What is the Famous Train Station in New York?

Grand Central Station and Penn Station are the most famous train stations in New York and possibly the whole country. One received a much-needed renovation, while another has been overlooked for nearly sixty years.

Grand Central Station is famous for still being a relevant force when it comes to culture and traveling. Grand Central was the first large-scale railroad electrification project. Penn Station is the other famous train station in New York.   

Trains offer us a bit of history and a unique and romantic form of travel. If you want to know more about the famous train stations in New York, check out this article.

 What is the History of Grand Central Station?

Things have changed since the first Grand Central Depot was constructed in 1871. Grand Central Station is a symbol of everything that is truly New York, as thousands of people visit or commute at this station daily.

Grand Central Station started as Grand Central Depot. It was created in 1871 when railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt wanted to create the structure, one of New York City’s most significant buildings. It was a station where people could commute. Grand Central Terminal was built in 1913.

The Terminal was almost demolished, but thanks to adequate protest, the Terminal was saved from the wrecking ball. Fast forward to 1998, when the building was restored and reminded everyone of the splendor and magnificence of New York and all its historical landmarks. Grand Central Station is very much one of those extraordinary places. There is a rich and fascinating history behind this station.

grand central terminal
Eric Baetscher

Grand Central Depot

New Yorkers began complaining about the smoke and smog from the steam trains, and they became banned below 42nd Street. The railroads wanted to expand to:

  • Hudson
  • New Haven
  • Harlem

Since there were restrictions for 42nd Street, Grand Central Depot was the solution. It opened in 1871. Three towers denoted the three different railroads. Heavy traffic quickly became a daily experience for the New Yorker traveling by train.

Grand Central Depot was the central location for a number of railroad lines that arrived in Manhattan. It was an L-shaped complex with yards for storage and a balloon shed where commuters would get on and off the trains. The Depot soon became obsolete, as it was not big enough to carry all New York’s required traffic. The building lacked modern convenience and technology.

In 1899, the Depot was demolished, and a larger building was erected in its place. It was six stories high, and it was called Grand Central Station. New York quickly became a beacon for commercial capitalism and commerce, attracting all kinds of people and diversity. The building was reconstructed to meet heavy traffic demands and was renamed Grand Central Station.

In 1902, an unfortunate accident occurred in which sixty people were killed. A train driver did not stop at a traffic light and ran into another train. As a result, the Vanderbilt family decided it needed to modernize the building and provide electricity. The entire building was demolished, and the current Grand Central Terminal was constructed by the New York Central Railroad. In 1903, the building was set to be revamped, which took until 1913 to complete.

inside grand central
Theo Winter

Grand Central Station is Built

The three railroads were eager to express their unified significance and announce that they were the heart of the nation and offered different kinds of capital:

  • Financial
  • Commercial
  • Cultural

The new station utilized electricity, not steam. The station went completely underground, which opened transportation opportunities above. At that time, it was the most extensive building project in New York’s history, being twice the size of Penn station.

The Vanderbilts wanted to boast about their innovation, which was evident in how they presented the station’s interior designs. They tried to draw people in with a design that demonstrated the elegance and romance of the building.

The station was not only built for practicality but also to define grace and dignity with its gorgeous and complex design. Four firms had competed for the project, but the railroad wanted to ensure their building was genuine, well built, and grand. It hired another firm, and the two chosen firms created the perfect design, which was quite pleasing and irresistible to the eye.

One of the firms was to design the interior, and the other the grand façade. The two firms together formed Associated Architects. They created the design of the building. The inside was built to handle heavy traffic, and the station could take on large groups of people, even more than were necessary. The long passenger ramps helped traffic move efficiently from the upper floor to the train platforms.

grand central terminal nyc
Daniel Wehner

What Did the Grand Central Terminal Look Like?

The grand façade was created with three Roman ceremonial arches. Each one represented one of the three railroad stations. The sculptures of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva were flawless works of art that embellished the front of Grand Central Terminal facing South. Hercules was on the left, and he represented physical strength.

Minerva is the goddess of wisdom and protection for the cities, and she was on the right. In the middle is Mercury, who is the god of travel and commerce. The Statue was named “Transportation.” However, it is also referred to as “The Glory of Commerce.” The statue is forty-eight feet high, and it weighs 1,500 tons. Underneath Mercury was the world’s most significant sampling of Tiffany glass.

Iron eagles were designed and placed at the corners of the building. They were enormous, with a wingspan of 13 feet high. They looked regal and magnificent. There were almost a dozen eagles on the building before it was demolished to make way for the new structure. Many of the remaining eagles have been auctioned off to private estates and institutions.

There are many pieces showcased at the Grand Central Station:

  • The Campbell Apartment
  • The Annex
  • The mural on the ceiling
  • The clock
  • A Field of Wild Flowers (1997)
  • Sirshasana (1998)
  • As Above, So Below (1998)
  • Graybar Passage mural
  • Statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt

The Campbell Apartment is a hidden gem of the city, as it now operates as a bar, which transports you back to the old High Society days while you enjoy a lush, full-bodied glass of Merlot. The Annex has housed a plethora of activities and institutions. Today, it is a tennis court.

The mural on the ceiling was initially painted onto the Terminal’s plaster vaulted ceiling. It was represented after Johann Bayer’s star atlas Uranometria was a design of constellations and stars rendered in 1603.

The zodiac was depicted backward and was meant to be seen from a spiritual perspective, not a human one. Due to water damage and the mural being in poor condition, in 1945, an entirely new mural was painted. The new mural was not as well-received due to a stunning lack of detail.

grand central terminal

Art that Stands Out

The four-sided clock is a unique feature of the Grand Central Terminal. The clock represents time in New York, a meeting spot for New Yorkers and tourists. The clock hangs over the information booth in the main concourse area. It has been featured in many movies over the years:

  • The Godfather
  • Men in Black
  • The Fisher King
  • The Cotton Club
  • Superman
  • Grand Central Murder
  • Midnight Run
  • North by Northwest

The clock is made of bronze with opaline glass. The clock became damaged and remained in use through the 1980s, and it was removed when the restoration of Grand Central Station began. Grand Central Station was the first railroad station in America to implement standard time in 1883. Before 2004, all 1,000 clocks in the Terminal had to be manually adjusted.

The Statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the longtime proprietor of Grand Central Station, is at the Terminal’s south façade and stands directly below the clock. At that time, it was the largest bronze statue created in the United States. The Graybar Passage mural is the only remaining ceiling mural in the Passage. It sat underneath the Graybar building and was painted by Edward Trumbull in 1927.

Another artistic contribution was from the Parisian artist Sylvain Salieres, who crafted bronze and stone carvings. These included:

  • Ornamental inscriptions
  • Decorative embellishments
  • Sculpted oak leaves
  • Sculpted acorns

These little accents added a bit of liveliness to the humdrum of the busy work day. New Yorkers who looked up would see little carved acorns on the chandeliers.

More paintings were created in the late 1990s, such as “A Field of Wild Flowers,” “Sirshasana,” and “As Above, So Below,” are displayed in the building. Vanderbilt Hall is often used for exhibitions and events. The Dining Concourse also displays temporary art exhibits.

grand central terminal clock

All Things New-Penn Station

When the third Grand Central was constructed, it was the last stop. All railway lines were terminated at 42nd Street, making it a terminal, not a station. The structure took on a new-found name, “Grand Central Terminal.” However, there is a Grand Central Station, not even a brisk walk away from the Terminal, which is a branch of the US Postal Service.

In 1913, the Grand Central terminal made its official reopening. In June 1913, Grand Central had 22.4 million passengers; by 1920, it had 37 million passengers. Grand Central’s passenger flow declined around this time because Penn Station became more popular.

The original Penn Station opened in 1910. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company commissioned it as an alternative way for travelers to journey across the Hudson River without traveling by ferry. It was set to compete with Grand Central Terminal. The creators of the building used a Beaux-Arts form of architecture, which incorporated French neoclassicism with Gothic and Renaissance artistic elements into the design.

Unfortunately, hundreds of buildings were demolished while creating Penn Station. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased seventy-five acres of land for the making of Penn Station. Penn Station would have twenty-one railroad tracks. Platforms were built to separate the tracks, and the same tracks and platforms are still there today.

The Making of Penn Station

Constructing Penn Station would prove to be quite the undertaking, as tunnels would need to be dug so the trains could enter and exit Manhattan. As opposed to building bridges, having tunnels underground was the less expensive option. The North River Tunnels were built under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and the West to Manhattan. The East River Tunnels consisted of four tunnels linking Manhattan to Penn Station under the East River into Queens on Long Island. Penn Station allowed for trains to journey in all directions. The inside of the train station was also a work of art.

The main waiting room was created to mimic the Roman baths of Caracalla. It was the most significant interior space that New York had ever seen at the time. There was an impressive marble ceiling that was 148 feet high. A pink granite grand staircase and an outdoor colonnade had iron and glass roofs.

The chief reason for constructing Penn Station was to make better transportation available for New Yorkers. Penn Station was a miracle for people who wanted to reach Manhattan. Penn Station served 100 million passengers during its heyday.

Unfortunately, the ambition to create a large number of loyal passengers came to a halt for both Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station. Neither company anticipated the acceleration of the automobile era. It was a force that neither of them could compete with.

ny penn station
Jacob G

The End of An Era

By the end of World War II, there was a decline in train travel. The automobile industry hit the ground running, proving to be a more efficient and practical way to travel. Both Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station were losing money quickly to no avail. In the 1950s and 1970s, there was a lot of buzz around demolishing Grand Central Terminal, but none of it came to fruition.

The gorgeous old Penn Station building was razed in 1963. The death of Penn Station was devastating for New Yorkers, which is why in 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee was established to defend the city’s architectural commemoration. It marked a truly monumental victory for Grand Central Terminal, which was spared the same fate as Penn Station.

American railroad executive Stuart T. Saunders sought bids from architects to build an office tower that would replace the Beaux-Arts building. The Landmarks Preservation Committee voted to reject the plans in 1969. He returned with a lawsuit, and the case was presented to the Supreme Court. The Court finally ruled in favor of Penn Station in 1975.

During this time, New York’s Municipal Art Society established a commission to save Grand Central Terminal. So many important people were a part of this fight, including Ed Koch, New York Mayor,  and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful to have government control of historical structures, which would ensure Grand Central Terminal and all other landmarks in the United States were protected.

amtrak at grand central terminal

Renewed and Revived

After the landmark Supreme Court ruling determined that Grand Central Terminal would undergo renovation because it had become run down and damaged. In the early 1980s, plans were made to construct a series of passageways at the northern end of the station, which would result in brand new exits in certain places.

The project was called Grand Central North and would be the first significant development of Grand Central Terminal since 1913. Plans were approved for Grand Central North in 1983. However, final approval was not granted until 1991. Some restorations were performed in the late 1980s, which coincided with the Terminal’s 75th anniversary in 1988. Some of the restorations included:

  • Restoration of the building’s cornice
  • Cleaning and repairs to skylights that were painted black during WWII
  • New doors were put in place
  • Cleaning and repair of the marble floors and walls
  • Rehabilitation of the leaky roof
  • Renovation of the Biltmore room
  • Installation of new departure and arrival signs above the ticket booths in the Main Concourse

In 1988, plans began to form for a total restoration of the Grand Central Terminal. It was determined that the company could increase its retail and revenue by adding high-quality restaurants to the Terminal. In 1992, the clock was given its very first complete restoration. The plans to renovate the Terminal would be the most extensive restoration in history.

A Celebration of Renovation

By the late 1980s, it was determined that Grand Central Terminal would undergo a multi-million dollar renovation that would take about twelve years to complete. In 1998, a rededication ceremony was held for the public to enjoy shopping, dining, and travel destination all in one area.

Some of the significant renovations included:

  • Cleaning of the vaulted constellation mural on the ceiling
  • A new Main Concourse East stairwell that was in the initial plan but had never been constructed
  • Air conditioning and heating amenities
  • Development of fantastic restaurants, food vendors, and shops

Ths renovation made commuting safer and more enjoyable for passengers. It was the first time since World WarII that Grand Central Terminal had been cleaned and renovated. Technicians, craftsmen, and designers worked overtime to restore Grand Central Terminal to its original glory.

During the dedication ceremony, there was an inspiring speech from the Governor, a laser light show, and other unforgettable highlights that were not to be missed. The New York Times expressed its delight in the restoration of the Terminal. However, it was less than pleased that the Terminal was being turned into a place of commerce rather than highlight the rich history of the building itself.

mta grand central
Mike Kam

What Ever Happened to Penn Station?

Before the station’s untimely demise, it was a classy place for commuters to go and catch a ride. The building was a beacon of class and sophistication with its pink granite staircase and spacious waiting area. Unfortunately, once people saw a more efficient way to travel (the automobile), Penn Station had to admit defeat to Grand Central Terminal.

In 1963, the above-ground section of the station was demolished to make room for a large sports arena. Ever heard of a place called Madison Square Garden? At that point, Penn Station did not stand a chance. At the time, The New York Times was outraged. New Yorkers were not happy either, as one of their important historical buildings was torn down.

After the original building was demolished, a new but horrifyingly dark place lacking character and quality emerged. Therefore, there is a movement to rebuild Penn Station in the same spirit in which Grand Central Terminal was renovated. Some say that the business and praise that Grand Central receives is primarily owed to the demise of the first Penn Station building.

The group Rebuild Penn Station wants to see the building be a place of dignity and elegance again. The organization proposes that platforms must be widened, and there needs to be more space to give the passengers a safe place to wait until their track number is called.

The group is faced with reluctance from the powers that be. However, something needs to be done to brighten up that miserable building and ensure the safety of the passengers.

What Goes on at Grand Central Terminal Today?

Today the railroad serves about 267,000 passengers a day. The first trains come in at 5:30 am, and the last trains exit the Terminal at 2:00 am. It is a dining and shopping area that also boasts the likes of MTA Metro-North Railroad and a subway station. MTA is the largest passenger railroad in America. There are 124 stations on the Railroad’s five operational lines.

If you ever have the pleasure of going to New York and being a train passenger, you should make time to stop in for a meal at The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. It has an impressive menu of 25 types of fish, the best seafood you could ever imagine, and up to 30 types of oysters, not to mention an award-winning wine list with 80 types of luscious wine.

There are also fun stores to shop in and quick food options when you are on the go. There are over 90 shops and restaurants. You do not have to go there only to ride the train; you can immerse yourself in the rich culture that is Grand Central Terminal.


Riding the train may be an archaic form of travel, but it is still relevant in today’s society. The world may change, and along with it, technology changes. However, part of life is understanding and embracing our past, which is what history is all about. As Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said, “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for our future.”


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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