New York’s East Side Access (Grand Central) Makes its run from Port Washington
There were no fireworks, balloons, media cameras, nor a ribbon cutting ceremony. Absent, too, were local politicians and officials from the LIRR or MTA. On this memorable day on Monday, Feb. 27, however, a milestone event made Long Island history as the 5:08 a.m. train from Port Washington rolled out of the station as the first train to take commuters to the new Grand Central Madison terminal of the Long Island Railroad.
That day joined two other important dates for Port Washington residents. The first train to leave town was on June 23, 1898, and went to Long Island City. Commuters then walked across to the waiting LIRR ferry to complete their trip to Manhattan at the East 34th Street ferry slip. On Oct. 21, 1913, the first electric-powered train from Port took passengers directly to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which had opened three years earlier.
While the first two milestones were marked with parades and festivities, the one last Monday was celebrated by a handful of rail fans and history buffs joined by commuters on their way to work.
Until now, all trains from Port went to Penn Station only, some of them express trains. With service now also going to Grand Central, there will be adjustments made by riders. Some trains will go directly to Penn, while others will go directly to Grand Central. Transfers at Woodside will sometimes allow riders to switch their destination. For example, some passengers on the 5:08 a.m. inaugural run to Grand Central transferred at Woodside for a train to Penn Station.
More than 1.4 million Long Island residents commute to New York City every day. The Port Washington line has always been most popular with a short ride into Penn Station and a variety of convenient schedules in which to choose both coming and going into Penn. While some commutes are relatively short — Port Washington residents can reach midtown in about 45 minutes — other residents farther out on Long Island travel as much as three hours one way daily.
“The East Side Access,” the name of the new project that began service on Feb. 27, will provide faster commutes, fewer delays, greater reliability, and more options, according to the LIRR. East Side Access is a $12 billion project, which marks the first expansion of the LIRR in more than 100 years. Riders on the LIRR will have direct access to the east side of Manhattan, easing overcrowding in and around Penn Station.
Construction of the new Grand Central Madison terminal began in 2008 and opened on Jan. 25, 2023. The Art Deco terminal is breathtakingly beautiful and enables passengers to transfer to Metro-North’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines, as well as the New York City Subway at Grand Central–42nd Street station. The station has an area of 700,000 sq. ft., including 120,000 sq. ft. for passengers and 25,000 sq. ft. of retail space. The concourse is one of the hallmarks of the project. It includes 25 retail storefronts, Wi-Fi and cell service, and digital signage with real-time train information. Seventeen high-rise escalators, the longest in the MTA and covering 182 ft., will connect commuters between the concourse and mezzanine of the train terminal. The mezzanine leads to upper and lower train levels, each of which has two platforms and four tracks.
The East Side Access project has been a long and hard effort to bring to completion. After work started in 2006, the original completion date was set for 2009, but the project’s price tag grew considerably over time, and so did the employment landscape, especially when the coronavirus pandemic hit and many people have switched to home offices.
The scope of the entire project was no less than staggering. Workers laid more than 40.5 miles of new track, including 12.84 miles of track in tunnels throughout Manhattan and Queens. Teams carved out eight miles of new tunnels, excavating more than two million cubic yards of rock, soil, and muck — more than 1,200 acres. Workers poured more than one million cubic yards of concrete, installed 90,000 tons of steel, and built two caverns, each extending 1,143 ft., which is the length of four football fields.
MTA Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber was quoted as saying, “This smart, transit-oriented development will help spur economic growth, provide better connections to Metro-North Railroad, and lead to reduced automobile traffic and improved air quality in the region.”
Ian Rafmussen, a Port Washington resident and a retired Qualified Conductor for the LIRR, has closely followed plans to build the new route since its inception and has an excellent pulse on the project. “Few people will ever see the guts of the project, which are in Grand Central Station Caverns. The project included structural precast fit-out of two 1,000-foot caverns. Track work consisted of laying 130,000 ft. of track, 32 turnouts, 52 switches, and 35,000 cubic yards of track bed concrete.”
Rafmussen points out that the heartbeat of the system is a series of electrical connections at the concourse, which includes 800,000 ft. of underground raceways, 7,000 light fixtures, seven power stations and two off-track facilities.
History buffs and members of the Cow Neck Historical Peninsula Society (CNHPS) joined Rafmussen on the inaugural train run at 5:08 a.m.
CNHPS President Chris Bain said, “Since about 1910, when the railroad finished the four rail tunnels under the East River, Port Washington residents have been able to enjoy a ride into Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station. This trip to the west side of 34th Street takes about 35 minutes. If, however, your destination was the upper east side, north and east of Grand Central Station, the additional subway trip(s) would add at least another half hour each morning and each evening. Now, with the completion of the Grand Central Madison terminal, and the incredible engineering which defies comprehension, we can take a train from Port Washington directly to the upper east side. For those of us who commuted for decades, the sheer wonder of this heroic achievement by the MTA cannot be overstated!”
Kenneth Buettner, a long time Port Washington resident and a board member of the CBPHS, rode on the inaugural trip with his son, Daniel. Buettner, a train history buff, portrayed Thomas Dodge in June 2021 when the LIRR celebrated its 123rd anniversary of the first train to leave Port Washington to go to Penn Station. Visit portwashington-news.com/hail-the-new-rail/ to read the story about the commemorative event.
Buettner said, “I have often taken the train to Penn that left at the same time. The number of passengers was about the same. Other than Chris, me, Dan and a friend who joined us at Douglaston, there were only a small handful of people in our car on Feb. 27. Again, that was about normal. However, when the recorded announcement said that this was “the train to Grand Central” one of the commuters suddenly became attentive and searched for the conductor as he wanted to go into Penn. The conductor explained that he needed to transfer at Woodside and that he would arrive there at just about the same time as he had been accustomed to in the past.”
Buettner also said that while it was disappointing not to anyone from the LIRR or MTA on hand for the historic train departure, he was there with the Port Washington News and the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society to give their support.
Passengers on the Port Washington Branch have never had to pay much attention to transferring, but that has now changed. For example, a commuter leaving Grand Central in an afternoon to go back to Port Washington will experience the following: If they catch the 2:44 p.m., they will go directly on the same train. If they are earlier or later, they will have to catch either the 2:01 p.m. or 3:01 p.m. to Ronkonkoma and transfer at Woodside. The difference is 48 minutes on the direct train, or 1 hour and 3 minutes with the transfer.
On the other hand, if a commuter was leaving Manhattan from Penn Station around the same time, these are their options: The 2:17 p.m. goes directly to Port Washington in 47 minutes. The next train is the 2:35 p.m. to Babylon, with a transfer at Woodside for a 57 minute run.
While history was made on this date, all commuters will all have a learning curve until everyone reaches a comfort level.
On another note, the opening of Grand Central Madison allows the LIRR to add 13 trains a day to Port Washington Branch timetables, bringing service on the branch up to 103 trains daily and a 14 percent service increase.
During the weekday A.M. and P.M. peak, alternate trains will serve Penn Station and Grand Central. Some peak trains will make all stops to Bayside, then continue to Great Neck with stops at Douglaston and Little Neck. Other trains will make their first stop at Bayside or Great Neck, and then make all stops to Port Washington. For reverse-peak commuters traveling as far as Great Neck, the new timetables eliminate an 85 minute gap in morning eastbound service and 72 minute gap in evening westbound service.
The potential negative impact of scheduling changes was outlined in an Oct. 3, 2022 press release from the New York State Senate. After proposing changes to the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch that would have eliminated express service as part of the agency’s East Side Access project, transit officials announced that they abandoned their plans to do so. The draft timetable changes, residents and officials said, would shortchange commuters throughout Port Washington, Plandome, Manhasset and Great Neck by decreasing express service. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority held multiple virtual sessions to hear feedback from North Shore residents and officials, a majority of which was in opposition to the proposed cutbacks.
State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills) and state Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti (D-Port Washington) helped lead a charge that encouraged residents and other elected officials throughout the North Shore areas to express their concerns to transit officials so that the longstanding express service could be retained. The two expressed their excitement following the announcement that the plans to eliminate the express service would not come to fruition.
Facts at a glance:
• With an estimated cost of $12 billion, or about $3.5 billion per mile ($2.2 billion per kilometer) of new tunnel, the East Side Access tunnels were seven times as expensive as comparable railroad tunnels in other countries.
• While LIRR riders are surely rejoicing, many naysayers, including Ian Rafussen, says the East Side Access will go down as one of the country’s most “notoriously inefficient transit undertakings.” After years of preplanning and engineering finances, construction officially kicked off in 2001 with an estimated eight-year timeline and $2.1 billion budget. That deadline came and went and bureaucratic entanglements ended up tacking on an extra 14 years and an eye-watering $9 billion to the overall price tag—seven times the average for similar projects elsewhere in the world.
• No, trains will not stop at Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s one or the other.
If you or someone you know is affected in a negative or positive way by the East Side Access projects changes to the Port Washington Branch train schedule, feel free to send a Letter to the Editor to firstname.lastname@example.org