The Long Island Rail Road’s Penn Station waiting area, including a remodeled bathroom, has reopened following a nearly eight-month renovation, but some riders are underwhelmed by the improvements, which they say don’t go far enough to address insufficient seating in the busy Manhattan train terminal.
“You walk in there and you expect a big improvement,” LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said of the waiting room. “And it’s like, ‘What did they do?’ ”
After closing in October as part of a larger $700 million revamp of the LIRR’s Penn Station concourse, the new and improved bathrooms, which opened May 23, include bright LED lighting and touchless toilets, urinals, sinks and hand dryers. The waiting room improvements include new tiles, lighting, digital screens and steel benches.
But the current configuration of the waiting room, which is for ticketed customers only, includes just 25 seats. Even with ridership down about 30% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, more than 100,000 LIRR customers travel through Penn Station each weekday, according to railroad ridership figures.
LIRR officials said the work on the bathrooms and waiting room was always intended as only a “refresh,” with no square footage being added.
In a statement, LIRR spokesperson David Steckel called the LIRR’s renovated space in Penn Station “a spectacular gateway to Manhattan . . . with a concourse that is double its former width, with 18-foot-high illuminated ceilings and wayfinding signage to improve trips.”
Steckel added, “with seating at east and west ends of the Penn and Moynihan Station complexes, there are even more available places for riders to sit.”
But several riders expressed their disappointment in comments responding to an LIRR Facebook post trumpeting the “recently upgraded customer waiting area.”
“It’s still dingy, half the size, and the benches are not secured well and very low and uncomfortable,” Elli Nagler Shodel wrote. “This posting by the MTA is a denial of reality.”
Eric Haesche commented that, compared to all the other upgrades recently made at Penn, “This area looks like a second thought.”
Still, many LIRR passengers were happy to have somewhere to take a load off right now, given the scarcity of seating at Penn since all the shops and eateries in the concourse were closed four years ago. New retail businesses are expected to begin moving in this fall.
“For the past year, there was no seating whatsoever. It was miserable. I’d have to sit on my bag or sit on the floor,” said Alex Lopez, 24, of Coram, as he sat in the waiting room Thursday morning. “After standing all day, I’d have to stand even longer while waiting for the train. So I’m just happy it’s back.”
The state and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent organization — have wrestled with criticism over limited seating options in recently constructed or renovated rail terminals, including the Moynihan Train Hall and Grand Central Madison. In both — like in Penn — customers looking to take a load off must do so in a ticketed waiting room.
Some riders have speculated that the designs are intended to discourage loitering by homeless people.
MTA chairman Janno Lieber said in September that he expected the lack of sufficient seating at Penn would “definitely be among the issues that will be resolved” by designers as they move forward with a larger $7 billion reconstruction of Penn that could start by 2024 and take five years to complete.
In the meantime, Howard Torman, 64, said he was grateful for the recent changes to Penn Station, noting they “have really improved the quality of my commuting experience.”
“Particularly as I’m growing older, the lack of bathroom accessibility has become more of an issue,” Torman, of Manhattan, said as he sat in the waiting room before catching a train to Great Neck, adding that it was “great to see” a restroom renovation. “The old bathroom was a nightmare . . . It was borderline not-worth-waiting-for.”
Bringmann noted that one of the railroad’s historical challenges in maintaining its Penn Station restrooms is the reality that homeless people regularly use the sinks to bathe. And, Bringmann expects “it will continue to be a problem” even in the new restrooms.
“It makes a mess all over the place. There’s water all over the place,” Bringmann said. “But I don’t know how they can police that. That’s one of those tough ones.”