East Side Access Project: Delays Now, Shorter Commutes Later

Encore: July 23, 2012

By 2019, Long Island commuters could have a “one seat ride” to Grand Central Terminal. East Side Access, a system of tunnels and tracks will connect LIRR’s Main and Port Washington lines in Queens to a brand new East Side station directly underneath Grand Central Terminal.

According to the Long Island Railroad’s tally, people use its trains to make 220,000 trips each weekday in and out of Penn Station. At rush hour, many Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuters have grown accustomed to feeling more like sardines than strangers on a train.

Well aware of the squeeze on both their customers and number of trains they can run, the MTA has been working on a massive project to alleviate congestion at Penn. East Side Access will connect LIRR’s Main and Port Washington lines in Queens to a brand new East Side station directly underneath Grand Central Terminal. LIRR riders will then have the option of arriving on the East or West side of Midtown Manhattan, both magnet areas for workplaces and well connected to subway lines.

A map of the East Side Access project shows existing tunnels under the East River used by LIRR trains. The 63rd Street Tunnel is currently used only by MTA subway trains. By 2019, new tunnels and tracks, represented by the dashed lines, will open a path for LIRR trains to pass through that tunnel intro Grand Central Terminal. Image courtesy of the MTA.

The MTA announced that once the connection is complete, it will not only increase the rail capacity into Manhattan by nearly 50 percent, but it will also save East Side-bound travelers 30 to 40 minutes a day. And the MTA predicts that the eased commute has more than just workaday benefits.

“Commuters throughout Long Island and Queens will have more service to Manhattan and shorter travel times to the East Side—making these communities even more attractive places to live, increasing housing values, and unlocking the next wave of economic development potential on Long Island,” said MTA Chairman Jay H. Walder.

The undertaking is taking longer than expected. In July 2009, the MTA estimated the project would be finished in 2016, but a recent announcement pushed the completion date back another three years.

East Side Access will provide Long Island Rail Road commuters a "one-seat ride" to Manhattan's East Side. A rendering of the platforms where LIRR trains will arrive at Grand Central Terminal -- over 140 feet underground. Image courtesy of the MTA.

“Unfortunately, that time horizon did not take into account the type of full, rigorous risk assessment that we have now undertaken,” said Aaron Donovan, media liaison for the MTA, “which gives us 80 percent confidence that the project will be completed in August of 2019.”

Along with the delayed completion date came a $2 billion increase in the price tag, ballooning the project budget to $8.24 billion.

The project’s largest task is to create underground tunnels to connect to existing tunnels. Tunnels have already been built in Manhattan and the MTA is working on the last of four tunnels needed in Queens. In May, the MTA made a huge breakthrough when the third Queens tunnel was completed ahead of schedule.

“We are delighted to complete this important milestone,” said MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota upon the third tunnel’s completion. “Each piece of the project that we bring in ahead of schedule means we can dedicate resources to those parts of the project that most need attention.”

The fourth and final tunnel is expected to be completed next month.

While they wait for the benefits shorter travel time and more space, commuters will have to endure longer travel times and some overcrowding. Due to the construction in Queens, an important switch, Switch 813, will be taken out of service. The switch regulates a third of all eastbound train traffic that goes through The Harold Interlocking, a massive switching yard. As a result, on July 9 the LIRR began canceling and combining three evening rush hour trains. The disrupted service will impact Babylon, Long Beach and Montauk lines. These changes will be effective for the next four weeks.

Despite how distant the completion date may seem, or how inconvenient the current delays may be, the MTA promises the coming changes to Long Islanders’ commutes will be well worth the wait.

According to a press release from the MTA, the canceled PM Peak eastbound trains are:

  • The 4:52 p.m. train from Penn Station to Babylon will be canceled. Customers will be on the 5:03 p.m. train from Penn Station, making all stops to Babylon.
  • The 5:20 p.m. train from Penn Station to Long Beach will be canceled. Customers will be on the 5:23 p.m. train from Penn Station stopping at Jamaica, then all stops to Long Beach.
  • The 5:40 p.m. train from Penn Station to Seaford will be canceled. Customers will be on the 5:47 p.m. train from Penn Station, which will make all stops from Rockville Centre to Seaford.

The following PM Peak trains with adjusted schedules include:

  • The 5:36 p.m. train from Penn Station to Babylon, which will depart Penn Station one minute later (at 5:37 p.m.) and arrive Babylon two minutes later at 6:42 p.m.
  • The 5:55 p.m. train from Penn Station to Long Beach will arrive at Long Beach one minute later at 6:52 p.m.
  • The 5:59 p.m. train from Penn Station to Babylon will arrive at Babylon five minutes later at 7:04 p.m.
  • The 6:44 p.m. train from Babylon to Patchogue will operate two minutes later, departing Babylon at 6:46 p.m. and arriving Patchogue at 7:16 p.m. as a result of its connecting train from Penn Station (the 5:37 p.m.) arriving two minutes later at Babylon.

“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

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