The Future Coming Soon

I recently took a trip on the Metro-North Railroad and I had a few minutes to kill at Grand Central Terminal. I wandered into the new extension from the terminal to the west, created when One Vanderbilt Avenue was constructed, and found this sign. One Vanderbilt is now the tallest commercial building in midtown, so I imagine its observation deck, when opened, will be spectacular. What grabbed my attention was the bottom line: the Long Island Railroad, coming soon. That’s been a long time coming and has a lot of implications.

First, the history. Grand Central was built by the New York Central Railroad (the current, third, station was completed in 1910), and the Metro-North, as it exists today, is basically the commuter lines of the NYCRR and its tenant at GCT, the New Haven Railroad. The long-distance trains from Grand Central are gone: the New Haven’s line to Boston started moving to Penn Station a long time ago, after the New York Connecting Railroad was built in Queens and the Hell Gate Bridge was built over the East River, connecting Penn Station to the New Haven tracks in the Bronx. The NYCRR’s long distance service – to Albany and then on to Montreal and Chicago – moved to Penn Station in 1991, using old freight trackage under Riverside Park and down the west side. Penn Station still has the Pennsylvania Railroad’s long distance service south to Washington and commuter service from New Jersey and Long Island.

The heaviest traffic into Manhattan has always been the Long Island Railroad, but the New Jersey traffic picked up when the Kearney Connection was built, allowing trains from the old Lackawanna commuter service access to Penn Station. This exacerbated the imbalance: both long-distance and commuter traffic was increasing at Penn Station because of increased traffic on the lines and because more lines were being routed there, while traffic was being routed away from Grand Central. This imbalance is particularly bad because Grand Central, as it stands today, is the better station: Penn Station’s head house was demolished in 1963, leaving the station facilities underground and resembling a particularly ugly subway station.

Two improvements were planned to try to fix this situation. The first was using the old General Post Office as a new headhouse for Penn Station, which helps aesthetically but does literally nothing about the traffic problem. The second was the East Side Access plan, which was a new connection from the Long Island’s yard in Sunnyside, Queens, to Grand Central. To give a sense of how long this has all taken, the new connection uses the lower level of the 63rd Street tunnel under the East River, which was constructed starting in 1969. (The upper level has been used for the new route of the F subway line since 1989.) Putting new service into Grand Central was complicated by the fact that it’s a dead-end station with a massive and complicated inner approach and only four tracks in the outer approach. It would be easy to create a worse bottleneck than the outer approach already is. The solution was to build new platforms and a new approach next door to the existing platforms and trackage, using the same huge head house with new rail service.

The plan is for almost half of LIRR trains to be diverted to Grand Central, matching the east-side destinations of the commuters; the plan is for all this to open next year, hence the sign. And removing those trains from Penn Station will help there.

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