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Saturday, June 12, 2010

The new America: Prelude to the Downfall

I recently took a road trip Amtrak to Albany, New York, for business. I was relieved to be traveling by Amtrak because I find flying somewhat stressful. Airports, no matter when you travel, are always crowded, so I was looking forward to the relative leisure of the train.

From my house on Mercer Street in Fishtown I cabbed it to 30th Street Station, an architectural landmark of major proportions. Built during the Great Depression, the Art Deco interior design has always made me feel good about travel. The immense high ceilings, the lighting, and even the food court makes waiting for a train much more pleasurable than being stuck in a confined security space in an airport.

Like most Philadelphians, I tend to take the grandeur of 30th Street for granted. Opened in 1934, the original station included a chapel, a mortuary and 3,300 square feet of hospital space, not to mention a small landing strip on the roof for small aircraft.

The station is also famous for Walker Hancock’s 1950 bronze sculpture of the Archangel Michael (“The Angel of Mercy” statue), a memorial to Pennsylvania Railroad employees who died in World War 11.

In the train from Philadelphia to New York City, I had a seat to myself, but that would change once I changed trains for Albany.

Although New York’s Penn Station was the original inspiration for 30th Street Station, the interior of Penn Station today is nothing like its Philadelphia counterpart. Drop ceilings in the style of Philadelphia’s Suburban Station cover a labyrinth of corridors that zig zag among departure and arrival points, while the central departure point for interstate trains is a tight, almost claustrophobic space in comparison to 30th Street’s wide expanse. Whatever beauty Penn Station may have on the outside has been lost with interior modernization. Being in Penn Station is like being in Philadelphia’s Gallery Mall when packed with 5,000 people.

The ride to Albany from NYC was a mob scene. Boarding the train I wasn’t sure that I’d find a seat, despite the $75.00 one way ticket. In the world of train travel, people like to claim seats for themselves, spreading out laptops and newspapers and arranging their bodies in a “lounge” position so they have an optimum of leg room. This may be the ideal way to travel, but in a world already too crowded, if you board a train while en route finding a seat can be an unpleasant experience. It doesn’t help that Amtrak seems to overbook besides limiting the number of passenger cars.

En route to Albany I sat with a huge New York state Democratic committee returning from a field trip to Washington DC. Leg space was on the order of your average sardine can. If you moved your elbow the wrong way, you poked your seat mate in the ribs.

I won’t go into my stay in Albany, other than to say that I met some fellow Fishtowners in the B&B. Albany has a lot to recommend it, and it’s a city I could call home, but that’s another story.

The return trip to Philadelphia got rid of any illusions I had concerning the romance of train travel. Everybody, it seems, is now opting to forgo flying for the mythical benefits of Amtrak. The train that left Albany came from Boston, so finding a seat, once again, was a major challenge. On that ride I sat with a hung over college kid returning home from a friend’s two day wedding spectacular, and on the other side of the aisle two young women were busy handing out Bible tracts. Upon arrival in Penn Station, NYC, the scene was pure chaos. Some passengers opted to sit in a ticketed waiting room, but the vast majority chose to sit on the floor of the station in front of the train departure board. On the floor large groups of people ate sandwiches and drank soda Third World-style, something that would never be permitted at 30th Street Station. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman with mental problems could be heard shouting a litany of obscenities as military guards with guns patrolled the area, and police officers with dogs made their way among the throngs.

Nowhere did I see an information booth for lost and confused Amtrak travelers—thank you, Philadelphia, for providing one in 30th Street—but there was a very large Police booth. The officer on duty, who could not answer traveler’s questions, was busy reading a novel.
I waited for the train to Philly for almost 2 hours, and when it finally came, it was more crowded than the Orient Express.

Arriving, finally, in 30th Street Station, I almost kissed the ground before going off to find a cab.

1 comment:

  1. "Whatever beauty Penn Station may have on the outside has been lost with interior modernization..."


    New York's Penn Station was spacious and beautiful at one time. That time ended in 1964 when the magnificent station was torn down and a new, low-ceilinged rabbit warren, the current Penn Station, was built atop the same tracks and infrastructure.

    Thom Nickels is too young to remember that, but not too young to do his research before writing.


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