Long Awaited, Much Needed and Extremely Costly, East Side Access Will Yield Faster, Less Stressful Commutes

By Katherine Bonamo and Thomas Renner

In December 2022, New York plans to unveil a major new hub for its public transit system.  An entirely new concourse and terminal for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) will open directly beneath Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan.  For the first time, commuters from Long Island (and the borough of Queens) will be able to use the LIRR to travel directly to destinations on the East Side of Manhattan, the site of many workplaces.  

Planned for decades, this massive investment in commuter rail marks the first major expansion to the busy LIRR in over 100 years.  “As the first modern train terminal to be built in more than a half century, the East Side Access concourse will expand rail service, cut down on travel times into East Manhattan from Queens and reduce crowding,’’ New York Governor Kathy Hochul said. “This is yet another example of New York leading the way as we recover from the pandemic.” 

For New York transit riders, a new flagship station for the LIRR is huge news all by itself.  So is the expected 45 percent increase in the LIRR’s capacity.  The LIRR will continue to use Penn Station on the West Side as well, allowing Long Islanders to choose the terminal closest to their work locations.  

But the sheer scope of the East Side Access project is much greater than than most New Yorkers will ever realize.  Overall, East Side Access is the largest infrastructure project in the 57-year history of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).  With a final price tag approaching $12 billion, the effort has so far required nearly 15 years of intense work to complete.  During a 2015 tour of the work in progress, MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu called it “a project of “historical proportions.”  

Reshaping New York’s Infrastructure

Given the city’s complex geography, any new train routes from Queens to Midtown East would first need to find a way around—or under—the famed East River.  To make East Side Access a reality, teams have carved out almost 13 miles of new tunnel, by methods including tunnel boring, cut-and-cover, jacked shield, micro-tunneling, drilling, and blasting.  For the Queens side of the work alone, two 500-ton pressurized face “slurry” tunnel boring machines from German manufacturer Herrenknecht were custom built for the project.  Over 2 million cubic yards of “muck” was excavated in total, including 1.5 million cubic yards that had to be hauled to the surface by conveyor belt, a process Horodniceanu described as “a nightmare.”  

Important changes were also needed to integrate the new routes safely into New York’s intricate ecosystem of rail lines.  Harold Interlocking in Queens was already the busiest railroad junction in the country, serving the LIRR, NJ Transit, and the New York & Atlantic Railway as well as Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.  East Side Access work at Harold involved not only tunneling work and reconfiguration of track, but installation of new signal, communication, and supervisory control systems.  Crews installed 97 new track switches, five new steel railroad bridges, and 295 poles for Amtrak’s overhead wires.

Meanwhile, beneath the streets of Manhattan, workers built the vast new spaces of “Grand Central Terminal Caverns” to house both the public and working areas of new LIRR terminal.  This major portion of the project included the construction of two completely new concrete caverns, with each an impressive 1,143 feet in length.  Two existing caverns, previously used to store Metro-North trains, were fitted out for their new purpose with 830 precast beams, 844 precast panels, 694 precast walls, and 370 precast platforms.

To turn these caverns and tunnels into a rail terminal, workers needed 130,000 feet of track, 32 turnouts, 52 switches, and 35,000 cubic yards of track bed concrete.  To supply power, the design included 800,000 feet of underground raceways, 7,000 light fixtures, seven power stations and two off-track facilities.  

Safety with Style

The scale of these efforts notwithstanding, the brand-new LIRR concourse will remain the most highly visible result of East Side Access.  Measuring 350,000 square feet in all, the new public space will include 25 retail storefronts, Wi-Fi and cell service, and digital signage with real-time train information. A notable feature will be the 17 high-rise escalators connecting commuters to the terminal’s mezzanine — at 182 feet each, these will be the longest in the New York City transit system.  From the mezzanine, travelers can access upper and lower train levels with two new platforms and four new tracks each.  

Planners also provided for amenities such as art exhibition space in the corridors leading from Grand Central’s entrance to the LIRR ticket booths.  “Not only is it built functionally, but we want people to enjoy the experience. You see architectural flourishes throughout,” stated former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on a tour of the facility last year.  

At the same time, memories of both 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy remain vivid in the Tristate area.  With recent history in mind, New Yorkers are clear on the need for prudent forethought when it comes to public spaces that will be used by large crowds.  To plan responsibly for possible future emergencies, the new terminal features 53 fire-rated floor doors manufactured by BILCO. 

Fire-rated floor doors are often found in public buildings, dormitories, office buildings, and exit stairwells.  They are provided with a self-closing device and an intumescent fireproof coating on the underside. When a fire breaks out, the closing device is triggered by the heat and closes the door to compartmentalize the building and prevent the spread of smoke and flames. By doing so, egress is protected and building occupants have additional time to evacuate safely.  The fireproof coating on the underside of the door expands and seals the door opening to prevent the spread of fire to the next floor.

BILCO’s fire-rated doors maintain the fire rating of a 2-hour floor ceiling assembly between building floors. The door hardware and sealants used in the product are specially selected for this purpose.  BILCO’s doors are UL-listed and meet NFPA 251, NFPA 288, ASTM E119 and BS476 Part 22 requirements. They also feature a pan cover designed to accept flooring materials for concealed access.  The units chosen for East Side Access range in size from 30 inches x 30 inches to 42 x 60, one of the largest manufactured by the specialty access company. 

Doors made by BILCO are frequently used in MTA construction projects. In this case, Fontana Metal Sales was the immediate source of the doors used for East Side Access. “It’s a product that the MTA knows and it’s easiest to purchase the known product,’’ said Jason Benfield of the civil engineering team working on the project, Tutor Perini. “It’s easier to get something approved when it’s a product that is known to work in these applications.”

Betting on the Future

When the LIRR was founded in 1834, the population of Long Island numbered around 37,000.  Today it exceeds 2.8 million.  As of 2017, about 1.4 million Long Island residents were employed in Manhattan, with some commuting as long as two hours each way.  For these long-suffering suburbanites, a quicker and more efficient way to commute is long overdue.

As the largest transportation infrastructure project currently underway in North America draws to a close, New York officials are optimistic about their vision of the economic future: a future based on drawing workers back to the heart of “The City.”  Planners hope for quality-of-life improvements throughout greater New York as well.  “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,’’ said MTA Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber.  

In short, New York is backing the concept that a world-class transit system is essential for a world-class city.  According to Horodniceanu, investment in public transport is “the only way you’ll remain competitive on a world map, to be like London, Shanghai, or Paris.”  Long Islanders hoping to get to work in a timely manner can only welcome this view.  Ninety thousand tons of steel and more than 1 million cubic yards of concrete later, the outcome of New York’s bold bet on rail will soon become clear to all. 


Katherine Bonamo and Thomas Renner write about construction, engineering, architecture, and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.

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