Every evening, steady streams of people race into Grand Central to get on a train and head home. They look up at the departure board, scouring it for their train, and then make their way to that track. As any astute commuter knows, Grand Central’s gates are made up of two and three digit numbers – double digits signify upper-level tracks, and triple digits for lower-level tracks. But what if I told you this wasn’t always the case – that the lower level once had single digit numbers? You probably wouldn’t believe me…
The photo that started the “mystery.” This photo from the collection of the New York Public Library shows track gates 8 and 7 in Grand Central Terminal – on the lower level of the Terminal.
If you don’t believe me right now, I don’t blame you. At first I didn’t believe it either. Plenty of books and articles have been written about Grand Central. Not one that I’ve found mentions the train gates ever getting renumbered. How could something major like this have happened in such a famous building, and yet, nobody knows about it? But as you’ll see in this post, there is overwhelming evidence that the track numbers on the lower level have been changed. In fact, you can see it with your own eyes!
Though near impossible to take a decent photo, the marks from the previous numbering are visible if you look close enough. Next time you’re in the lower level, take a look. You will see the same “Entrance to Track 8 / Track 7” as visible in the above photo.
The mystery began when I was collecting images for my Grand Central 100 for 100 project, and I found the top photo at the NYPL. It fueled my curiosity because it absolutely made no sense. Today there are no gates numbered 7 and 8. If they did exist, where did they go? But after looking at the photo long enough, it started to become obvious that this couldn’t be the upper level. The low ceiling and light fixtures bear an uncanny resemblance to the lower level. Not to mention the two trains listed on the departure board are for suburban trains, which always left from the lower level in this time period.
Delving into various archives, my goal was to find other photos of the lower level with the alternate gate numbers to make a convincing case. Though the first image is nice, there is little visual information to definitively prove that it is the lower level. In fact, after showing a few people just this photo, they vehemently denied that this could even possibly be the lower level of the Terminal. Unfortunately for them, they are totally wrong. Though it wasn’t easy, I found a few more photos, a postcard, even a newspaper story showing the lower level with numbers different then the ones they have currently. Thus it is irrefutable that at some point in Grand Central’s history, a renumbering of gates occurred. Though it is possible that the numbers on lower level track diagrams have always had three digit numbers, the numbers presented to the public ridership have changed.
After we come to the conclusion that the lower level had single digit track numbers at one point in history, the logical next question is when and why did the gate numbers change? That is something I’ve been unable to figure out – hence the mystery of the suburban concourse! I came up with a theory, which I totally admit could be quite wrong, nonetheless I think it gets the ball rolling for us to solve this puzzle…
Theory: Grand Central once had a system of perfectly numbered tracks, consecutive from 1 to 42, across the upper and lower levels. When new tracks were added for passenger use, it disrupted this “perfect” numbering scheme.
If you’re not familiar with the current gate numbering in the Terminal, the relatively confusing arrangement is as so: tracks 11 through 42 on the upper level, tracks 100 through 117 on the lower level, and tracks 102A and 103A randomly thrown in for good measure, also on the lower level.
Tracks 102A and 103A randomly thrown in for good measure
Why use a numbering scheme like that, though? From a customer service perspective, wouldn’t it make more sense to start with Track 1 and work your way up? After all, every minor detail of the Terminal’s design was agonized and deliberate – from the proper letter spacing on signs for ease of readability, to the perfect grade of ramp for walking (no joke, the engineers built several ramps in the old station and watched people walk over them), even to the color of the uniforms worn by all the employees (God forbid a passenger mistake a mere hotel porter for an exalted GCT employee!). Despite all those very conscious decisions to make the Terminal easy to use for masses of people, why would the New York Central adopt track numbering that would seem completely and utterly arbitrary to any rail passenger? Perhaps it was only done begrudgingly…
First, let’s go through a rundown of facts we do know about the Terminal.
- Things we know about Grand Central:
- Trains on the upper level of Grand Central Terminal were divided into 3 categories, each split from the other, with its own location: Incoming long-distance trains (the Biltmore room and tracks west of the main concourse), Departing long-distance trains (the Main Concourse), Mail and freight trains (east of the main concourse).
- One of the design goals of the main concourse was for passengers to have the ability to see all departing trains, and quickly find their own train from anywhere in the room.
- Suburban trains were completely split off from the aforementioned trains upstairs – they all arrived and departed on the lower level. Thus the two local trains listed on the departure board in the first photo are consistent with facts.
- Confirming the premise that tracks east of the main concourse were reserved for mail and freight, plans for Grand Central call for a mail chute between tracks 14 and 15, and the platform by tracks 10 and 13 was reserved for the [American] Express Company. Some tracks on the east end of the lower level were also reserved for mail.
- Several years before the Terminal was completed, a Grand Central post office annex was built on the east side, which would eventually have access to the east mail tracks. The New York Central deeded the building to the US Government in 1932.
- The Graybar Passage has a completely different aesthetic than the rest of Grand Central Terminal, which implies that it was not built at the same time as the Terminal. Our eyes are clearly not deceiving us, we know that the Graybar building was constructed in 1926. Tracks 17 through 11 have gates here in this passageway.
The Graybar passageway, which contains tracks 17 through 11, is a newer addition to the Terminal.
- Based upon the things we know and the visual evidence, here are the things I am suggesting to fit with my theory about the renumbering:
- Because upper-level tracks east of the main concourse were reserved for mail, they were not given numbered gates like the ones for passengers. I’m assuming the highest gate on the upper level was 18, which would coincide with tracks 1 – 17 on the lower level, hence a perfect numbering system.
- For some reason, the New York Central decided that some of the tracks used for other purposes would be converted for passenger use. Many things could have influenced this decision, including a decline in the amount of mail handled (as previously mentioned, the NYC deeded the Post Office annex to the US Government), and more passengers than they thought would be using the station, especially during the war.
- When these new gates were added, it made Grand Central’s gate numbering inconsistent (there would have been two gates numbered 17 through 11, one each on the upper and lower levels). Thus the lower level gate numbers were changed to 3 digit numbers. The gates in the first photo – numbered 7 and 8 – were now 107 and 108. Although the gates no longer had a logical order, opting for this scheme reduced the amount of people affected by the renumbering. When converting the lower level mail gates, numbers really got messy, thus the reason for the bizarre gates 102A and 103A. At minimum, the three digit gate numbers helped to differentiate what was on the upper and lower levels.
- These added gates on the upper level made it so passengers could not see all trains departing while standing in the main concourse (one of Grand Central’s ease of use important concepts). Thus a compromise was reached – departure signs for those tracks outside the concourse were added to the archway:
Of course, everything above is all speculation. But it addresses the two major questions regarding the numbering – why were the numbers changed, and were there duplicate numbers on the upper and lower levels. If today’s track 111 was just 11 in the past, and there was also a track 11 on the upper level, that makes two track 11’s, and double the confusion. It seems to make more sense that the upstairs 11 was not there yet for passengers.
As it is right now, I don’t think there is anything more I can really do to figure out this mystery. Thus I am opening it up, and presenting everything I’ve found to you all. Someone out there may have a photo, or a timetable, or another bit of info that sheds some light on this situation. Collectively, I think we can figure this out – when and why were the track numbers on the lower level changed? Have any thoughts, clues, or evidence? Post in the comments below!