“This July is one of the most critical months in Penn Station’s 113-year history. Madison Square Garden’s lease over the station is up this month, and the Garden’s management is insisting it be renewed. At stake is not just Penn Station itself but rail service throughout the entire New York Metropolitan Area.” 

Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Passengers board a LIRR train to Montauk at Penn Station on May 26, 2023.

This July is one of the most critical months in Penn Station’s 113-year history. Madison Square Garden’s lease over the station is up this month, and the Garden’s management is insisting it be renewed. At stake is not just Penn Station itself but rail service throughout the entire New York Metropolitan Area.

The New York Metropolitan Area is over 4,000 square miles in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and is home to 20 million people. Its 2020 Gross Domestic Product was over $1.8 trillion dollars, the most of any metro area in the country. To maximize the productive potential of those 20 million and to provide them with world-class, sustainable transit, a modern rail system needs to knit the entire region together.

The two key points for such a rail transit system are Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station. Those two stations were the dead ends of the private railroads that collapsed in the mid-20th century. If they are linked for through-traffic, the entire Metropolitan Area can be served by the existing Long Island, Metro North and New Jersey Transit commuter lines.

The new Grand Central Madison station (formally the East Side Access) brings the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal and creates the possibility to reach Penn Station. That new station has four tracks that today continue five blocks south of 42nd Street for cleaning and servicing purposes. Extend those tracks another four blocks and one-seat through-traffic from New Jersey through Penn Station to Grand Central Madison, and on to the Metro North and Long Island systems, becomes possible.

With this year’s opening of the Grand Central Madison station, Grand Central Terminal is almost ready for regional operation. Penn Station is utterly unready. In fact, it is a potential wreck.

Penn Station serves 600,000 passengers daily and is America’s busiest rail hub. Today it is at capacity. What is overwhelmingly most important in a train station is not the appearance of its waiting room but its tracks and platforms. The tracks move the trains and the platforms move the passengers. The 21 tracks and 11 platforms in Penn Station today are the most that it can accommodate.

Worse, the platforms, mostly dating from 1910, are too narrow to handle arriving and departing passengers at the same time. The platforms need to be emptied of arrivals before the waiting passengers can be allowed to descend to the trains. Not only are the platforms too narrow, they are obstructed by the many concrete columns supporting Madison Square Garden. The intense crowding then restricts the movement of the trains. 

The tracks themselves are also in crisis. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy did serious damage to the only two tunnels connecting the station with New Jersey. The tracks in each tunnel carry both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. If they failed it would be a catastrophe for the entire northeast. The Gateway program to build two new tunnels began construction this year, but there is currently no space for the new tracks and platforms the new tunnels will bring to the station.

Finally, there is the need to rebuild tracks and platforms to take advantage of the connection of Penn Station with Grand Central Madison and the creation of through-traffic. As originally built over 100 years ago, both stations were terminal stations. Trains enter the station on a track and reverse to leave on the same track. This results in congestion as incoming and outgoing trains intersect at the station entrance. Through-tracks greatly reduce congestion and increase capacity as trains enter the station on one side of the station and then depart continuing in the same direction to the exit on the opposite side. Also, the platforms serving the tracks are wider, allowing passengers to leave on one side of the train while boarding riders enter on the opposite side. Through-service means that the current requirement of switching commuter lines to travel the region can be greatly reduced.

By connecting Penn Station with the Grand Central Madison station and using the existing tracks and tunnels under the East River, through-traffic to Long Island and the Metro North region can become a reality. That Penn Station, however, cannot be achieved using the century old relic under Madison Square Garden. As it has four times before, the Garden must move. The argument that there is nowhere near the current location available is not serious:  10 large commercial buildings were proposed to finance improvements at Penn Station. Those sites are still there, even if the Empire Station Complex proposal has fallen through. MSG is 55 years old. A modern Garden could only benefit from a new Penn Station with a greater capacity.

The currently discussed design to bring light into the waiting platform proposed by the European engineering firm ASTM does nothing to address either the platform or track issues, let alone through-service to the region. The plan involves removing the theater at MSG facing 8th Avenue and opening a glazed perimeter around the existing Garden. While it would allow passengers exiting to both 7th and 8th Avenues, the main orientation would be to 8th Avenue, not where most commuters are heading. More problematic, as current renderings show, a southern extension of the station to accommodate new tracks and platforms would appear to be cut off. In short, the scheme would merely make waiting to get down to your train on a 113-year-old platform a bit more pleasant while making serious modernization far more difficult.

The achievement of an integrated, region-wide MTA rail operation requires that Penn Station be rebuilt to 21st century capabilities. Rationalized through-trackage, wider, unobstructed platforms and up-to-date technology cannot be achieved in a renovated 1910/1968 structure, especially not one underneath Madison Square Garden. 

It is vital that MSG be moved. The issue is money. MSG wants to keep its existing lucrative deal going. New York City has been here before. In 1879 Jay Gould monopolized the city’s new elevated train network to avoid expansion beyond dense and profitable Manhattan. In 1913 IRT operator August Belmont resisted the city’s efforts to extend subway service to the new outer boroughs to keep IRT revenue high. The clash between profit and service has been ongoing in New York’s transit history. 

That a key 21st century transit node would be sacrificed for the sake of a 55-year-old arena is shocking. In the end the city prevailed over Jay Gould and August Belmont. May it do so again this July.

Charles Lauster is an architect in New York City.