A Journey Underground – East Side Access

Over the one hundred plus years of its existence, Grand Central Terminal has reinvented itself many times to keep pace with the needs of its customers. When long range passenger trains were the norm, passengers could sit and watch a movie at Grand Central’s theater while waiting for their train to depart, or sit in the Terminal’s grand waiting room in Vanderbilt Hall. Today, all of the long distance trains have disappeared, replaced with Metro-North’s commuter service where trains are frequent enough that one rarely has to wait long. While today’s dashing commuter would have little use for a theater, they certainly make use of Grand Central’s new market, where they can quickly grab the ingredients for the dinner they’ll make after the train whisks them home. Even the less-used waiting room (which in high-society days had segregated fancy areas for both men and women) has moved out of the large Vanderbilt Hall into the smaller Stationmaster’s Office, converted into event space to capture the wandering person’s interest. Yet even part of that event space is slated for a conversion into more on-the-go eateries for the dashing commuter, an alternate option to picking up the ingredients in the market.

All of this reinvention has kept Grand Central relevant – it has retained its character as a landmark, yet constantly refreshed itself to keep with the times, all while remaining dedicated to its primary purpose of being a train station. As we speak, Grand Central is in fact reinventing itself yet again, although you may not be able to see the changes quite yet – they are far below your feet and deep underground. As cars clog our highways and roads, public transportation on the east and west sides of Manhattan are almost islands unto themselves. The MTA’s two railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, operate from separate stations with little linkage between them. Metro-North’s riders filter into the east side of Manhattan, while Long Island’s into the west. But what if we could change all that – give Long Island riders the option to arrive in the east side, and give Metro-North riders the ability to board trains to Long Island inside Grand Central, all while opening up a far easier public transit connection to JFK airport from the east side? All of these are goals of the ongoing East Side Access project, which is expected to continue for at least the next eight years. The project will create a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, adding a new terminal below Grand Central with eight new tracks, as well as the addition of 22,000 square feet of new retail space.

 
Diagrams of East Side Access, how the new terminal is situated under current buildings (left), and how trains from Long Island will be routed into Grand Central (right).
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Construction on East Side Access Project Halted Indefinitely

While celebrating Grand Central Terminal’s 100th anniversary, we discussed a wide array of topics regarding GCT’s history, and its place in our lives today. The one thing that we failed to mention was one of Grand Central’s futures – a major one being the East Side Access project. Designed to connect the Long Island Rail Road to a new station underneath Grand Central, the new facility was estimated to open by 2019. Unfortunately, that timeline has been called into question after the discovery of fossilized remains in one of the underground tunnels where construction is currently going on.

The first fossil found in the deep underground tunnel was discovered by a machine operator after partially running over it with his vehicle. Because of the damage to that specimen, all work on the East Side Access project has been halted indefinitely, and experts have been called in to examine what has been found. Paul Olsen, a paleontologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will be one of the scientists brought in to examine the fossils, which appear to be reptilian in origin. Olson has previously identified reptile fossils in nearby Exeter, Pennsylvania, and is excited to investigate these fossils “right in our own backyard.” To date, a total of four sets of fossilized remains have been found in the tunnels. In addition to those remains, several metallic items which appear to be tools of some sort have also been found, as well as several colored ribbons. It is unknown whether these items are related to the fossils in any way.

Speaking unofficially, one of the construction workers on the project said the fossilized remains bear a striking resemblance to a turtle – although a very large one. Fossils of a turtle that large have not been found in this area previously, which means that this could be a completely new species, or perhaps a mutant of some sort. Such discoveries are rare, but not completely unheard of – in 2005 a North Carolina State University student discovered the remains of an extinct species, Carbonemys cofrinii, a large turtle with a shell that measures just over five and a half feet long.

Unfortunately, this discovery may set the East Side Access project back by at least a year or more. Besides investigating and removing the fossils that have been found, further excavation will likely take place to determine whether there are any other fossils in the tunnels. This work will likely be slow going, as to not damage anything else that may be in the tunnel. Few photos of the discoveries underground have been released to the public, as the MTA is attempting to keep this setback quiet. To date, this is the only photo that has been released of the findings.

East Side Access

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