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Nov 11, 2006

Regional Rail Working Group:
Streamlining Access to Grand Central Terminal

What is gained by bringing LIRR trains to Manhattan's East Side?
A key element of the MTA's proposed system expansion program is completing the LIRR access to Grand Central Terminal. The project would make use of an existing 1.6 mile tunnel segment under the East River -- the lower deck of the 63rd Street tunnel -- which was started over thirty years ago. Surveys have shown that more than half of the LIRR's 115,000 weekday passengers at Penn Station would prefer to arrive at Grand Central, saving an average of 15 minutes per trip now required to walk, or to take the subway, to reach destinations on Manhattan's East Side. Not only is this an important benefit to commuters, but it increases the economic competitiveness of the region and its core.

Why "streamline" LIRR East Side access?
Cost-effectiveness is important. Even in prosperous times, it makes good sense to spend public funds wisely. And with so many projects competing for limited transport funds, it is essential that the MTA seriously consider a less costly option. Back in December 2002, the MTA came up with a re-estimate of the cost of the LIRR project, adding another $914 million. The pricetag is now a whopping $5.265 billion! Of this cost, $4.384 billion is needed for construction, engineering and management.

A streamlined alternative -- the Apple Corridor plan -- is feasible!
An alternative plan, originally suggested by Stephen Dobrow and the Committee for Better Transit (CBT) in June 1996, would reduce construction cost to only $865 million, saving some 80 percent of the project cost. This plan meets or exceeds the MTA's operational requirements. It uses existing terminal infrastructure already in place, avoiding the need for constructing a costly new terminal deep below Grand Central. It has a negligible impact on Metro-North operations. In Queens, its simpler track connection reduces tunneling requirements by 60 percent and avoids the need to build duplicate storage tracks for rail cars.

Streamlining results in gains to riders, which will come sooner:
A simpler, less costly approach to completing the LIRR access to Grand Central Terminal will mean that riders will enjoy the benefits of the project in three to four years, instead of the ten contemplated by the MTA. By bringing LIRR trains to the existing upper level of Grand Central, passengers will be able to exit to street level, avoiding the banks of escalators that must be navigated in the MTA deep level plan.

A simpler design results in major savings in operating cost:
Getting better use out of the existing infrastructure at Grand Central Terminal eliminates the need to maintain dozens of new escalators and critical ventilation systems that are required for passenger safety and comfort in the deep level plan. In addition, the extra cost of operating, policing and maintaining duplicate car storage facilities in Queens is avoided. With pressure to hold down transit deficits and minimize fare hikes, the MTA will be hard pressed to find new operating funds to subsidize its plan.

What are MTA's objections to this streamlined plan?
Metro-North claims its operations would be severely impacted, but this objection is overstated. While Metro-North provides a reliable, high quality service, its 46 platform tracks at Grand Central Terminal, by far the world's largest train station, are in reality underutilized! During the peak hour, each platform track accommodates an average of one arriving train every 56 minutes. The streamlined plan envisions shifting five platform tracks and the upper level loop to the LIRR. Even with this loss, Metro-North would still average fifty minutes per inbound peak hour train per platform track. In contrast, the LIRR operation at Penn Station is far more efficient, with each platform track averaging one inbound train every 15 minutes.

Metro-North makes little use of its upper level loop, typically operating only seven trains each way on an average weekday. In the streamlined plan, some thirty trains per hour would use this extraordinary resource. The LIRR argues the streamlined plan would not meet its operational requirements, but exactly the opposite is the case. The five-track terminal leading to the level loop has the potential for handling more trains per hour than the eight-track stub terminal proposed by the LIRR. Though the existing loop has a relatively sharp radius curve by railroad standards, it is well within the operational capability of LIRR electric rail cars.

And -- Metro-North cars are already using the loop! Speeds could be safely raised to 12 to 15 mph and LIRR third rail could easily be installed. The five tracks proposed to be shifted to LIRR use can handle 12-car trains. Platforms are not encumbered with columns, providing a smooth channel for passengers boarding and exiting trains. At the south end, new escalators and elevators would enhance access for the short climb to street level. At the north end, space is available for additional stairways down to the 47th Street concourse or up to the street. None of these access enhancements would be costly.

What can be done to get a fair assessment of the streamlined alternative?
The MTA must gain solid support from many quarters to obtain the needed funding for its LIRR access to Grand Central. With transport funds limited, and many competing projects stalled, elected officials, business interests and civic organizations must demand that the MTA conduct an independent assessment of less costly options to its five billion dollar plan. Options that use the loop tracks at Grand Central take advantage of unique features of this extraordinary transportation facility.

Building a new terminal deep below existing trackage simply wastes this obvious resource, and results in excess cost that should be avoided in this time of harsh fiscal realities.

January 30th, 2003
prepared by: George Haikalis

George Haikalis is President of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. (IRUM), and Chairman of Auto-Free New York.

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