Note: this is a somewhat trollish proposal, but I do think it should be considered.
New York Penn Station is a mess. Its platforms are infamously narrow, with only enough room for single-direction escalators, leading to overcrowding during peak hours, as passengers scramble to find an up escalator or a staircase. Its two concourses are confusing and cramped, and have claustrophobic low ceilings. Trains’ track assignments are only announced minutes in advance (as at other major US stations), leading to last-minute passenger scrambles to get onto the platforms. Everyone with an opinion, from the city’s architect community to the Regional Plan Association to Amtrak, wants to build an alternative. Let me propose something simpler and cheaper, if uglier: eliminate all above-ground structures, and reduce Penn Station to a hole in the ground.
Most of the preexisting plans for Penn Station do not do anything about the track level. It’s assumed that the tracks will remain narrow, that trains will not run reliably enough for consistent track assignments, and that dwell times will remain high. The architects’ proposals involve a nice station headhouse to make passengers feel important. Amtrak wants to decamp to a nice headhouse at Moynihan Station, again to make its passengers feel important, and add a few extra tracks without fixing the existing ones. The RPA proposal is heavy on redevelopment but says nothing about moving trains in and out more efficiently. Only Penn Design’s proposal says anything about consolidating platforms, in addition to constructing a headhouse, but the need to maintain a pretty headhouse places constraints on the ability to move tracks and platforms.
Eliminating the headhouse moves the focus from making passengers feel important to getting passengers in and out as fast as possible. Most importantly, it means there’s no need for girders and columns all over the track level; they support the buildings above the station, including the headhouse, and would not be needed if the station were a simple open cut. Those girders make it hard to move the tracks and platforms – the only reasonable option if they are kept is to pave over pairs of tracks between platforms to create very wide platforms, which would not be well-aligned with the approach tracks.
In the hole in the ground scenario, the two blocks from 7th to 8th Avenue, from 31st to 33rd Streets, would have no above-ground infrastructure. This requires demolishing Two Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden. Two Penn Plaza is a building of 140,000 m^2, in a city where the private sector builds office towers of such size for about $750 million (at least when they’re not above active railyards); the city has been making noises about moving Madison Square Garden, although in 2013 it extended its lease by ten years. The tracks and platforms would thus be in the open air, and even from the depth of the platforms, passengers could see the surrounding buildings, just as they can in the open cut west of 9th Avenue, just before trains head into the North River Tunnels.
The two-block compound would be trisected by a pair of wide walkways, as wide as a Manhattan street, parallel to 7th and 8th Avenues. Each of the two walkways would have an access point in each direction toward each platform; with the current narrow platforms this means single-direction escalators, but as tracks would be moved and platforms widened, this would be a pair of wide single-direction escalators flanking a wide staircase. There would be an additional access point heading west out of 7th Avenue and one heading east out of 8th, for a total of six per platform. This is an improvement over the current situation, in which the number of access points ranges from four to six, excluding the LIRR’s West End Concourse, which is west of 8th and thus excluded from this discussion; see diagram here. Penn Station’s tracks are about 14 meters below street level; with 30-degree escalator angles, this means that the escalators would be 24 meters long plus short approaches, say 28 meters total, and this provides adequate separation between access points on the platforms as well as on the two walkways, although unfortunately the spacing on the platform would not be even. For disabled access, elevators would be provided at 7th and 8th Avenues and on both walkways.
The main functions of a train station would be devolved to the surrounding streets and the two walkways. Large clocks, mounted on the high-rise towers next to the station, would show the time. Screens posted over the entire compound would show train departure and arrival times and track assignments. The walkways, and the sides of 7th and 8th Avenues facing the compound, would have ticket-vending machines, selling tickets for all railroads using the station; if the platforms were widened, then there would be room for TVMs and some retail on the platforms themselves. There might even be room for some kiosks on the walkways and food trucks on the streets and avenues. Large ticket offices are not required, and small ones can fit either on the walkways or in a building storefront on the perimeter of the compound.
The technological advances of the last half-century or so have largely made station headhouses obsolete. Train stations used to have telegraph operators; they no longer do. They used to have mail sorting space; mail is now carried by air and road, or electronically. TVMs allow passengers to obtain tickets without buying them at ticket offices, and nowadays e-tickets are making TVMs somewhat obsolete as well. Checked baggage is largely a thing of the past. Transportation companies that aim at low costs, including low-cost airlines and intercity express buses, barely have stations at all: intercity buses pick up at curbs, while low-cost airlines often prefer budget terminals with reduced infrastructure. As far as possible, this is the way forward for train stations as well. Recall that my proposal for a Fulton Street regional rail station followed the same logic, using the street as its mezzanine. This is the way forward for Penn Station, too.