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New train hall opens at New York's Penn Station, echoing building's former glory

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who championed the project, has likened it to the majestic Grand Central Terminal

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The Moynihan hall caters primarily to Amtrak passengers, who account for just 5 per cent of Penn Station's 650,000 weekday riders and will board and exit trains through the new waiting area.

New York

FOR more than a half-century, New Yorkers have trudged through the crammed platforms, dark hallways and oppressively low ceilings of Pennsylvania Station, the busiest and perhaps most miserable train hub in North America.

Entombed beneath Madison Square Garden, the station served 650,000 riders each weekday before the pandemic, or three times the number it was built to handle.

But as more commuters return to Penn Station this year, they will be welcomed by a new, US$1.6 billion train hall complete with more than an acre of glass skylights, art installations and 92-foot-high ceilings that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who championed the project, has likened to the majestic Grand Central Terminal.

After nearly three years of construction, the new Moynihan Train Hall, in the James A Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station, opened to the public on Jan 1 as a waiting room for Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers.

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For decades, the huge undertaking was considered an absolution of sorts for one of the city's greatest sins: the demolition in the 1960s of the original Penn Station building, an awe-inspiring structure that was a stately gateway to the country's economic powerhouse.

The destruction of the station was a turning point in New York's civic life. It prompted a fierce backlash among defenders of the city's architectural heritage, the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and renewed efforts to protect Grand Central Terminal.

That the project has been completed during a period when the city was brought to a standstill is a hopeful reminder that the bustle of midtown Manhattan will return, Mr Cuomo said.

"This would be an amazing accomplishment at any time, but it is an extraordinary accomplishment today," he said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the new hall on Wednesday.

"As dark as 2020 was, to me this hall brings the light, literally and figuratively."

The project has its detractors, who fault state officials for not going far enough in reimagining Penn Station. These critics note that the Moynihan Train Hall will serve only some of the passengers who use Penn Station, ignoring the needs of subway riders.

For nearly 30 years, elected leaders have debated transforming the Farley building from a post office to an extension of Penn Station - an idea first proposed by Senator Daniel Moynihan, who was known for his innovative, if not always realistic, solutions to urban ills.

The Farley building, Moynihan argued, offered an obvious solution to Penn Station's overcrowding: commuter train tracks ran beneath the large post office, which was no longer a busy mail hub but still had a grandeur that echoed the original Penn Station's.

That building was demolished starting in 1963 as the Pennsylvania Railroad Co went bankrupt.

At least five versions of Moynihan's original plan later, Mr Cuomo broke ground for the project in 2017.

Two major private developers, Related Cos and Vornado, contributed US$630 million in exchange for a 99-year lease on much of the century-old Farley building; the other US$970 million came from public sources.

The train hall is one of several major infrastructure projects that Mr Cuomo has spearheaded as he seeks to make such initiatives a hallmark of his tenure.

Still, the Moynihan hall caters primarily to Amtrak passengers, who account for just 5 per cent of Penn Station's 650,000 weekday riders and will board and exit trains through the new waiting area.

Long Island Rail Road commuters will be able to get to trains from the new hall, but officials expect most of them to continue to use the older Penn Station.

The station's six subway lines run along Eighth and Seventh avenues and Avenue of the Americas - a good distance from the new train hall.

That leaves subway riders, who tend to be less affluent than Amtrak users and New Jersey Transit commuters, to the bowels of Penn Station.

"By opening Moynihan, it's basically like opening the first-class lounge at the airport," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, who founded Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, a New York architecture firm, and proposed a radical plan to move Madison Square Garden and open up Penn Station in 2016.

"Moynihan is a really good phase one; it's the appetiser," he said. "But the main station in the sub-basement of the Garden is the entree."

The new hall also does not solve Penn Station's fundamental problem: a lack of capacity.

In recent years, growing ridership on the commuter rail and subway lines that serve the station has clogged platforms and passageways with bottlenecks.

While the new hall will relieve some of the strain by moving the designated waiting area for all Amtrak trains out of Penn Station and turning that concourse into a New Jersey Transit boarding area, more trains, tracks and platforms are needed to truly thin the station's crowds, officials said.

To address the station's limited capacity, elected officials have proposed two major infrastructure projects - known as Gateway and Penn South - that would require years of construction and many billions of dollars of investment.

Still, even before the projects are complete, the 255,000-square-foot Moynihan hall could help reinvigorate the surrounding neighbourhood, which has long been considered a poor cousin to the area near Grand Central Terminal.

Walking into the Moynihan Train Hall is like entering a new world. Natural light pours into the main concourse from skylights supported by the building's original steel trusses.

A cube-shaped clock, complete with details that mimic those architectural bones, hangs from the center of the atrium. Tucked into three corners of the hall are installations by Kehinde Wiley and other celebrated artists.

"We think this is a fantastic statement in our busiest station of what the future can hold," said Stephen Gardner, president of Amtrak, which owns Penn Station. "The volume alone will be breathtaking to people."

Already, there are signs of revival in the area surrounding the station. Apple, Amazon and Google have all leased office space in the area, turning it into an emerging tech corridor.

In August, Facebook joined their ranks and agreed to lease all of the 730,000-square-foot office space in the Farley building.

As some of the tech companies' employees and other midtown office workers return to commuting next year, elected officials and transit experts hope the new train hall could help coax them back onto public transit and breathe life back into the heart of the city.

"The timing of this couldn't possibly be better," said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a planning group.

"Right now is a time when we need to bring people back to the city and show how transit and public spaces are safe. Moynihan does just that." NYTIMES

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