on December 18, 2014
The generations that came into adulthood in the mid-sixties and beyond, never had the sublime pleasure of being squired around in a plush, luxurious railroad coach - tended to by waiters and porters, and just generally pampered and spoiled rotten, in a transportation system that was pure romance and adventure.
Unfortunately, the memory of that time will have to do, because it is gone forever, at least in this country.
I got just a brief taste of it while I was in Europe, but it was enough to make me realize just what I had missed out on, and sadly bemoan that fact.
The experience of taking a long train trip to some anticipated destination is as much a part of the pleasure of the trip as even finally arriving at your journey's end, rather than having to sit stuffed into a narrow seat on a plane, unable to move about for several hours.
On a train, you can roam the aisle, or visit the club car for a drink or a snack, chatting with the other passengers, while being continually amazed by the ever-changing scenery.
It is so interesting to see how the tone of the landscape changes - from the depressing slum surroundings on the outskirts of town, to beautiful, spacious country fields and wooded areas, to the busy hustle and bustle of the big city - or gliding through a long tunnel through the mountains.
You can experience things on a train which will stay with you forever: On a train bound for Copenhagen, going through Germany, the tracks stopped at the banks of the Baltic Sea. A sea-going ferry eased up to the shore, and raised the tip of the bow section, revealing three sets of train tracks on the second deck, inside the ship.
The ship was lined up on the tracks and secured to the shore, and the train broken up into three sections, and loaded onto the ship. The ship's crew winched the train down to the tracks so the cars were tied down tight. Then the ship backed away from the shore, lowered the bow, turned around, and we set sail for Copenhagen.
We had remained in the cars throughout this whole procedure, and once we were under way, we were finally allowed to leave the rail cars and go up on the ship's top deck to visit the customs window and have our papers stamped. The sea gulls hovered just inches above us, keeping pace with the ship, as the ship steamed out to sea.
We then went to the dining room, and a more grand and glorious place you have never seen: Uniformed waiters, in their finest livery, with white hand towels over their arm, and the most elaborate buffet, complete with ice sculptures, full of every imaginable seafood and gourmet delight.
The cost of the buffet was 5 marks: At the time, the exchange rate was 4 German marks to one US dollar.
Sadly, the only way we will ever experience first-class train travel, in an air-conditioned, comfortable coach, is vicariously - through a travel DVD or old movies.
Actually, rail travel is still thriving in Europe, but it is mostly a relic of the distant past here in the USA.
And the more you think about it, the more incredible it is to realize that an entire transportation system, in use for well over 100 years, has now all but completely disappeared.
However, people in New York and Chicago, and a few other major cities with local rail service, have not been subjected to the complete absence of the rail experience, because they still have the local trains.
Of course, that's not quite the same as long-distance inter-city rail travel, but it is a train, nevertheless.
Unfortunately, it is very possible that the vast majority of the rest of the nation may have never set foot on a train.
To my deep regret, I was never privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the magnificent Pennsylvania Station, and I wouldn't presume to justify the unforgivable act of destroying what was, most definitely, a wonderful work of art.
But even though I was old enough to have actually seen the original building before it was demolished, it would have been near the end of its lifespan, in a depleted condition, and I would not have been able to see it during its glory years.
There was once a time when the farthest away from home one could get was limited to how far a horse and buggy could travel, whether roads even existed to where you wanted to go, and the fastest speed we could experience was determined by how fast a horse could gallop.
And then one day the steam-powered train, or "Iron Horse," appeared on the scene, and immediately began to transform the entire society by making it possible for people to travel to places they could only dream about before, and at "death-defying" speeds, of as much as 20 miles per hour!
The whole advent of the railroad, and even just the train itself, was quite a world apart from anything else that has ever existed, before or since. To fully realize the incredible power of a locomotive almost stretches the imagination beyond human comprehension..
When you consider that a single steam locomotive, operated by two men - an engineer and a fireman - could routinely pull a train of Pullman coaches weighing 80 tons apiece, at speeds that simply boggled the mind, and do it over distances of hundreds of miles, simply by shoveling coal into a fire, it was nothing short of miraculous, and almost impossible to believe.
To say that the train was amazing is to seriously understate the case. The incredible, raw power of a steam locomotive was pretty much beyond the comprehension of anybody who had never seen one before. In fact, even now, as you observe it happening, it is still hard to believe that it is actually possible.
Today, when we are stopped at a railroad crossing and see loaded coal cars sailing by in numbers too high to count, we just take it for granted, because it is not an unusual sight at all.
But I still marvel at the amazing ability of two diesel engines, hooked back-to-back, to haul trains that weigh untold thousands of tons, as easily as we jump in our car to go to the corner store.
That single factor - the immense power of the railway locomotive, whether steam or diesel, was what enabled this country to expand in all directions, from border to border, to provide access to areas which otherwise might never have been settled, and grow to become the unchallenged world leader it ultimately became. As the rail system grew, so too did the country, by leaps and bounds, when virtually the whole United States west of the Eastern Seaboard was still largely unsettled and untamed.
It was as if there was simply no limit to the incredible capacity of the train to haul whatever needed to be moved, be it passengers, or freight, or both.
The construction of the railroad made it all possible, when we were still primarily a horse-and-buggy society.
Building the railroad created communities and towns and eventually whole cities, in places where virtually nothing had existed before.
The train, and everything about the whole railroad system, was simply a miracle, anyway you look at it.
In retrospect, when you think of the incredible outlay of capital necessary to have built - not just Pennsylvania Station, but every aspect of the whole railroad system - from the humongous locomotives, to the huge, heavy rail cars, and the thousands of miles of track - every single section of which had to be laid, and aligned, and spiked down, and leveled, and ballasted, and maintained - it is almost more than the mind can imagine.
And that's not even counting the valleys that had to be filled, and the mountaintops blasted away, and the tunnels and bridges built, to even have a path to lay tracks on in the first place.
Because the trains themselves were so huge and so incredibly powerful, everything about the railroads was done on a heroic, gigantic scale; which was most obviously apparent in the enormity of the train stations.
At the time Penn Station was built, the Pennsylvania Railroad was second only to the Federal Government in size - the largest public or private corporation in the world.
But even though they were the biggest railroad, their presence in New York was miniscule, because of the fact that Manhattan was an island, and the water was an insurmountable barrier to bringing their rail lines into the heart of the city. The Pennsylvania RR tracks dead-ended at the banks of the Hudson River, in New Jersey.
They had to transfer the passengers to ferry-boats for the remainder of the trip from the end of the line over to the island, and onto another train, and then into their meager little station in New York.
This was a situation that had grown more and more intolerable to the president of the Pennsylvania RR, and he was determined to finally do something about it.
The distance was too great to seriously consider building a bridge from New Jersey to New York. Plus, it would have to be high enough to allow ocean-going ships to pass under it. The only feasible solution was a tunnel, which had already been tried, unsuccessfully; but they knew that this was the only possible way to make it happen, so they decided to try again.
They needed a very large chunk of their resources to embark upon what was the biggest and most uncertain gamble of all; to tunnel under the Hudson River, into Manhattan - which had been attempted previously by a different company, but had failed. And, the incredible unknown and unforeseeable logistical problems that they would encounter threatened to defeat the effort to build the tunnel yet once again.
Since the invention of the electric-powered locomotive, they had been steadily improved to the point that they were a viable alternative to steam power, and this made it possible to seriously forge ahead with the construction of the tunnels. The use of electric power was the only possible way to navigate the long, enclosed tunnels, because of the smoke and cinders of a steam engine.
Even after they got the tunnel virtually completed, imagine a problem so immense as the weight of the incoming tide causing the tunnel to settle down into the soft mud, making them realize that the thousands of tons of a train moving through the tunnel could cause it to become unstable, and possibly collapse and sink to the bottom. And so they came up with the solution of drilling shafts every 15 feet down to bedrock, and shoring up the tunnel with concrete.
The massive size of the above-ground station was the least of their concerns; they had complete control over whatever size they wanted to make it, but had no guarantee that they would be able to use it even after they had it completed, if they couldn't succeed in getting the tunnels operational. But when you have bet everything you've got on your ability to make it happen, you are totally committed, and in the game until the end, no matter what.
Even building the magnificent station, at all, was not actually a necessity. They had built a completely functional station below ground, extending four levels deep, where all the railroad and subway cars came and went, and what the above-ground station really amounted to was primarily a glorious waiting room.
In that golden era of the railroads, bigger was always better, which was definitely influenced by the generally oversized aspect of all things concerning trains - most especially the train itself.
And so they wanted more than just another anonymous subway entrance; they wanted to have the biggest and most glamorous station of all, a place of high visibility - a showpiece - being the biggest rail company, and New York was, after all, the most important market in the country.
Besides which, once they succeeded in actually getting their trains into Manhattan, they definitely wanted to outshine the New York Central, and Grand Central Station.
They eventually overcame all of the stumbling blocks, and did succeed in getting it all operating smoothly, just as they planned, and Penn Station was the jewel in the crown of the Pennsylvania Railroad for over fifty years. They finally had the masterpiece of a main station befitting the biggest train company in the world. On one single day - Christmas Eve of 1943, in the middle of the war years, over 178,000 people passed through it. (The capacity of Yankee Stadium, by the way, is 50,291.)
This was the magnificent nerve center of the railroad era - operating thousands of trains per day, coming and going; the epitome of style and grandeur, causing absolute awe and wonderment to everyone who experienced it.
In comparison, just imagine that O'Hare Airport was a train station, and you would have approximately what Penn Station was like.
But after the war, even with an increasing population, ridership steadily declined, as the reliance on rail transportation began to fall away.
Times were definitely changing: Blame Henry Ford, GM, Chrysler, and the Interstate Highway System, plus the airlines and bus lines, but with more choices than ever before, fewer and fewer people were opting to take a train.
The huge public indignation over the destruction of Penn Station is totally understandable, until you stop to consider the alternative that many people advocated; that of preserving forever, this immense structure.
Just for a moment, think of the millions of dollars that would be required simply to maintain it in serviceable condition, without the income that it generated when it was serving the purpose for which it was originally intended.
Even if it had been designated a museum, and an admission fee assessed, a walking tour through the building might have consumed several hours - only to stand in awe of its fantastic size for just a few moments.
While I never saw Penn Station, I did go through Union Station in Indianapolis, which, while certainly not on the same scale as Penn Station, probably came pretty close.
My first reaction upon seeing Union Station was that I was totally overwhelmed at the spectacular size of a building that just went on and on and on, and realizing that this was as it necessarily had to be designed - just to accomplish what it was built to do - which was to accommodate the incredible throng of people who would use it every day, on a constant and ongoing basis, back in the day of rail travel.
Keep in mind that when many of the the huge train stations were built, it was before the turn of the century - in the mid to late 1800s - or in the early decades of the twentieth century. Union Station in Indianapolis was built in 1853. Penn Station in New York opened in 1910.
Grand Central Station started life as a humble subway station, but was steadily enlarged, and rebuilt in 1913 into the monolithic structure we know today.
In those days, except for the horse and buggy, the trains were pretty much all there was. The automobile had only just been invented in the early years of the 20th century. What few cars there were, most people couldn't afford. There were mostly dirt roads, with only a few paved highways. If you wanted to go almost any distance at all, outside of locally, about the only way to get there was by train. The railroad network resembled an octopus: The station was the central hub, with the rail lines radiating out all around, in every direction.
But now, of course, train travel is no more, for all intents and purposes.
The trains have not gone away; they are still just as vital as ever - but only for moving freight. Intercity or interstate passenger train travel is virtually extinct. Only a very few markets still utilize train travel - such as New York/Boston, for one.
The tremendous convenience of having your own personal, private car or SUV, which is equally useful for shopping at the mall or driving cross-country on a family vacation, coupled with the vast network of roads and highways which have been constructed in the past half-century, has rendered mass transportation, and especially land-based public transportation, virtually obsolete.
And so, the huge stations are sort of like dinosaurs. Except that the dinosaurs are all gone, but many of the stations still exist, occupying incredible amounts of space, and sitting on thousands of acres of extremely valuable land. One gets the feeling of walking through a gigantic haunted house, and imagining the activity that used to permeate the place, back in the day.
It seems hard to justify in your mind the need for such an incredibly massive building, as virtually all of the old train stations are, until you think of the automobile traffic on the roads today, and realize that all of those people, if they didn't have a car, would probably be riding a train. The scale of the stations wasn't at all out of the ordinary, when you consider the enormous size of the trains themselves, and, of course, the sheer volume of the massive number of people who continually moved through the buildings.
And that was the singular purpose of a train station: A temporary meeting place, for thousands of people, who would soon be dispersed onto a train, which would take them away to their destination - to be almost immediately replaced by thousands more people, on their way to their own, different destination.
This was a completely unique situation, made so simply because transporting masses of people requires that it be that way.
But once this entire mode of transporting people had outlived it's usefulness, the whole of the machinery of the system became superfluous.
The big question is: What exactly do you do with these behemoths?
The huge amount of space they occupy doesn't really lend itself to converting them to a mall - although that has been tried - but the design is less than ideal for such a purpose. A building constructed to be a train station really doesn't translate very easily into much of anything else but a train station. The sprawling layout and vast size is totally out of sync with any modern-day usage.
And so, in spite of the fact that it is almost unthinkable, one must at least consider the notion that the land would undoubtedly be of infinitely better use, if put to some other purpose. As it is, the stations are serving no purpose whatsoever, now that rail travel no longer exists, except as a sort of static museum, at incredible cost to maintain. They are no longer earning money, but they are still costing money, just to keep them up.
That is, if they're even kept up at all. Many of them have simply been abandoned, and literally deserted for lo these many years.
It is sobering and depressing to observe these relics of the past - wherever you find them - and see the obvious care and thought that went into the design of these graceful buildings, to accommodate the vast number of people that they served on a daily basis.
To see the neglect they have endured, and the deteriorated condition that many of them are in today, it seems somehow more disturbing than to observe a similarly deserted factory building, for example.
Of course, it is entirely possible to restore any of these beautiful old stations to their original glory, and bring them back to life - but to what end? We would still have a huge dinosaur to contend with, serving no useful purpose.
The sad but inescapable fact is that the millions of dollars that were poured into creating these magnificent stations was done to fill the need of the times, but that need has long since passed. There is no demand for train travel today, other than an occasional nostalgia excursion.
Over and above the unpleasant thought of dismantling such an edifice, in today's dollars, just the cost of tearing it down and hauling it away might actually exceed the original cost of building it in the first place.
And so, at best, it's a headache - of Gargantuan proportions - and one that nobody wants to wrestle with.
But as for Penn Station, it's already a done deed, and all that is left behind is the pain and indignation.
The Pennsylvania Railroad faced a dilemma: The loss of ridership meant no money coming in to maintain the immense building, and the lack of maintenance meant that it slid ever deeper into a morass of decline, and became a dangerous harbor for unsavory characters.
One thing to keep in mind, though, in the unique case of Penn Station: It was a great deal more complicated than just deciding to demolish a beautiful building; the industry that supported it had virtually disappeared. It's very reason for being had ceased to exist. With passenger revenue down to a trickle, they didn't need it, and could no longer afford to continue to maintain it.
In fact, you can't offer passenger service at all, if you don't have enough paying customers to cover your cost of operations.
Five years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central, which was in equally dire straits, to form Penn Central. Within another two years, they were both bankrupt.
The Pennsylvania Railroad had gone from transporting 109,000,000 passengers in 1945, to deciding to demolish the once grand and glorious but now run-down and decrepit Penn Station in 1963 for lack of riders, with no hope that they would ever return. The people were staying away in droves.
No amount of upgrading of service, or modernizing of the style and look of the trains seemed to make any difference; people had simply lost their romance with the train.
Of course, the overwhelmingly negative factor working against train travel was the amount of time required to go by train, compared to the ease and convenience, not to mention the incredible difference in the time saved by air travel, spelled doom for the railroads.
Who, in their wildest dreams, could have imagined something as surreal as this ever happening?
It's like owning an airline, but nobody wants to fly on your planes.
What an incredible comedown; from the biggest corporation in the world, to complete bankruptcy.
And this was not due to mismanagement or corruption - all of the other railroads were in the same boat. The traveling public simply preferred to drive their own car - or take a plane, to arrive at a destination within a few hours, when it might take the railroad several days, depending on the distance involved. The few die-hard railroad customers didn't amount to enough volume to justify continuing to keep rail service alive. As labor-intensive as running a railroad is, you need a lot of people buying tickets to pay for it. You can't continue to run virtually empty trains forever.
That should underscore to everybody that the customer is always the most important person in the equation, no matter what business we may be talking about. The customer provides the cash flow that pays for everything.
Without the customer, there is no business.
In a word; the passenger train industry was dead.
They had everything; the trains, the stations, the thousands of miles of track, and the routes all laid out and established.
What they didn't have was customers.
Nobody could possibly have foreseen the collapse of the passenger railroad business, but that is exactly what happened, and these magnificent buildings - built to last forever - were suddenly superfluous.
Actually, the stations were just the most visible component of millions of dollars worth of other railroad equipment and paraphernalia, which had been abandoned, and lay scattered literally all around the country, as there was just no demand for it, whatsoever. The market for any and all passenger-related railway equipment had simply evaporated. The thousands of magnificent locomotives and luxurious sightseeing and sleeping coaches were just so much excess inventory. What had cost millions of dollars to design and build, now had virtually no value, for all intents and purposes.
They were all components of a huge, complex system, which had been painstakingly assembled over many decades, into the most detailed and nuanced transportation system in history.
But that entire system had been pronounced out-of-date and obsolete by the American public - and it was true.
More importantly, the traveling public now had a choice - and the continued decline in virtually all aspects of train travel, because of the lack of paying customers, made the demise of the passenger railroad a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, just because people decided to stop using the railroads as their preferred method of transportation, didn't alter the fact that all of the components that made up the system were still in existence, and could not simply disappear.
And as marvelous and wonderful as so many of the artifacts of the railroad industry were - representing the highest level of skill and craftsmanship - there was simply too much of it to even consider trying to preserve it all.
Besides, no matter how beautiful they might be, they were still incredibly huge locomotives, rail cars, etc, and the only place that enormous size actually balanced itself out was out on the rail line - running from city to city, full of people, as they were designed to do, and not sitting idle in some museum for people to gawk at.
Their ultimate, decidedly unglamorous fate was to eventually be broken up and sold for scrap.
The end of any era is never pretty - especially one that had been as grand and glorious as the railroads, in their glory years.
About the only thing anybody can do is to deal with the reality of the times, even when it is extremely painful, as it certainly was to so many who worked in the railroad industry, or who just loved trains.
The only saving grace for the millions of rail fans that permeated the country was the fact that they could have whatever amount of railroad paraphernalia as their little heart desired - but in greatly reduced size - actually, virtually miniaturized - and they could fit it all into their basement playroom, and constantly upgrade and remodel it to please themselves.
And that is what they have done, and continue to do, and for that reason, the glory days of the railroad will never, ever die.
To further complicate matters, as Penn Station was being demolished, two other massive projects were being constructed simultaneously; Madison Square Garden, and the newer, down-sized train station below ground, all at the same address.
And so, it at least succeeded in solving two related problems: New York needed a new Madison Square Garden, and they would always need a station to handle local subway traffic, plus whatever other rail traffic still remained, and the space occupied by Penn Station just happened to be in exactly the right location.
Nobody ever said it would be easy - especially with outraged public opinion breathing down your neck, but somehow they pulled it off.