During the darkest days of the pandemic, the new Moynihan Train Hall seemed like a gift from the gods. The addition to Penn Station, converted from the old James A. Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue, opened in January. It is a cavernous hall with light streaming in from the high vaulted glass ceiling—a stark contrast to the dank, subterranean warrens of old. The critics raved. “It’s not traditional or modern but both,”
noted in The New Yorker, “combining early-20th-century grandeur with early-21st-century sophistication.”
Moynihan is certainly a striking piece of public architecture, but I wonder how many who are hailing it have tried boarding a train there. As an occasional Long Island Rail Road rider, I have found the new hall something between frustrating and irrelevant—the latest of the city’s architectural showpieces that seem designed more to impress outsiders than to serve New Yorkers who actually use it.
The frustrations start with signage. If you get off the subway at Eighth Avenue and 34th Street (the only stop with direct access to the new hall), you are greeted by a pair of signs: Penn Station to the left, Moynihan Train Hall to the right.
Pop quiz: Which way should you go?
Moynihan is not a replacement for Penn Station, or even much of a renovation. Rather, it’s a gaudy, retro-chic, Rube Goldbergian add-on. It doesn’t sit atop the existing train station but across the street, providing alternate access to Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road gates (but not NJ Transit). The underground corridors of Penn Station are still there, bustling with people but now bleaker than ever, since all the shops and food outlets have been removed to prepare for a renovation that is most likely months or years away.
Many train riders will never even encounter the Moynihan Train Hall, not that there is any real need to. Amenities are surprisingly scarce. For the first few months an overcrowded
was the only food outlet in the hall (though a couple more have opened recently, and a full food court is promised for later this year). There are no newsstands or bodegas. Even ticket machines are scarce. An LIRR rider in Penn Station can’t walk more than a few dozen steps without encountering several automated ticket kiosks. In the gleaming new 31,000-square-foot Moynihan Train Hall, I count a total of five kiosks, all tucked into one corner—and none on the lower concourse, where many riders wait for trains.
Most exasperating, there is no place to sit—no benches or seating of any kind in the main public area. This was also the case in the old Penn Station, but I came to enjoy plopping down on the floor with my coffee and newspaper (a throwback to my student traveling days) while waiting for my gate to flash on the departure board. When I did the same in the Moynihan Train Hall, I was promptly rousted to my feet by a uniformed hall monitor and directed to the waiting lounge reserved for ticketed passengers only.
It’s a nice lounge, no question—comfortable seats, restrooms, plugs for your laptop. But it overflows on busy days and the no-seating policy in the main hall strikes me as a hostile, antidemocratic act. Clearly it is intended to discourage the homeless from camping out, but why should workaday New Yorkers be punished for the city’s failure to solve its homeless problem?
What’s more, the station hasn’t solved the most glaring Penn Station anachronism. Only a couple of the LIRR gates provide direct escalator access down to the boarding area. For most of the gates, passengers must follow signs to the lower concourse level, where they are confronted with—talk about retro-chic—a flight of stairs.
Two middle-aged travelers with heavy roller bags stared in disbelief when I arrived at Gate 19 a couple of weeks ago. They asked if an elevator was around. I couldn’t say, since there were no signs—and no time to search. The man wound up clunk-clunk-clunking his bag down 23 steps. I helped the woman with hers, marveling all the way that New York’s new $1.6 billion, state-of-the-art, 30-years-in-the-making train hall couldn’t find a way to eliminate stairs.
In a statement responding to criticisms of the hall,
a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., emphasized that the “guiding principle of the Moynihan Train Hall project has always been to expand concourse space and improve passenger circulation,” which to some degree it has. Additional seating, he added, “was always planned to be included in the final phases of construction as retail and other areas are completed.”
Translation: Go to the food court if you want to sit down.
The more you experience Moynihan, the more you realize where its priorities lie. For the most part, this is Amtrak’s show. All the Amtrak trains (not just some) are accessible by escalator from the main hall. The fancy first-class Amtrak lounge offers a balcony view of the hall, food service and a nursing mothers’ room. Acela riders emerging into the hall from Washington or Boston (as long as they pick the right exit) will be impressed.
From the giant, precariously skinny residential towers rising along Billionaires’ Row to the soulless, hard-to-access Hudson Yards complex (with its signature jungle-gym sculpture that now requires a suicide watch), too much of the city’s new development seems primarily intended to dazzle tourists and critics, rather than serve the locals trying to navigate its aging infrastructure.
Moynihan Hall is dazzling, a spiffy attraction, and at least a first step in the long-overdue updating of Penn Station. For now, however, New Yorkers who use the station are left holding the bags.
Mr. Zoglin is author, most recently, of “Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show.”
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8