Amtraks Across America: the New Penn Station

This is the first part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

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The new Moynihan Train Hall, a waiting room built at a cost of $1.6 billion, at New York’s Pennsylvania Station, across Eighth Avenue from the existing Amtrak station, which is between Seventh and Eighth avenues under Madison Square Garden. Photo: Matthew Stevenson

No doubt because devils possessed me, I came up with the idea to travel around the United States this past summer on an Amtrak pass, one of those deals that would give me ten “segments” (the Amtrak expression for short-term incarceration) in a month.

I imagined crossing the Great Plains on night trains or, as I once did in 1975, eating in the dining car with my Pennsylvania Railroad friend Ian Maclaren Cipperly while thunderstorms rolled across the North Dakota prairie.

As it happened, my childhood coincided with the guttering candle of American railroad greatness, and until I was in college it was still possible to ride the Burlington Northern across Wyoming or the Illinois Central from Chicago down to New Orleans—something I did often, when growing up, in the company of my father.

Then came the Great Amtrak Awakening in 1971, which consigned American passenger service to a dismal swamp of airline-ish day coaches, inedible food, confused routings, and overpriced sleepers, all run by “coach assistants” who on many trains take some pleasure in speaking to the traveling public as if everyone was on probation.

The American Revolution: A Near Run Thing

I overlook these inconveniences because often, when I take the train somewhere in America, I am reminded of the country’s primordial greatness—something impossible to divine while watching CNN interview victims of a school gun shooting or when I am stuck in traffic on the Goethals Bridge.

For example, I love Amtrak when the train from New York to Washington brushes along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay on a series of low wooden bridges, allowing me to brood about the War of 1812 (fought partly around the Chesapeake) and how the American Revolution was a near-run thing.

Nor can I get enough of the view of the Hudson River, as seen on “lake shore” (i.e., New York Central) trains between New York and Chicago. Around West Point, which is on the far shore of the river, I think of Benedict Arnold and Major André, and speculate as to how the plans to the American citadel ended up in the British major’s boot.

After a short trial, George Washington ordered André hanged as a spy, turning down the major’s request that he be shot by a firing squad (at the time that punishment was more in keeping with the expectations of an officer and a gentlemen). And I often have that fatal colloquy in mind when I think about what sentence Donald Trump could receive if someday he is convicted of treason for his attacks on the Capitol and the democracy, or for stealing state secrets.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, I find myself drawn to much of the American landscape. I love, for example, Georgia’s red clay (which shows up at sunrise on an overnight train from Washington to Florida), and I never grow tired—tedious as it might seem to some—of the farmland in states such as Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. I like listening to the bells at the grade-crossings, and I like sitting in my seat, map and book in hand, but with my eyes focused on amber waves of grain. And I defy anyone to think ill of America after they have seen the Columbia River between Spokane and Portland from an observation car.

All this is to explain why I persist with my Amtrak travels—when reason might well counsel me to stay home with my books and cat.

Through Lancaster to Harrisburg

For my first travel “segment” I decided to catch a late afternoon train from New York’s Pennsylvania Station to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I could spend the night with friends.

One of the good things about an Amtrak segment pass is that it’s a fungible currency (perhaps not unlike the sunken Bitcoin or Ripple?) in that up until the departure time of a booked train it’s very easy to cancel one reservation and book another.

That morning I had thought I was heading south to Wilmington, Delaware, to meet other friends, but when those plans fell through—my friend had covid—I vectored off to Harrisburg with the click of a few keystrokes.

The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station

Amtrak trains in New York City now depart from the new Moynihan Train Hall, a waiting room and station that was built for $1.6 billion behind the Eighth Avenue post office in a building that echoes the Pennsylvania Station that was torn town in the early 1960s.

For Americans of a certain age—and I am one—the destruction of “the old Pennsylvania Station” symbolizes everything that was going wrong in the country during the postwar years.

The tearing down of Penn Station was the celebration of the planes, interstates, and cars over trains, mass transit, and, I would add, humanity. It was the glorification of glitz over substance, as in its place the city put up a hideous new Madison Square Garden, and it was also an attack on the classical associations of American architecture (Penn Station was designed with ancient Rome’s Baths of Caracalla in mind).

For years New York’s senator Patrick Moynihan lobbied for Penn Station to move across Eighth Avenue and set up shop in what was the Farley Post Office building, which had enough Corinthian columns to satisfy people like me that the injustice done to Penn Station was being righted.

Senator Moynihan Gets His Hall

During the height of the pandemic the Moynihan Train Hall opened, and there were pictures in the press of an empty amphitheater, the bivouac of a few homeless and little more. (In its wisdom Amtrak decided against having any waiting room benches in the hall, so everyone, including the homeless, sprawls on the new marble floors, giving it the air of a bus station or a Boy Scout Jamboree.)

I had seen train hall before, but this was my first trip on Amtrak from Moynihan. To be sure the $1.6 billion space is an upgrade over the old Penn Station, which since the 1963 teardown has been little more than a subterranean urinal and hot-dog emporium whose idea of air conditioning in the underworld gloom is to run huge fans that do little more than circulate discarded wrappers.

I did like the Moynihan Train Hall, even if the Crystal Palace waiting room above is not aligned with the platforms below. If you take a train into Moynihan, the chances are good that you will alight in the old Penn Station, and emerge like a rat scurrying from its hole.

Moynihan might lack the elegance of Grand Central or the romance of some European terminals (take your pick as nearly all are lovely), but it’s certainly a step up from the dry cleaning establishments that pass for most Amtrak stations around the country. (Pennsylvania Station in Pittsburgh has all the charm of a waiting room in an auto body.) But at least like E.B. White’s Stuart Little, as I headed out with my Amtrak pass, I somehow felt I was “headed in the right direction.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.