An example of what the platforms and tracks would look like if Penn Station was rebuilt for through-running service.

Thank you to ReThinkNYC, for allowing us to use their graphics to help explain the issue at Penn Station. Check out the videos on their site for a more in-depth look at their proposal for improving Penn Station and creating a regional rail network.

Proposed renovation plans for New York’s Penn Station and Washington D.C.’s Union Station signal that two major cities are giving high priority to trains in their growth plans. Which is great news.

But there is a contentious debate over how the projects should move forward. The debate comes down to this question: Will potential riders be more incentivized by fast, frequent trains—or by beautiful, modernized stations?

Current plan for Penn Station, for example, would totally renovate and beautify the building but do nothing to improve the platforms in the station, which date to the building’s construction in the early 1900s. Penn served vastly fewer passengers in that era.

Those crowded platforms are a big problem—beyond just safety and inconvenience issues. Spacious platforms are key to improving train service overall, because wider platforms allow people to board (and exit) trains much more quickly. For example, passengers exiting the train could use one side, and those entering could use the other.

Faster boarding would allow for trains to get in and out more quickly. And that would allow for more frequent service. Combined with through-running—or the ability for trains to pass through the station, rather than terminating there—wider platforms in Penn Station could drive a true transformation of New York’s transportation system.

NYC’s system could be comparable, in fact, to the excellent regional express rail systems in Paris, London, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Which is the path not taken in the current plan.

With that background in mind, here’s a look at where the Penn Station project stands—and a summary of the vision for Penn Station put forward by the plan’s critics. We’ll focus on D.C.’s Union Station in part 2.

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