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I like taking trains to get places. I like the train ride in general sometimes a few hours of hopefully quiet sitting-still time is just what I need and I also vastly prefer it to all of the other available options for travel (car, bus, and most of all plane). I will not be visiting an airport this holiday season, thank heaven, but part of me wonders whether the TSA's new screening procedures are a government plot to drum up public support for high-speed rail. If so, please count me in.I live in Manhattan, which means, when I take a train anywhere else, I have to start out from either the lovely Grand Central or the dingy and depressing Penn Station. Each time I set out with my rolling suitcase, I have to stop and recall which station I'm bound for, and when I realize it's not Grand Central my heart sinks a bit. Grand Central is not as easy for me to get to, but I simply hate going to Penn Station. It's dark, dirty, crowded, confusing. Whenever I'm there I can only think about getting out. And even that can be uniquely difficult, because of the way the express and local subways are split onto separate platforms there. (New Yorkers, can I get an amen?) A few weeks ago I took the train home from Boston, and the last leg of my trip -- which involved waiting far too long for the erratic C train on a narrow platform filled with sports fans coming from Madison Square Garden -- felt at least as long as the four-hour ride that preceded it. It was not ever thus, of course. My office wall is decorated with an old-timey photo of the original Penn Station, reputed to have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The closest I've ever gotten to really seeing it in all its three-dimensional glory is the studio-stage replica in Vincente Minelli's wartime romance The Clock. If you are among those nostalgic for "the old Penn Station" -- whether or not you ever saw it for yourself -- or if you want to feel good about not having to visit the present incarnation, check out Choire Sicha and Tom Scocca's wonderful essay in today's New York Times, Miracle on 33rd Street. It's a tongue-in-cheek paean to the current (and soon-to-be-former) Penn Station. I most appreciated this paragraph, which exactly captures my impression of the New York landmark I so hate to visit:

Because everyone agrees that Penn Station is a failure, nobody has ever tried to make it anything other than baffling to the outsider. Thats the famous welcoming spirit of New York! The Long Island Rail Road has no interest in telling anyone how to get to New Jersey Transit, and vice versa. No one is in charge of knitting it all together, or no one bothers to. Its bad bureaucracy and bad faith, not bad design though at least our bureaucracies reflect our metro-area standoffishness.

The subway stations in NYC are designed with a similar "welcoming spirit" once you know where you're going, you can get there, but if you don't know, God help you, because the signs probably won't. I will admit that the signs and information systems are getting better -- which is good, because the weekend construction-related changes seem to be getting worse. But enough complaining. As Sicha and Scocca point out, the best thing about Penn Station is that it has many exits, and if you can find one you'll be standing in the middle of New York City, very likely with a splendid view of the Empire State Building or ready-for-Christmas Macy's, or perhaps the Post Office building (soon to house the new Penn Station). It's enough to make you forget just how you got there.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Yes. I took the train into Penn Station just last week--it was very grim. And I am directionally challenged. I stayed at the Sheraton New York on Seventh Avenue, and needed to get to Eighth. I squelched my pride, and asked a police officer whether to take a left or a right on 54th to get there. Only his eyes laughed at me.

I used to go out of my way to get off the A train at Penn Station; if I used one particular subway exit I would get that amazing view of the Empire State Building you mention. It was worth the detour.Penn Station truly is grim; but if you have to be there, you can console yourself that at least you're not in the Port Authority Terminal waiting for a bus.

Some people may feel the same way about Penn Station that Mets fans felt about Shea Stadium: It's ugly, but it's ours.It's totally charmless, but it reflects the daily grind of the riders of Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit. No Budweiser Tallboys in paperbags in Grand Central!Leave stately Grand Central and its clean (and on-time) Metro-North trains for the Cheeverites from Westchester and Fairfield County!

Irene: I used to work near the 34th St. stop, and while I hated navigating the Garment District sidewalks, spotting the ESB at the top of the subway stairs every morning was very nearly worth it. And you are very right about the bus station. I've begun far too many holidays there. Cathy, you probably weren't the first to ask him that question that day! You reminded me of a story that ran in the NYT this summer, about the cop whose beat is St. Patrick's Cathedral. He basically spends his day answering questions like, "Where is Rockefeller Center?"

Penn Station -- yes, I was in NY earlier this month (on Commonweal business, no less), and had a ticket all made out and paid for. for the 9 AM train Boston's South Station, whither I was returning. As usual the departure "information" board promised that the track of said train would be announced 10-15 minutes before departure. As usual, a complete utter Orwellian lie. Finally, at 9.02 the track was announced, setting off a mad rush for the gate, and we all were slowly herded down to the platform. Though I was by no means at the end of the line, I was in perhaps the last quarter of it, and by the time I had got to the platform, the train had obligingly pulled out on its way to Boston, stranding perhaps a hundred of us on the platform. Shortly thereafter, we were told the train would return to pick us up. Another lie. Some fifteen or twenty minutes later we were told our tickets would be "honored" on the 10 AM to Boston (as if Amtrash were doing us an enormous favor, bless its munificent little tax-supported heart). What was perhaps most astounding was that all the railroad's personnel behaved as if what had happened was the most normal thing in the world. Perhaps it was.The old, real Penn Station -- not only a glorious building (McKim, Meade, and White), but what no one ever mentions about it is the low-voiced woman train announcer, who could make a word like "Rahway" come over the loudspeaker, sounding as if it were uttered by Marlene Dietrich, singing "Unter der Laterne, vor den Grosser Tor." But then that was in my college days, and I was no doubt at a susceptible age.And at least Lili Marlene knew which Tor to wait under.

Posting amtrak times at Penn Station: Nicholas, I sympathize, especially because they post them way ahead of time in DC and, as I recall, Boston as well. One way around the problem is to go into the Acela waiting room and watch the monitor for arriving trains; that is usually posted 10-15 minutes before arrival. This is the train that will go on to DC or Boston and you can amble over to the escalator. But truly amazing that they left without you.

And considering they are running on our dimes, you'd think they be a bit more solicitous of paying passengers. After all, you have a choice: the Mega Bus... $20 last I heard.

"The subway stations in NYC are designed with a similar welcoming spirit once you know where youre going, you can get there, but if you dont know, God help you, because the signs probably wont. I will admit that the signs and information systems are getting better..."I use the IND quite a bit and the rolling stock on that line has quite good public address systems and digital visual aides indicating upcomming stops both intermediate and several stops away. The cars are the R-143 and R-160. They are very nice as can be seen in these photographs:

What is hard for many to accept is that Penn Station was demolished only fifty-four years after it opened. With buildings there apparently is something like a forty year itch. The architectural critic Witold Rybczynski comments: The hardest test for a building is between its thirtieth and fiftieth birthdays, when architectural tastes have changed and the original design no longer seems fresh. That is when calls for demolition -- or drastic alteration -- are most likely to be heeded. If a building weathers this midlife crisis, after several more decades, as the pendulum of fashion swings back, it may once more be appreciated.Makeshift MetropolisPenn Station was built when architects embraced a City Beautiful ethos but they were soon seduced by the City Practical sirens. An impractical suggestion: There should be a waiting period so that, say, sixty years pass before a major building can be demolished in order for its long range appeal to be fairly tested.

Years ago my mother-in-law, by then quite frail, worked up the nerve to visit us from Providence for Thanksgiving. We persuaded her not to go to the city, but to take the train to Stamford, Connecticut, where we would meet her and whisk her by car to our place in Northern Westchester. Unfortunately, she was slow in recognizing that her train had arrived in Stamford, and failed to get off! Next stop was the then newish Penn Station. What a nightmare. We raced down to the city, only to get caught in utter pre-holiday gridlock. What seemed hours later we found her--heaven knows how-- sitting in a daze on a crowded bench in that hell-hole, wondering where she was, and how anyone would ever find her. Not a friendly venue.

I am fond of Penn station! The smells of pretzels, the squeaky sounds of pink jumping toys, the sight of diverse humanity, and the knowledge that the great city is just outside: coming from Princeton (where I was a visiting student), it was such a relief!

The train ride I like is the one that goes North to Tarrytown to Poughkeepsie. Round trip. The train hugs the Hudson and on a sunny day it is priceless. Plus I see people I would not see or meet in a car.

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