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Friday, April 10, 2009

East Side Access

I've walked through a lot of tunnels underneath Manhattan - rail, sewer, subway, aqueduct, and a few other assorted odds and ends. Even in the easy ones it's always at least a mild adventure - there's always the realization that you're not really supposed to be there.

This time however, it was much different. I got in three whole census tracts 120 feet below Manhattan by managing to tag along on an MIT engineering tour of the East Side Access tunnel - the one they're currently drilling from the LIRR railyards in Queens to Grand Central Terminal.

This project's benefits go well beyond just letting Long Islanders have a one-seat ride to the East Side. There's at least 5 other peripheral advantages that I can think of as well.

First, by decongesting the route to Penn Station, it will speed up LIRR trains going to the West Side as well.

Second, allowing more than one route into Manhattan from Long Island provides some much-needed redundancy to the LIRR routing. One of the two tunnels can be out-of-service for repairs or because of an emergency, and there's still a way to get to Manhattan from the LIRR.

Third, this will free up train slots at the currently at-capacity Penn Station, allowing Metro-North the possibility of running regular trains through the underutilized Riverside Park Tunnel into Penn Station as well as into Grand Central.

Fourth, the above new routing, combined with the new LIRR tunnel to Grand Central, will completely eliminate the "Manhattan Transfer," or people needing to get from Penn Station to Grand Central to continue their journey. Amtrak, NJ Transit, Metro North, and the LIRR will all have a one-station connector between any two train networks.

Fifth, the expanded options for suburban commuters will result in less taxi and subway congestion in Midtown (which ends up actually benefiting me, the non-suburban commuter) from less people needing to take cars and the subway from Grand Central to the West Side, or Penn Station to the East Side.

The tour itself was interesting, although heavy, heavy into the engineering aspect (you can read all about the various technical stuff here). The workers have three shifts each day (work is 24-7, weekdays, but usually off on weekends), which arrive via a small work train from Queens. We were scheduled to hitch a ride on this train from the vent shaft at 2nd Avenue, but since we were late ended up slogging down by foot to 50th and Park instead. That's where the interesting stuff is, including the TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine) responsible for actually making the tunnel. We got to climb in it a bit which was pretty fun.

If we had gone the other way (directly above), we would have gone through the lower level of the 63rd street tunnel, which was sunk for this particular project in the 1980s. The upper level is currently used by the F train, but the lower level is used only by the tunnel work train. Until they restarted this project, it was one of those great hidden yet accessible spaces, useful for all sorts or things - graffiti, raves, camping out, whatever. Of course, in these days of working sandhogs and emergency exit alarms, it's a bit tougher to get to.

One of the MTA workers along on the tour told me that the tunnel workers ask her about the graffiti in it, and that she wants to research and write an article about it for the MTA. It's not her fault, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. The MTA will not have anything to do with any outside filmmaker, journalist, or anyone else that even mentions the word "graffiti," much less wants to do a story that goes any deeper than "graffiti is bad." Doing a story on graffiti for internal use, while they still hold this policy, struck me as extremely hypocritical.

A lot of people have asked me how I got in on the tour, and how to hook it up. Talking with the Edward Kennedy (no, not that Edward Kennedy), the guy who conducted it, it seemed like about a once every month or two thing, was really focused on the engineering aspect, and was mostly set up through schools, with MTA employees getting to tag along if they were interested and knew who to ask. My best advice is to try and get a professor to set something up if you're in school, or find someone who is and tag along. Getting an elected official to write a letter for you asking to get in on the next tour might also work.

There's a lot of people who are interested in going, and the attitude behind not accommodating everyone seemed to be along the lines of "hey, we're trying to build one of the biggest engineering projects in the country here - we don't have time to double as a tourist site for everyone" which I can respect a lot more than the two other rationals I run into a lot - bullshit security excuses or a general disdain for the hoi polloi. You'd be amazed at how many bureaucrats feel a sense entitlement to the particular public works they're in charge of, and a sense of superiority in maintaining their exclusivity.

Better pictures than I have can be found here

Neighborhoods: Upper East Side, East Midtown. Tracts Walked: M110, M114.02, M112.03


  1. Yes, let those folks do their jobs and keep them out of the tourist business. It would lessen the distraction.

  2. No, that's awesome. I'm an engineer and I'm going to see if I can check it out too. Sure they're busy but it's probably fun for them to show people around once in a while. Being underground day in and day out is probably pretty dreary - that being said, I'd love it for a while.