The Department of Transportation's $52 million plan to restore the rail passenger terminal at Union Station to its former grandeur by reducing the size of the National Visitor Center in the main concourse got an enthusiastic reception yesterday before the Senate Public Works Committee'

Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) told DOT Secretary Brock Adams that he agreed the primary purpose of the sprawling structure ought to be to accommodate the increasing number of persons who use rail transportation.

The visitor center, rushed to completion in time for the bicentennial, occupies the front of Union Station. Ttain passengers must walk up to a third of a mile through the exhibit area to a new, small terminal in the rear.

The proposal before the Senate calls for returning the ticketing and baggage areas to the front of the terminal. The new smaller passenger terminal, which critics say looks like a motel lobby, would be ripped out so that eight sets of tracks could be extended closer to the front of the station, reducing the walk from the entrance to check-in from 700 feet to 50 feet and to the trains from 775 feet to 390 feet.

The House had rejected the $52 million plan in favor of its own version, which would cost $36 million in new appropriations. That version would retain the smaller terminal at the rear, but would improve access to it by car and bus via a three-lane road that would separate it from the main building.

Both the Senate and House proposals call for finishing the partially-built 1,400-space parking garage.

Under the Senate plan, which would be financed with $30 million in new appropriations and $22 million from previously authorized money for improvements in the Northeast rail corridor, would cut in half the size of the visitor center.

Undersecretary of the Interior James A. Joseph testified that Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus and Adams have agreed that in the future Union Station "should be devoted principally to railroad passenger use." Interior operates the Visitors Center under the National Park Service.

Committee member Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), called the present setup "a hodgepodge that serves neither purpose well." Domenici, who rides a Maryland commuter train from Garrett Park to the station daily, said "I never see anyone" using the center. "How many people go into the pit?" he asked, referring to the lower level exhibit that features a multi picture slide show.

Joseph said an estimated 800,000 people visit the center annually, but acknowledged there were no figures on how many people are there specifically to visit the center, or how many use the pit.

"Well," interjected the pixish Moynihan, "does the number who go down into the pit equal the number who come up?"

"We hope so," grinned Joseph.