Currently, as the U.S. is once again embarking on a major passenger railroad building era, it is especially timely to look back 100 years to the opening of New York Pennsylvania Station in the fall of 1910. The impressive station, built in the Romanesque style, was just one element of the PRR’s “New York Improvement and Tunnel Extension” project. Although the project name was modest, it was indeed a monumental endeavor. The project involved two single-track tunnels under the Hudson River (North River) and Bergen Hill in New Jersey, the 21-track Penn Station, tunnels for four tracks under the streets of Manhattan and the East River, the Sunnyside Yard complex in Queens, new electric rolling stock, low-voltage d.c. third-rail electrification, and the Manhattan Transfer Station in New Jersey, where steam and electric locomotives interchanged.
Construction was initiated in 1903, and just seven years later the massive Penn Station complex was opened in phases. On Thursday, Sept. 8, 1910, the Long Island Rail Road section saw the first revenue trains. The full station opened and PRR service through the Hudson River tunnels started Sunday, Nov. 27, 1910, at 12:02 a.m., when a local five-car train going to South Amboy, N.J. departed. According to the wonderful history of the project, “Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels,” by Jill Jonnes, the PRR publicity bureau estimated that 100,000 people were present that first evening. Although the first train west to New Jersey was a commuter run, Penn Station served primarily as an intercity terminal during the next 50 years, until airlines became the dominant mode for long distance travel.
The spectacular terminal in New York was not the only major passenger gateway completed in the early years of the 20th century by the PRR. Just two years earlier, in 1908, the PRR, together with the Baltimore & Ohio, completed Washington Union Station. Among the monumental features was the train concourse—at 760 feet by 130 feet, said to be the largest single room in the world, with 32 station tracks. However, the station was just one element of a program of projects that included a two-track tunnel under Capitol Hill, and 60 miles of track in railroad yards to the north.
The PRR also replaced station facilities in Wilmington, Del., in 1907 and in Baltimore in 1911. These stations joined the PRR’s Broad Street Station adjacent to City Hall in Center City Philadelphia, which had been constructed in 1881 and expanded in 1893.
The PRR’s development of the NEC continued as it completed the New York Connecting Railroad in 1917, linking its New York-Washington services with the New York, New Haven & Hartford for service to Boston. The PRR constructed the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River. It was the largest arch bridge at that time, carrying four railroad tracks on a 1,000-foot span.
With the advancement of railroad electrification technology, the next phase of NEC improvement proceeded. After electrifying lines in and around Philadelphia with catenary supplying high-voltage a.c., the PRR decided in 1928 to electrify its lines serving New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Harrisburg. This entailed converting the New York tunnels to catenary, eliminating changes between third-rail electric and steam locomotives. Manhattan Transfer was no longer needed, and the PRR proceeded to share the cost with the City of Newark, N.J., for construction of Newark Penn Station. Although the New York and Washington terminals were architecturally unique and impressive, they were developed prior to implementation of local connecting transit services, which came later. Newark Penn Station was designed as a fully integrated multimodal hub that included rapid transit, streetcar, and bus services. The Hudson & Manhattan rapid transit system (now PATH), for service to Jersey City and Manhattan, was integrated with the six PRR tracks in the station structure, providing cross-platform connections. The Newark City Subway (now Newark Light Rail), which connected to a network of streetcar lines, terminated under the station, and a city bus terminal was located under the elevated railroad tracks and connected directly to the passenger concourse system. Newark Penn Station, designed in the Art Deco style, together with the moveable Dock Bridge over the Passaic River, opened in 1935.
The PRR’s electrification initiative also facilitated the replacement of Philadelphia Broad Street Station, a capacity constrained stub-end terminal. Since Broad Street Station handled a very large commuter operation, the underground Suburban Station was built to replace the Center City station, which opened in 1930. Concurrently, 30th Street Station, which opened in 1933, was constructed along the New York-Washington main line. On the north side of the building, six tracks and three platforms accommodate the suburban trains to and from Center City. Despite the financial constraints of the Great Depression, the neo-classical design of 30th Street Station continued the PRR’s development of monumental gateways to its passenger rail system.
The last phase of the PRR’s major investment program was implementation of overhead catenary electrification, enabling operation of through trains between the commercial and political capitals of the nation. The electrification project, funded with government help, was completed in early 1935.
In the post-World War II period, the nation’s passenger rail services began a precipitous decline as air travel and the construction of the interstate highway system drew travelers away. By the time Amtrak assumed control of the NEC in 1976, the above-ground facilities of New York Penn Station had been lost to the wrecking ball (in 1963). Washington Union Station had suffered years of neglect and deterioration, even as the federal government was trying to convert it into a national visitor’s center. The other stations on the line were also deteriorating. Beginning in the late 1970s, the federal government’s Northeast Corridor Improvement Project (NECIP) began to turn things around. The project invested in high speed rail improvements, including station improvements, and encouraged host states to invest as well. Concurrently, as local transit operators assumed the NEC’s commuter rail services, they also invested in station repairs and capacity improvements to accommodate fast-growing commuter rail markets.
By 1983, Washington Union Station had so significantly deteriorated that the federal government recognized that a major refurbishment was needed. It created the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit organization that devised a public-private initiative to convert the station into a retail and transportation hub. The station is now one of the most visited attractions in Washington, D.C. New York Penn has also undergone a renaissance with significant investment by its three current operators—Amtrak, LIRR, and NJ Transit. Similarly, Philadelphia 30th Street Station and the stations in Newark, Wilmington, and Baltimore have benefited from upgrades and redevelopment. Amtrak Acela Express trains have established high speed rail, surpassing the modal share of air travel.
Although the monumental station building in New York is gone, after 100 years the NEC and its stations are poised for the next 100 years. The expansion of Penn Station passenger facilities into the James A. Farley Post Office is advancing toward construction. NJ Transit and the Port Authority are awarding contracts for the construction of Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), a new railroad tunnel system under the Hudson River with a six-track expansion of Penn Station. Planning for further improvement of Washington Union Station is under way. Unifying these efforts and establishing an overall vision for the next 30 to 50 years is the recently completed NEC Master Plan, prepared by Amtrak and its operating partners. The plan has identified over $40 billion of improvements to transform the basic infrastructure to accommodate the next generation of high speed, regional, and commuter rail services. Thus, the PRR’s example can provide inspiration for continuing the development of our rail system. Can we muster the innovative approaches, resources, and leadership that our successors will celebrate in 100 years?
Jack Kanarek is Planning Manager at SYSTRA, directing public transit planning projects and initiatives. Prior to joining SYSTRA, Kanarek had a long career in New Jersey, where he last served as Senior Director of Project Development at NJ Transit.