LIRR commuters wait at Penn Station during the evening rush...

LIRR commuters wait at Penn Station during the evening rush hour. (Aug. 24, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

BIJAN HEDVAT of Roslyn has never given much thought to the four railroad tunnels he has used for 10 years to cross the East River to Penn Station for his job in Manhattan.

That was until he stopped to survey a modest exhibit celebrating the station and its tunnels' 100-year history. He was humbled by the black and white photos of soiled workers digging the tunnels using a 23-foot round steel shield.

"This is amazing," he said. "A hundred years ago they did something new, something innovative. People take it for granted. They should think of something like this for the next 100 years."

Hedvat was among riders Wednesday who marked the 100th anniversary of the first Long Island Rail Road train that traveled across the East River to Penn Station. Railroad executives celebrated the anniversary by unveiling roughly 40 photos that span the history of the tunnels and Penn Station from construction to present.

"These tunnels still function 100 years after their opening, transformed rail travel in our region and continue today to be a very vital link . . . that connects our region," said LIRR president Helena Williams.

Williams hoped to remind riders of the "vital role" the struggling railroad plays in the region despite recent setbacks like cuts to several lines because of budget constraints and a fire last month at the Jamaica LIRR station that snarled service for several days.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is that we as a region continue to invest in transportation infrastructure and support future improvements," Williams said.

The LIRR plans to spend $2.6 billion in infrastructure projects and improvements through 2014. She said LIRR has become a critical lifeline to the city for more than 100,000 Long Island business and leisure riders who use the railroad daily to cross the East River.

What did not go unnoted was the destruction of the old Penn Station, an architectural wonder that was razed in the 1960s under pressure from developers who built Madison Square Garden on the valuable land. The decision sparked the modern landmarks preservation movement that has helped to save a number of the city's historic buildings, including Grand Central Terminal.

"It was one of a kind," said Robert Tierney, chairman of New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, of the historic Penn Station. "It was a brilliant work of architecture. It was a great landmark, even if it wasn't declared so."

The loss was also in the minds of riders. For Mark Solomon, 60, of the Upper West Side, the photos brought back memories of his mother, who he remembers being irate when she read the old Penn Station was demolished.

"She thought it was a real abomination," he said.

With Alfonso Castillo



Some historic LIRR numbers


100,000+ - Number of people who use the tunnels on weekdays to travel to Manhattan

2.8 - Length in miles of each of the four tunnels through the East River connecting Long Island City to Manhattan

23 - Size in feet of the circular iron shield used to push mud and stone to build the tunnel

1,800 - Average number of men employed during construction

28 - Acreage of entire rail complex

17M - Number of bricks used to build the original Pennsylvania Station

$3B - Cost of terminal, tunnels and Sunnyside yard in today's dollars

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