Eulogy for a Fallen Giant

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station

If you’ve ever taken the train into New York City, there’s a good chance you arrived in New York Penn Station. Pennsylvania Station is a major hub of the city’s public transportation system and one of the busiest and most important train stations in the city.

Initially named for its affiliation with the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Penn Station is one of more than half-a-dozen Penn Stations across the Northeast of the US. When it was originally built in 1910, Penn Station was a symbol of modern transportation systems and social progress. Along with Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station provided a major intercity rail connection in Manhattan.

However, despite the long and important history of this train station, the Penn Station you see today is a mere shadow of the one that stood there a half century ago. The original Penn Station, which stood from its completion in 1910 until it was removed in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and an office building, was the largest train station ever built, encompassing a full two city blocks. A masterpiece of neoclassical architecture, the Penn Station of old featured a grand waiting room with a 150 ft. vaulted ceiling that soared overhead, Romanesque colonnades that lined the exterior of the building, and platforms lined with decorative ironwork. It was a powerful symbol of the union between modern technology and ancient glory, and it served as a monument to display the wealth and power of the great city of New York. However, its life proved to be far shorter than anyone in 1910 could have ever expected.

Decorative ironwork in the old NY Penn Station

In the early 1960’s, rail traffic was declining due to the advent of the interstate highway system and commercial air travel. In response to its bleak outlook for the future, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to sell the ground level section of the property and its associated airspace. The tracks and platforms, which were primarily housed underground, would continue to serve their original purpose, and have remained active to this day. Although there were some efforts to stop the demolition of Penn Station, the population of New York City remained largely quiet. After all, who would ever even think of tearing down such a magnificent building?

But razed it was. The grand hall… gone. The sculptures… trash. The ironwork… scrap metal. All that remains of the grand edifice, barring the platforms themselves, are a single staircase, an iron entryway, and a few other small remnants of the old building scattered within and around the new station. Fortunately, some of the sculptures and clocks were salvaged, and are now on display in museums, universities, other train stations, and elsewhere.

The old NY Penn Station

The world was taken aback at the destruction of such a magnificent and important structure. The demolition of Penn Station shocked New York into passing a landmark protection law and creating a commission responsible for the protection of historical landmarks. This commission was later responsible for preventing the demolition of Grand Central Terminal, after a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The current Penn Station resides almost entirely underground, and consists of the original platforms along with what many describe as small, unflattering “catacombs” consisting of a low-ceilinged waiting area, a concourse, shops, etc. However, a new, more beautiful train station may be coming soon. Although there have been many legal and financial hindrances, a plan for the construction of a new station in a nearby post office has gained traction in recent years. The station will be named Moynihan Station, in honor of the US senator who pushed for its creation. Entrances to the underground tracks of Penn Station from the post office are scheduled to be completed by 2016, after which the construction of the main hall of Moynihan Station will begin. However, even after its completion, the new station will only service Amtrak passengers – about five percent of Penn station’s current traffic. NJ Transit, Long Island RR, and subway passengers will continue to use the crowded Penn Station.

The story of New York Penn Station is one of great tragedy, of inevitable change, and of lessons to be learned. Functionally, its demolition provided great benefits to the city. A new arena, additional office space, … and all while keeping a fully functional train station. However, with the loss of the architectural masterpiece that was Penn Station, New Yorkers lost a beautiful piece of artwork to bring joy to their daily commute. They lost a magnificent edifice that welcomed visitors to the city with a declaration of New York’s greatness. They lost a symbol of the past and an old friend.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, even in mundane, everyday things like a train station, people long for more than just simple functionality. Engineers would be wise to recognize that desire, however unquantifiable. Transportation systems are intended to serve people. Why should that be limited to such a narrow concept? If a transportation system can be beautiful without sacrificing its primary function, is it not more likely to be used? Will it not bring more joy and satisfaction to the people it serves? Will not more people be interested in its upkeep and preservation? Maybe art and man’s sense of beauty are the best answers to the question of true sustainability after all.

The main waiting area of the old NY Penn Station







The Caravel and the Impact of New Technologies on Transportation Systems

A Caravel

Transportation systems have evolved since ancient time. This continual transformation of the ways in which humans travel and transport goods is often closely tied to technological advances in the field of transportation. In many ways, the culture of a civilization is heavily influenced by the transportation technologies available to it. However, the relationship goes the other way as well. The transportation technologies present in a society are also often determined by the culture of that society.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, an iconic ship known as the Caravel largely dominated the sea-faring industries of Southwestern Europe. Although the exact origin of this ship is still debated, it had been used as an offshore fishing vessel by the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula since at least the 1200’s. The ship featured a strong Moorish influence, and its design, at least in part, may have been passed from the Islamic body of knowledge to the Western Christian societies of Spain and Portugal. This is quite possible because, as one author points out (see links below), Medieval Islamic society contributed many advances to the fields of geography, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. These important theoretical discoveries would later contribute to the success of European seafaring by forming the foundation of cutting-edge navigational techniques and other technologies.

The Caravel was a relatively small ship, especially by modern standards. The bottom of the ship protruded below the surface of the water by only a small distance, making it an extremely maneuverable watercraft. For much of its life, the Caravel featured triangular “lateen” sails that, combined with its eminent maneuverability, allowed it to sail into the wind using a zigzagging technique known as “beating to windward.” The Spanish and Portuguese soon recognized the potential of this ship, and transformed it from a simple offshore fishing vessel to the backbone of the European Age of Exploration. With the addition of square sails (to provide increased power when sailing with the wind) and other minor changes, the Caravel soon became the ship of choice for many explorers. It has been suggested that two of Columbus’s ships, the Niña and the Pinta, were Caravels optimized for transatlantic exploration.

Clearly, the Caravel revolutionized European transportation. This technology made it possible for European explorers, fishermen, and merchants to “expand their horizons,” by providing the ability to travel further, faster. One could argue that it played a major role in the rapid colonization of the New World.

However, the inverse is also true. To a large extent, the success of the Caravel was due to navigational techniques brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, combined with the European desire for political, economic, religious, and scientific expansion.

This dichotomy holds true for many transportation-related technologies. Railroads are built to service existing towns, but the route itself often determines the development of future towns. Military conflict has served as a catalyst for the development of many advances in aviation technology that have later spilled over into the public sector. It is clear that a society’s culture and its transportation technologies are very much linked. Engineers must keep this in mind when developing new technologies for transportation systems. When designing part of a transportation system, it is important both to take inspiration from society and to recognize the changes that that technology will have upon society.





Nuclear Port Security

The goal of transportation systems in general is to facilitate the movement of people and goods from place to place quickly, safely, and inexpensively. However, because it is often not possible to meet all three of those goals simultaneously, transportation engineers are forced to choose some imperfect, but realistic, combination of those ideals. Securing our nation’s ports from potential nuclear threats is a prime example of a goal that forces transportation engineers, politicians, and others to choose between safety and efficiency.

Since the attacks of September 11th, national security has been an especially important issue in the United States. The federal government quickly took measures to decrease the chances of another major terrorist attack from occurring on US soil. While much attention is given to those measures that directly impact the public, such as airline security checks, other less obvious measures are equally important.

Nuclear Port Security is a major issue for many reasons, including the following:

1.)    Nuclear weapons can only be detonated in the US if they are created here or transported here. If we assume that creating or obtaining a nuclear device is easier outside of the US than within it, and that a missile or other military-style delivery system is beyond the technical capabilities of most terrorist groups (both somewhat questionable assumptions), they it appears that smuggling a nuclear weapon into the US is perhaps the easiest way to get such a device on US soil.

2.)    Nuclear “Dirty Bombs” provide a low-tech method for radiation dispersal, while highly-enriched Uranium weapons emit only low levels of radiation prior to detonation that are difficult to detect by many scanners.

3.)    Sea- and river-ports process huge amounts of cargo every day, increasing the chances that the “needle” may never be found in the “haystack.”

4.)    Air traffic is very closely monitored, making smuggling radioactive material by air a risky possibility.

5.)    Cargo ships are massive and carry goods from many different companies and points of origin to just as many places. This vast complexity and great scale make it difficult for all transported items to be fully checked and monitored.

6.)    Each shipping crate is capable of carrying large amounts of materials and can be unloaded from a ship directly to a truck without any form of visual or other inspection of its contents.

7.)    Ports are extremely important to the world market, and are often located in, or very close to, major cities. A nuclear detonation at a port could cause great loss of life as well as major monetary losses. According to the Washington Post, “Estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” The destruction of a major port would cause tremendous financial and cultural turmoil. Global trade would suffer, and many jobs would be lost. Suspicion or tension between countries would result in even greater consequences.

Clearly, the protection of its sea- and river- ports should be a major priority for the US. However, there are major obstacles to such security. Financial concerns, delays in shipments due to extended processing time, privacy and intellectual property concerns, and poorly organized oversight of the cargo monitoring process have all plagued attempts to institute an all-encompassing scanning methodology at US ports.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring that all cargo containers entering the US must be screened for radiation at foreign ports. In an effort to achieve this goal, the US has helped over twenty nations to install cargo scanning equipment in their ports, largely through the Megaports Initiative of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This initiative, begun in fiscal year 2003, seeks to expand this success to 100 seaports by 2015. Despite the success of this initiative, reported the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland Security failed to meet the July 2012 deadline for 100% foreign-based scanning set forth by Congress, instead “extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome.” In a report to Congress, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano “said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.” The current cargo scanning system used by the Customs and Border Protection agency uses intelligence-based analysis to target “high-risk” cargo for inspection.

Although much of the cargo imported into the US is not yet scanned in foreign ports, nearly all of it is scanned after it reached US ports. However, concerns have been raised regarding the effectiveness of the scanning equipment used for this application. In addition, a 2013 report by the DHS Office of Inspector General revealed poor coordination between Customs and Border Protection and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office that has allegedly resulted in poor scanning and tracking methods.

When looking at an issue such as nuclear port security, it is often very difficult to see a clear solution. The many available courses of action each provide their own set of benefits and drawbacks, even when looking at only a small aspect of the problem. For example, looking at the issue of nuclear port security from an economic perspective provides little useful directives. On the one hand, according to the Washington Post, “estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” On the other hand is the reality of the current system exemplified by failed attempts to address the issue, as shown by a simple look at the news: “Pilot programs established to scan all containers [in foreign ports] were abandoned in 2009 after the agency said costs were too high and the effort led to cargo delays and logistical problems.”

Transportation engineers, politicians, businessmen, and the public must also weigh the daily logistical nightmare of in-port radiation scanning against the chances of the logistical hell of a nuclear detonation in-port.

Will things ever change? It’s unclear. The optimist will point to new scanning technology that will revolutionize the scanning process, while the pessimist will point to increased government bureaucracy that will only make the system more costly and inefficient. However, some things are certain: as long as nuclear threats exist, the issue of port security will be an important (and likely costly) one.





What are Engineering, Civil Engineering and Transportation Engineering?

Engineering can generally be considered the application of math and science to solve real-world problems. These “problems” may vary widely in their nature, seriousness, and frequency of occurrence, but they all have to do with the needs or wants of humans. However, in order to exclude fields such as medicine and economics, it is perhaps best to limit the scope of engineering to problems that deal with the physical environment in which humans live and with which they interact. Engineering also implies that some measure of complex scientific knowledge is utilized in the solving of the problem at hand. This excludes, for example, cooking, basic techniques of agriculture or animal domestication, and possibly even simple forms of building, such as the construction of a stone wall. Although the modern concept of engineering began only recently, the field of engineering has existed almost as long as human civilization through the work of architects, inventors, and other similar persons. Most forms of modern engineering can generally be considered part of civil, mechanical, chemical, or electrical engineering.

Civil engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the fundamental, every-day needs of society that allows a civilization to function. Civil engineering is one of the oldest branches of engineering due to the important role it plays in helping to keep society functioning. It is referred to as “civil” engineering to differentiate it from military engineering, which does not serve to meet the basic needs of society in the same way in which civil engineering does. Civil engineering, like engineering in general, can be divided into several sub-disciplines, including transportation, structural, geotechnical, hydraulic, and environmental engineering. Other related fields of study include materials science, geophysics, architectural engineering, project management, land development, surveying, and a host of other fields. Civil engineers may be employed by public entities such as municipalities, water and sewage authorities, and zoning offices or by private firms specializing in design, consultation, or construction.

Transportation Engineering is the branch of civil engineering that deals with the movement of people and/or objects from place to place. Sub-disciplines can generally be grouped by the means of transportation, and therefore include fields such as highway engineering, port and harbor engineering, railroad engineering, and airport engineering. Transportation engineers often design large, complex systems that utilize several of these vehicles of movement. For example, a city’s public transportation system may include a combination of subway or tram lines, bus routes, and regional rail services, while the city itself may also be serviced by a road and highway system, ferries, and perhaps even a network of walking and/or bike paths. Transportation engineering is vital to any society because it allows for the movement of people, food, and natural resources, facilitates economic development through the transfer of goods, and provides a means for the exchange of knowledge and culture.