. just east of Newark. Here, trains on the main line stopped to switch to electric locomotives in order to continue into Manhattan. Those headed for Jersey City and the ferry terminal continued to their destination under steam power. Manhattan Transfer remained in operation until the 1930s when the PRR completed the electrification of its main line. From the station, PRR trains traveled five miles across the Meadowlands to the Bergen Hill portal where they began their descent into the tunnels beneath the Hudson.
After two years of design work, construction began in 1904 on the pair of single bore tunnels, located 70 feet below the surface of the river. Company engineers used the “shield method,” in which an iron tube was driven forward while compressed air kept out the water. The cast iron tunnel lining is composed of numerous rings, each one being put into place and secured to its predecessor as rock, sand and mud was drilled, blasted, and excavated. When the lining was finally completed, workers then coated the interior with a two foot thick layer of concrete to waterproof and strengthen the structure. The two ends of the northern tube met in 1906. The four single track tunnels under the East River led to a new rail yard at Sunnyside, Queens that was used by the PRR and LIRR for the storage and cleaning of trains serving Manhattan. Completed in 1910, Sunnyside sprawled over 192 acres and could accommodate more than 1,000 cars. A loop allowed trains to turn around without the need for a turntable.
Concurrent with the tunnel work, excavation began at the site of Pennsylvania Station. More than 500 houses and other structures had to be removed from the designated blocks, as the above ground building occupied eight acres while the subterranean concourses and yards stretched across 28 acres. Between 1904 and 1906, the complex rose to an average of 69 feet above street level, or about six stories.
Pennsylvania Station sprang from the creative genius of Charles Follen McKim, one of the principals in the New York-based firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The architect and his partners led what was then, and is still now, considered one of the greatest American architectural and design firms. McKim, Mead, and White were leading figures of the City Beautiful movement that took hold as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Led by design professionals and progressives, the movement promoted the improvement of cities through rational order, sanitation, and aesthetic enhancement.
This last concept often meant looking back to Roman and Greek precedents that were deemed suitable for a young republic with great ambitions. Many leading City Beautiful proponents attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a design school where the instructors emphasized the need for a logical floor plan coupled with an appropriately dignified architecture embellished through allied arts such as sculpture and painting. Appropriately, McKim, Mead, and White based the design of the station on the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in Rome. Using barrel vaults, both structures managed to enclose large indoor spaces that accommodated thousands of users.
Upon its completion in summer 1910, Pennsylvania Station was described in glowing superlatives, touted as the biggest, grandest, and most modern train station in the nation, and one of the finest in the world. Although giving the impression of solid stone construction, the structure was actually erected with a steel frame clad in Milford pink granite. Roughly 550,000 cubic feet of stone, 27,000 tons of steel, and 15 million bricks were used during construction.
On the principal 7th Avenue facade, the architects centered the pedestrian entryway on 32nd Street to create a grand vista for travelers approaching from the east. A portico marked by six Doric columns supported a 7-foot diameter clock. It was surrounded by sculptural decoration executed in Tennessee marble by German-born artist Adolph Alexander Weinman. The clocks, which dominated the four porticoed entrances on each side of the building, were adorned with wreaths of leaves upon which leaned two allegorical female figures representing time. Draped in flowing robes, “Day” held a sunflower while “Night” clutched a pair of drooping poppies. Flanking the clocks were trios of eagles, their outstretched wings ready for flight.
Other than Weinman’s pieces, sculptural detail was kept to a minimum, therefore allowing the regular rhythm of the 7th and 8th Avenue colonnades and the pilasters on 31st and 33rd Streets to dominate the structure and emphasize its sheer size. Those arriving by automobile or carriage headed to the corner pavilions on 7th Avenue. Passing through the colonnade, the roadway descended to a subterranean level where entrances opened directly onto the general waiting room. Following principles taught at the École, the separation of pedestrian and automobile access rationally allowed for easy access and avoided conflict between the two modes. Functional separation was also employed at the LIRR concourse near the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street where commuter passengers were able to enter and exit the station without passing through the general waiting room.
Walking through the 7th Avenue portico, travelers entered a vestibule and then came upon an arcade lined with shop fronts. Modeled after those found in Italian cities such as Milan and Naples, the arcade was brightened by sunlight that streamed through the thermal or “Diocletian” windows. Continuing down the passageway, travelers entered the loggia, which acted as a transition space to the waiting room, reached by a grand staircase. Before descending to the waiting room, passengers had the option of passing to the left or the right through the loggia to enter the dining facilities which included a lunchroom or a more formal restaurant. A niche in the wall of the loggia held a statue of Cassatt, station plans at his side; he died four years before his railroad triumphantly entered New York City.
Moving down the staircase, travelers reached the floor of the waiting room which was below street level and stretched almost the entire two block width of the building. Above, the plaster ceiling soared to 150 feet, or about 15 stories, and was coffered in a bold octagonal pattern. Barrel vaults running the length and width of the waiting room were visually supported by eight 60-foot tall, 7-foot diameter fluted columns with ornate Corinthian capitals. Their pedestals dwarfed passengers, quickly giving a sense of scale and proportion. Natural light again entered through eight thermal windows, 33 feet high at their midpoints, located just below the roofline. Over the years, countless photographers, both amateur and professional, waited patiently for the perfect moment to permanently capture shafts of light as they penetrated the windows and warmed the passengers below.
Six large panels below the windows were filled with murals depicting maps of the PRR system by painter Jules Guerin, known for luminous illustrations and dramatic perspectives. His soft tones well matched the mellowness of the travertine that covered most of the walls. A favorite building material of the ancient Romans, the stone was a soft yellow beige color, and gave warmth to large expanses that in darker color tones might seem impersonal and cold. It also had the added benefit of gaining a glowing sheen when touched and rubbed, as was sure to happen with thousands of daily passengers passing through the building. Passenger services such as ticketing and the baggage check were arranged around the perimeter of the waiting room in a sequential fashion so that one could efficiently move from one area to the next without needlessly crisscrossing the vast room.
The final destination in one’s westward movement through the station was the concourse, in which the architects made every effort to allow natural light into the space. While the rest of the station emphasized classical grandeur, the 10 story concourse relied on the awe-inspiring power of modern industrial technology. A forest of steel columns supported an extensive system of vaults covered almost entirely in glass. Coupled with glass block embedded into the floor of the passenger galleries surrounding the platforms, light reached all the way down to the tracks, located 36 feet below street level. Rather than enter the city through a dark and smoky train shed, Pennsylvania Station welcomed travelers with glorious light and soaring spaces unlike those found anywhere else in the nation. The arrival and departure concourses were separated, allowing for the efficient movement of people, and early commentators marveled at the new technology of escalators.
Considered a “monumental act of vandalism,” the destruction of Penn Station after only a half century of service came as a shock to most New Yorkers. Legally, nothing could be done to stop the demolition, and popular outrage over the loss of the grand station prompted the city to institute a historic preservation ordinance and establish the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It also galvanized preservation groups across the country in an era in which federally-sponsored urban renewal efforts, although well-intentioned, were shattering urban neighborhoods. Careful, observant explorers can find remnants of the original Pennsylvania Station in the modern concourses used by Amtrak, NJT, and LIRR, but most of the stone and sculptures were carted off to the New Jersey Meadowlands and dumped into a landfill. Thankfully, some elements were quietly salvaged and later donated to museums. Many of Weinman’s eagles found new perches in cities such as Philadelphia, West Point, and Washington, D.C.
The first recorded European explorer to set sights on the island of Manhattan was Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, but he did not disembark to investigate. In the next century, Henry Hudson arrived in September 1609 on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. He sailed up the river that now bears his name in search of a Northwest Passage to India, but failed in his quest and instead described the potential usefulness of the natural harbor. At the time, Manhattan was home to bands of Lenape American Indians belonging to the Algonquian language family. The island held woodlands dominated by oak, maple, and chestnuts while the shoreline, especially on the southern end, consisted of marshlands supporting diverse wildlife.
Trade in furs, particularly beaver, was soon established between Dutch merchants and the Lenapes. In 1623, the first permanent Dutch settlement was made on Governors Island, and once a more substantial colonial population had developed, the village was moved to the southern tip of Manhattan. In 1626, the colonists purchased Manhattan from the Lenape, and over the next few decades, Dutch settlements were made in all of the boroughs now composing New York City.
By the early 1650s, the Dutch settlement on Manhattan, called New Amsterdam, had more than 1,000 residents. Many remained involved in the fur trade while others nurtured agriculture fields outside of the village confines. Under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant, a fortified wall was erected on the northern edge of the town between the Hudson and East Rivers to guard against attack by English forces that had settled further to the east. The current Wall Street, a roadway that has become the symbolic heart of the American financial system, takes its name from Stuyvesant’s fortification.
In 1664, the English seized the city and renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. A decade later, the city would briefly fall into Dutch hands once again until the English finally quashed Dutch ambitions in the region. The Dutch influence on the area remains particularly strong in the use of place names such as Flushing, Harlem, and Brooklyn, all based on the names of Dutch towns that were corrupted when transliterated into English. Trade flourished under the English, and New York became a center for fishing and shipbuilding. The importance of the town was made known in 1754 when King’s College (later Columbia University) was founded as the sixth institution of higher learning in the 13 English colonies.
Although the Revolutionary War started in 1775 in the Boston area, the first major battles following Lexington and Concord took place in Brooklyn in August 1776. Only a month prior, the colonies had banded together to officially declare independence, and hence the Battle of Brooklyn is considered the first engagement to involve a truly “American” army composed of soldiers from various colonies. Surrounded by British troops, General George Washington evacuated his forces to Manhattan by the cover of night, surprising the enemy. The Continental Army was eventually chased up Manhattan, losing New York to the British for the duration of the war. In 1783, with the fighting over and a treaty signed between Great Britain and the United States of America, Washington returned to New York where he held a farewell dinner with his officers at Fraunces’ Tavern. The building, reconstructed numerous times, still stands in lower Manhattan.
From 1789 to 1790, New York served as the first seat of the nation’s capital, and President Washington’s inauguration was held at Federal Hall on Wall Street. In 1790, the government was transferred to Philadelphia, which New York quickly surpassed as the country’s largest city. Anticipating future growth, the orderly street grid that now straddles most of Manhattan was adopted in 1811, marking a break with the organic layout of the early city and facilitating real estate development. New York City’s importance as an international port intensified with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The manmade watercourse allowed grain and other agricultural products to move from the newly settled Great Lakes region to the Hudson River and ultimately to New York City for further distribution.
By mid-century, immigrants from Europe began to move through the city’s port in larger numbers, with a significant Irish population arriving in the late 1840s as Ireland suffered through the Great Famine. As the city expanded and grew in wealth, citizens advocated for beautification projects, one of which became known as Central Park, a manmade pastoral landscape in the center of the island. Designed by Englishman Calvert Vaux and the yet unknown Frederick Law Olmsted, the large rectangular park in Manhattan would go on to influence urban parks around the world and establish Olmsted as the father of American landscape architecture. They would repeat their success in Prospect Park, located in the city of Brooklyn across the East River from Manhattan. In 1898, Brooklyn, an independent municipality with an active port and industrial concerns, joined Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island in forming a unified municipal government.
The city’s population expanded greatly due to immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe and Italy. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States via Ellis Island in New York Harbor, in sight of the Statue of Liberty. Many poorer arrivals settled in the city’s tenements while attempting to start a new life. The Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is housed in an apartment building that sheltered more than 7000 immigrants after its completion in 1863. Today, its rooms are used to tell the stories of some of the diverse individuals and families who called the building “home.” Immigrants, both skilled and unskilled, helped build the city’s modern infrastructure, including the PRR project to enter Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the city undertook an ambitious building program that included numerous bridges, tunnels, highways, subway lines, port facilities, and public works such as sewers, parks and recreational centers.
Internal migration from within the United States to New York City also occurred. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities in the 1920s and 1930s greatly influenced the African-American community in Harlem. The “Harlem Renaissance” of that period saw a great gathering of intellectuals and creative individuals who indelibly changed Americans’ perceptions of African-American culture and life through works of literature, sociology, painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, and other art forms.
Following World War II, New York became an international city with major influence over world art markets and media resources such as television and radio. It grew in stature as a center for finance, insurance, and banking. In the 1980s, this reputation was explored in popular culture through films and books that depicted a fast-paced business world and its larger than life personalities. As New York City’s economic base transitioned from industry to services, the form of the city also changed. The shipping industry restructured due to containerization and mechanization that made older piers obsolete. Port facilities were relocated to the edges of the metropolis, and former industrial areas along the waterfront were replaced with parkland and mixed use development, a process that continues into the 21st century. In a repeat of history, since the 1990s, new waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia have reinforced New York’s image as an international city, one that allows reinvention and new beginnings.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at this station, which is served by approximately 100 daily trains, as well as the tri-weekly Cardinal (Westbound: Sunday, Wednesday, Friday; Eastbound: Wednesday, Friday, Sunday).
Empire Service trains are supported by funds made available by the New York State Department of Transportation. The Ethan Allen Express is financed primarily through funds made available by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the New York State Department of Transportation.