Touring the East Side Access Tunnel, Surrounded By Schist

This morning I took a tour of the MTA’s newly completed East Side Access tunnel 140 feet below Midtown Manhattan. My laptop is about to run out of batteries and, of course, I left my power cord at home. (It’s a good thing I’m only in charge of running a blog and not, say, a 22-foot diameter, 850-ton tunnel boring machine.) So I’m just going to publish these photos with minimal text. I’ll fill in the details later. Warning: If you’re not a serious infrastructure geek, you might just want to skip this post altogether.


Joe Trainor, MTA Capital Construction


Sixteen flights down.


Reminds me of a Merle Travis song.


The "man car." Not the fanciest press junket.


Heading southbound towards Grand Central.


Left curve end. Right curve start. 




Blow torch.


Manhattan schist.




Drill tip.


 Drill tip and worker.

Back to 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue in all of its sweltering, stylish, SUV-choked glory.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Is the tunnel for the suburbanites really “newly completed” while the one for subway riders hasn’t started and the MTA is out of money?

  • Lucky dog. That looked like fun.

  • Attendee

    No, it’s the other way around. The top half of the tunnel under the river has been used by subways for years. The bottom half has yet to be used by the suburbanites since it used to hit a dead end where it reached Manhattan. The current work is to connect the Manhattan dead-end with Grand Central (dashed blue lines on the map). That project is only for the suburbanites. The 63rd street F station will eventually be linked to the 2nd avenue subway, but that is an entirely separate project.

  • I think what Larry’s saying is that the current phase of the Second Avenue Subway was started at the same time as the current phase of the East Side Access project.

    An even more serious issue is that East Side Access is expected to bring a bunch of LIRR riders who will transfer to the Lexington Avenue line, which doesn’t have the capacity to handle them. Many transit advocates wanted to see the Second Avenue subway completed before the East Side Access project, freeing up capacity on the Lex.

  • Another serious issue is that the new tunnel will feed into a station deep underground with no track connections to anything around it. People transferring to the subway will have a very long escalator ride and then a long walk across Grand Central. This will not dissuade many, just make things harder for them. It will also be difficult to evacuate in an emergency.

    There were competing proposals for LIRR trains to use the existing, little-used loop tracks in Grand Central, but those proposals were rejected by the MTA. The new station will also require removing a train yard that is conveniently next to Grand Central and instead moving trains to the newly constructed Highbridge Yard in the Bronx.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I think what Larry’s saying is that the current phase of the Second Avenue Subway was started at the same time as the current phase of the East Side Access project.”

    Yeah, in the 1960s.

    The Second Avenue and East Side Access were planned as one project for precisely the reason you state — more people packing onto the planned Lexington Avenue line.

    With funds limited, the MTA proposed building just the upper half of the Second Avenue Subway to 125th along with ESA, while making preparations for the second half. Sheldon Silver blocked in and demanded a new plan for a “full” Second Avenue subway. That set the project back several years while East Side Access got underway. Transit advocates called Silver a hero.

    When the SAS finally got going years later, there was even less money, and the first phase of the Second Avenue was cut to just three stations. Construction finally just started. Are the TBMs even in the ground yet?

    Far from using his ability to stall to ensure a subway through his District, Silver might have actually killed the uppper half. Was that his intent as part of some deal? Who knows?

    Even if the subway had gone all the way downtown, there would have been no new stations in Silver’s district, just another service though existing stations at 14th Street, Houston and Grand. It would have been possible to travel from there directly up the East Side. But a far more important improvement for the purpose, and far cheaper, is the ped connection at Broadway–Lafayette to the uptown 6, which would bring Lower East Side residents to East Midtown where the jobs are. There is no crowding on the 6 south of Union Square — the problem is on the 6 north of there, and the 4/5 the whole way.

  • Looper

    Capn T (or anyone) What did you think about the alternative plan to use the existing GCS track loop instead of the journey to the center of the earth plan the MTA went with? Most of us don’t know enough to judge decisions like this. We have to assume the MTA has good reasons. Did it?

  • momos

    Aaron, great photos! Streetsbloggers are all about infrastructure. Please write up all the details you learned.

    The additional commuters flowing through Grand Central as a result of this project only further underscores the need for a cross town transit solution on the 42nd % 34th st corridors.

    We need a low-floor Euro style tram doing a loop on a pedestrianized (no cars) 42nd St, down the far West Side, across a pedestrianized 34th, and back up 2nd Ave. Check out the vision here:

    Such a light rail system would link all the major Midtown transit hubs, have far greater capacity and speed than buses, and be much cheaper to build than the faltering 7 train extension project.

  • That Vision42 idea looks pretty sweet but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    While the MTA pushes ahead with ESA it pushes behind with Main Line 3rd track on LIRR the only hope of expanded and useful reverse commute market. Further, if 3rd Track doesn’t get done the gates will be down on the road crossings almost the entire rush hour after ESA is up and running. On the other hand, that could be a good thing, unless you are stuck in your car on New Hyde Park Ave.

  • Vision 42 looks pretty nice. I used to be somewhat anti-tram (because of Baltimore) until I went to Strasbourg, Dublin, Marseille and how they pedestrianized streets with the tramways and not just threw them onto streets haphazardly and realized it could be really nice and not just a poor man’s subway. They’re great for traffic calming and Paris shows that they can catch on even in places with large subway systems.

  • Streetcars (even ones that are just “thrown on the streets”) are fantastic. Such a stronger connection to the city to the place and to interaction with the street, no hiding underground thank you very much. I don’t see much wrong with Baltimore’s, except for the lack of a real transit plan that actually focuses on landuse and connections. It’s gritty and urban and real. Reminds me the best streetcar lines in San Francisco. Personally, the ones I’ve seen in Europe tend to be a little too parklike for the way that I like my cities. All that false pastoral feeling designed to “de-urbanize” what should be exciting chaotic dense environments.


    While MTA desperately struggles to find enough money to fix the basic system, it is spending billions on this poorly-designed megaproject. The Upper Level Loop Alternative (ULLA)(mentioned earlier)is still a viable option, even at this late date. The TBMs can be shut down, pulled back to 2nd Avenue,and redirected toward the Upper Level of Grand Central Terminal — the world’s largest railway station.

    MTA has never asked an independent panel of experts to review this option, developed by Canada’s leading engineering firm — Delcan Corp. Nor has the safety and security of the design, some 150 feet below Park Avenue, been independently assessed.

    According to the Project’s Major Investment Study, published in March 1998 (page 7-8), LIRR East Side Access was expected to attract 48.4 million trips per year, each way, in 2020, producing a total annual time savings of 5.3 million hours. This amounts to 6.6 minutes per round trip or 3.3 minutes per trip in each direction. While some travelers may save 20 minutes per trip others will save far less time.

    This analysis was based on the original plan to bring the LIRR into the Lower Level of Grand Central Terminal. The project was later redesigned to go into a deep cavern station. It should be noted that in Delcan’s analysis of the Upper Level Loop Alternative its plan would save three to four minutes of travel time in each direction, compared with the current MTA deep cavern plan. Delcan also estimated it would save $1.2 to 2.0 billion of construction cost, and could be completed three years sooner. (The Delcan study is posted on IRUM’s website.)

    If the MTA cannot reassess this project, transit riders and taxpayers should demand that it be canceled immediately, and Federal funds earmarked for this project redirected to much more important repair and enhancement work. Even if this requires special legislation to reprogram these funds it is worth the effort.

  • Correction to prior post.

    The LIRR East Side Access project, as originally planned, using the Lower Level at Grand Central, will save each passenger 6.6 minutes per trip, not the 3.3 minutes per trip as I stated in comment #13 above. However, MTA has not estimated how much of this time saving would be lost now that they have chosen to advance the Deep Cavern alternative instead. Delcan found that using the Upper Level Loop Alternative would save three to four minutes per trip when compared with the Deep Cavern plan. This means that a large share of the potential time savings will be lost in exiting from the Deep Cavern.

    This project, as planned, is not cost effective.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (This project, as planned, is not cost effective.)

    While I agree with your assessment, there is a big part of the project that is not widely understood — a new concourse that will provide improved, off-street pedestrian access to points north, an improvement on the NW passage now in place. It will provide a major entrance/exit to the station further north, saving time for subway and MetroNorth as well as LIRR customers.

    Similarly, the big bucks in the WTC Path station are for an underground passageway under West Street, completing an underground and pedestrianized street network across the island.

    One can argue we can’t afford this gold plating, but we would get something if construction finishes.

    What really bothers me is South Ferry. For one quarter of the cost, they could have lived with the platform extenders on the curve and just extended the platform north so the full train could exit, while renovating the station. By insisting on getting rid of the curved station (they considered relocating the ENTIRE platform north of the curve but found it impractical), they now have a terminal with less capacity, because there is no room for tail tracks.

  • Analysis of money for LRT instead of 2nd Avenue Subway:

    While it is obvious that the New York City really does need the 2nd Avenue subway and the costs will be justified in the future, I am not sure that it is the best use of $3.8 billion now. I suggest instead that the $3.8 billion be used for right of way light rail that will go from 42nd Street up 1st Avenue across 125th Street to 2nd Avenue down to 42nd Street. At this point the light rail can make a square route going from 42nd Street, down to 34th, and back to 42nd Street (would make all planned subway stops). I am building off the idea of vision 42 which has a plan to make 42nd Street a pedestrian way with light rail. My plans would include light rail going two ways along both 42nd and 34th and the connections (1st Avenue and 12th Avenue/West side highway).
    According to Vision 42 and other recent light rail projects my projection is $204 million per mile of light rail that needs to be built(this is the high estimate). To provide the service to the areas I described above would be 18 miles and cost $3.6 billion. For the $3.8 billion you can have light rail service to Upper east side, Harlem, Grand Central, Times Square, Penn Station, Javitz Center, and connections to most subway lines. This could be built and running within 5 years time. While light rail car can hold 220 passengers per car, as opposed to 250 for a subway car, light rail can run closer together. I feel light rail would help alleviate overcrowding that is taking place on the Lexington line and in midtown. This would not replace the subway, but would rather be an alternative and easier form of transport for many New Yorkers.

  • Larry, the north exit sounds nice, but remember that the Northwest Passage sounded nice too – but they’ve been closing it on weekends because not enough people used it.

    Shishi, light rail trains could run closer together, but they would get stuck at lights. I’m a big fan of streetcars, especially the kind that you describe, but if we’re going to spend money on light rail, why not put it someplace like Fresh Meadows, where they don’t have a subway within walking distance?

    With a lot of these big transit projects it comes down to symbolism. Symbolism that it was a mistake to destroy Penn Station. Symbolism that Lower Manhattan deserves a one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport. Symbolism that the city is committed to developing the Far West Side.

    The Second Avenue Subway is symbolic, too, because it’s a real new subway line in Manhattan instead of a handful of stubs and connectors in Queens. The city screwed over the Upper East Side by tearing down the Third Avenue El before the subway was built, so there’s the feeling that it’s only fair for the Upper East Side to get their subway before anyone thinks about digging another one. As long as the Second Avenue Subway remains unbuilt there will never be a South Fourth Street Subway, a Morris Park Avenue Subway, or a Hillside Avenue Extension.

    Cue Larry telling us that after 2010 nothing else will get built. I’m prepared for that possibility, but I don’t want to let it run my life.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Cue Larry telling us that after 2010 nothing else will get built.)

    More like 2016 to 2018, though all the money going to a mortgage bailout could move that up.

    (I’m prepared for that possibility, but I don’t want to let it run my life.)

    That’s what they want — acquiescence. Accept that there is nothing that can be done about it, and prepare to pay higher taxes and have the school system collapse again as well. And don’t expect to get Social Security. Meanwhile, ride a bicycle, and hope they never impose a fee for doing so, with the proceeds used for those “at or over 55” when Bush said the words.

  • So true Captain. Symbolism is choking transit improvements here. Streets cars in the boroughs would be an excellent first step.


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