TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) Talk about a grand arrival.
When your train arrives at Grand Central Terminal, passengers spill out of the coaches onto a dark and gloomy platform. But as they walk through the station gates into the main hall, and a breathtaking space awaits. The station’s high-arched ceiling shows the sign of the zodiac. Sunlight streams through the station’s four-story-tall windows. The room is full of brass fixtures, carved marble and limestone, and grand staircases.
In a bygone era when cross-country travel took place by train, this was your first impression of New York City. You instantly knew you were somewhere big and important. A sculpture of the Greek god Mercury sits atop the station’s exterior clock. It wasn’t lost on travelers a few generations ago that Mercury’s wings signified that this was the fastest way to travel. I can imagine the red carpet of the 20th Century Limited being rolled out each night as luxury passengers made their way to Track 46.
When I began traveling by train myself, I’d spend some extra time walking around the station before heading to the subway out to Brooklyn. From the Oyster Bar, to the Stationmaster’s office, to the information booth with the jeweled clock, this was a fascinating place. The click-click-click of the giant Omega board showing trains departures is one of those distinctive railroad sounds that sticks with you forever, like the smell of brake grease or the wail of a train whistle.
I was always happy to arrive in New York at Grand Central. When heading back to Connecticut, I always felt I was leaving something behind when I left.
Across town, eight blocks down and five blocks over, was Pennsylvania Station – or what was left of it. The old Penn Station was every bit as grand as Grand Central, until it was surrendered in 1966. The tracks are still there, underneath 7th and 8th Avenue. But the station itself is now in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Part of the station was torn down, the other part became the giant U.S. Post Office across the street.
Penn Station today is not a place to linger. There is no formal entrance, just doors at the corner of each block that lead to escalators that take you downstairs. It could just as esily be a bus terminal, or an unremarkable airport. There are low ceilings and low-rent shops. People scurry through Penn Station, as insects scurry through cracks in a wall.
Many cities today are debating whether to keep their grand old train stations or clear them away for something else. Penn Station reminds me of something that’s lost. Grand Central reminds me that people might be inspired to fall in love with this way of traveling again.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau