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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The Electrification of Grand Central, and Metro-North’s Third Rail

Over the past few years this site has significantly delved into the history of Grand Central Terminal and how it came to be. We’ve talked about the Park Avenue Tunnel wreck that led to the banning of steam locomotives in Manhattan – considered one of the catalysts for building the new all-electric Terminal. We’ve also talked about the power plants established to provide the electricity to power the trains operating to Grand Central. But somehow along the way, we’ve neglected to discuss the integral bit of tech that delivered the electricity to the trains in Grand Central, and is still used today – the third rail.

After the recent, tragic crash on the Harlem Line, the topic of third rail has become a talking point in the media. For those not exceptionally familiar with railroading (who have been frequenting the site as of late), electric trains can be powered by various methods, and most railroad systems picked one method of power for their road. Since Metro-North is made up of two historical railroad systems – the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford – you will not find just one method of powering electric trains here. One common type of power, which is seen on the New Haven Line, is the overhead catenary system. Wires above the train carry electricity, and trains have special “arms” called pantographs that reach up and connect with these wires.

Drawing of the bottom contact third rail, from the patent documentation.
Drawing of the bottom contact third rail invented by William Wilgus and Frank Sprague, from the patent documentation.

The other common method of train power, the third rail, comes in a few different “flavors,” but the concept on each is similar – an extra rail that conducts electricity is placed on the ground, and special shoes on the train connect with it and draw power. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, for example, use an over running third rail, where power is collected from the top of the third rail. This is the oldest type of third rail power. Metro-North, however, uses a method of under running third rail, which is also known as bottom contact third rail (or the Wilgus-Sprague system, for its inventors). As one would gather from the name, the power is collected from the bottom of the third rail. This method was especially invented for use in Grand Central Terminal, and was an improvement on the original by inventors William Wilgus (Chief Engineer of the New York Central) and Frank Sprague for safety. It is still used on the Harlem and Hudson Lines today, and is what was involved the recent crash.

Before I continue on, let’s break down some facts about the third rail in Valhalla, and about under running third rail:

  • The railroad tracks running through the area in question have been in service since 1846.
  • Under running third rail has been in service in the New York Metropolitan area since 1906.
  • Third rail in the area in question was installed in 1983 when the Harlem Line was electrified to Southeast (then Brewster North).
  • Over running third rail (like the LIRR uses) is the oldest type of third rail. Under-running third rail was developed later as a safer methodology, as it was less likely to electrocute a worker or trespasser, and better covered from rain, snow, and ice.
  • The original NYC subway (IRT) used the older version of third rail because the under running variety had not been invented yet. The Long Island Rail Road followed suit when electrifying due to connections / planned connections with the subway.
  • The same year that under running third rail was patented, the legislature of the State of Connecticut banned unprotected third rail technology after several people / animals were electrocuted. The whole concept of under running third rail was that the rail was protected, and thus considered far more safe.
  • In modern usage, under running third rail seems appears overwhelmingly safer in comparison to over running. The subway and LIRR have had far more deaths in this manner – from numerous trackworkers, to people walking across the tracks, falling on the tracks, graffiti artists getting zapped, people trying to rescue dropped items, and even peeing on the third rail. Over the five year period from 2002 to 2006, one person was electrocuted by Metro-North’s third rail, while six were electrocuted by the Long Island Rail Road’s.
  • The over running third rail used by the LIRR and subway are far more effected by rain, snow, and ice. Even a dropped umbrella onto the tracks managed to shut down the 7 line recently.
  • Metro-North is not the only transit system to use under-running third rail. One line in Philadelphia uses it. Historically, a tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario used it, but that line was de-electrified. Transit systems in Vienna, Warsaw, Sao Paulo (and more) use under-running third rails.
  • Few systems using under-running third rail means nothing about the soundness of the technology. It is only a legacy holdover to a country once comprised of many different railroad companies, each of which picked the technology best suited for them. The lines that comprise Metro-North were not even a unified system until 1969, which is why different modes of electrification are used across the system.
  • While Chuck “Photo op” Schumer and Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal would prefer to blame a third-rail design that has worked successfully for well over a hundred years, and is safer than the one used by our neighbors, the fact of the matter is that this accident would have 100% been prevented by better driver vigilance and abiding the sign “Do not stop on tracks.”

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Thoughts on Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge, and the Hiawatha Line’s Downtown East – Metrodome station


Early 1900’s panoramic view of the Stone Arch Bridge

Several weeks ago when I interviewed Metro-North’s president, a few people (especially @CapnTransit on twitter) called attention to the question about Millerton – and specifically the “how do you de-map a rail trail,” comment that Mr. Permut made. It is an interesting point – in some ways a rail trail preserves a former railroad’s Right of Way, but the restoration of a rail line from a rail trail is exceedingly rare. Railroad bridges that are converted to rail-trail use are even more problematic. Bridges are not cheap to build – and what happens if at some point in the future we wish to restore the rail? A passenger rail link over the Hudson would be nice – and the likelihood of it happening with the Tappan Zee project is practically non-existent – but let’s not forget that we did have a rail bridge over the Hudson, though it is now the Walkway Over the Hudson.

I’m really divided on my opinion of rail trails – obviously, I’d much rather see it as a railroad. But at the same time, it does preserve a little bit of the history – which is better than it being totally forgotten and lost to time. All of these thoughts came to mind recently when I visited Minneapolis. The beautiful Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1883 by the Great Northern Railway, is now a pedestrian bridge, and part of the Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. The interesting part of the story is that passenger rail travel is being revived in Minnesota – I’ve introduced you to the relatively new Hiawatha Line light rail system there. A second line, the Central Corridor, is currently under construction. This new line will travel from downtown Minneapolis to Saint Paul – a journey that requires a crossing over the Mississippi River.

The map above displays Minneapolis’ river crossings, and their relation to the new light rail system. In order to accommodate the Central Corridor’s crossing over the Mississippi, the Washington Avenue bridge will be modified. It is interesting to note that there are two former railroad bridges – the Stone Arch, and Northern Pacific #9 – that could have been used for this purpose, had they not been converted to pedestrian use. Several other railroad bridges are visible on the map, only one of which is currently in use for passenger rail, MetroTransit’s North Star Line.


Postcards of trains crossing over the bridge. Visible in the background of the second postcard is the Cedar Avenue Bridge (now called the 10th Avenue Bridge), built in 1929. In 1964 construction began on the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge, located in between those two bridges. This was the bridge that tragically collapsed during rush hour in 2007. It has since been replaced by the Saint Anthony Falls bridge.

Though it may no longer be used by the railroad, it is undeniable that the Stone Arch Bridge is quite lovely. It provides attractive views of the river, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even catch a glimpse of a boat passing through the lock at Saint Anthony Falls.


View from the Guthrie Theater… why, oh why, did you have to tint your windows?

   
 
   
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  

If the Stone Arch Bridge is the old version of this post, Downtown East – Metrodome, a few blocks away from the bridge, on the Hiawatha Line would be the new. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear how much I love the public art along the Hiawatha Line – and I think that the art here at Downtown East – Metrodome may be the jewel of the entire system. The massive arches – designed by artist Andrew Leicester – don’t require you to be a rocket scientist to figure out. Created to evoke the image of the Stone Arch Bridge, the arches are decorated with beautiful colorful brickwork. The brick designs are influenced by the clothing patterns worn by the nineteenth-century immigrants to the area.

Leicester is a prolific public artist, and no public artist’s career would be complete without a commission for New York’s Arts for Transit program. Long Island Rail Road riders are more familiar with his piece in the city, however. Located in Penn Station, Leicester’s terra-cotta murals evoke the Penn Station of yesteryear. His blend of art and history is definitely something that I appreciate.

 
  
 
   
 
 
   
 
  

That is about it for today’s visit to Minneapolis – believe it or not, I still have a few more photos from my travels there, which I will likely share in the next few weeks!

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