Grand Central Madison: Moving with the Swinging Tides

You can’t judge Grand Central Madison, the new Long Island Rail Road terminal, by looking at it; there is nothing to see. The entire station is underground, all 700,000 square feet of it, stretching along a five-block concourse from 43rd to 48th streets. (Only a subtle ventilation rig at either end is visible from the sidewalk.) Such a structure you have to judge by moving through it, as passengers have since it opened in January, if not the 160,000 daily riders who do to be expected.

It’s been almost a lifetime since the station was first proposed. It was always impractical that the LIRR was limited to a single West Side Manhattan terminus at Penn Station, but in 1965 plans were approved for a new subway tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street, with track space for the railroad . The tunnel was completed in 1989, but the railroad component faltered until the September 11 attacks showed how vulnerable the island of Manhattan was and how easily it could be isolated. Then construction began in earnest to finally give the LIRR its long-awaited East Side Access, the ugly name by which it was long known.

The opening of the new terminal seems to have taken everyone by surprise, and with good reason, as the construction went unnoticed. Because the new tracks had to run under those of another commuter line, the Metro-North Railroad, their tunnels were dug deep, the deepest 150 feet below Park Avenue. A significant portion of the project’s cost, well over $11 billion, was spent tunneling through solid bedrock.

A train in Grand Central Madison


Edna Leshowitz/Zuma Press

AECOM, the international construction company acting as the lead architect for the project, faced the challenge faced by any transit building, namely to route passengers to their destinations as quickly and efficiently as possible. But the LIRR offered one major benefit: commuters, like racehorses, all ran in the same direction. There is no collision with cross traffic, which requires a spacious lobby or waiting room. The station only had to be a line, its paths of movement being so logical and direct that no signs were needed. In a sense it is a tidal building, alternating between the ebb and flow of morning arrivals and evening departures.

The terminal consists of two parts, the upper concourse, which is roughly below Vanderbilt Avenue, and the much lower platforms below Park Avenue. The concourse is a low but comfortably wide passageway about 1,500 feet long, extending north from the original Grand Central Terminal. Circulation is logical, as long as you know where you’re going, which first-time drivers won’t; it would benefit greatly from the occasional sign that reads “Grand Central Station” in large letters with a directional arrow. Currently, the hall has more the character of an airport terminal, but with dizzying escalators. There are four sets of these, aligned with the cross streets above to give passengers the shortest route from pavement to platform. In the future it will be even more airport-like when the planned 25 retail spaces along the hall are opened.

The ride down the escalator is dizzying, a 180-foot drop reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. (The faint-hearted will spot the elevators.) You arrive to find yourself beneath a flat dome, supported by stout concrete ribs, rising to what appears to be an oculus that is actually a vent. Despite the depth, there is little sign of claustrophobia, because you have free views and movement paths in all directions. On either side are stairs and escalators to the tracks that run above and below you, and straight ahead is another domed room marking the second tunnel, with access to a further four sets of tracks. There are eight platforms in total, allowing the station to handle up to 25 trains per hour during rush hour.

A person takes the escalator in the new Grand Central Madison Terminal


Timothy A. clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Aside from the taut concrete ribs, little speaks of the bold engineering. If anything, it’s underrated. The materials are bright and friendly everywhere: terrazzo floors, burnished stainless steel, glazed ceramic tiles. Lighting is well managed (upward lighting at the periphery always makes a room appear larger). Vibrant mosaics throughout the station, including several charmingly light-hearted ones by Kiki Smith, speak pleasantly of forests and rivers. You’re not in a cave they whisper soothingly; You’re not 10 stories underground.

At the moment, the hall still has its “new car smell”; how well he will age remains to be seen. The suspended ceilings have already warped in places, and water has a peculiarity of being effective where it is not wanted.

Commuters in Grand Central Madison


Edna Leshowitz/Zuma Press

In the end, Grand Central Madison fulfills its mission of handling the flow of crowds with flying colors. But that only regulates traffic, and we have the right to ask more of our public buildings. For example, being treated with dignity. It’s amazing that there isn’t a single bank in all five blocks of the station, in all of its lush 700,000 square feet. Are we supposed to believe that no one over 60 rides the train, or no young mothers with children, or no one goes to the airport with heavy luggage? Why this is so is no secret. The LIRR has freed itself from the thankless task of uprooting the homeless. And in return, it’s taken on the task of rousing the young mothers from sitting on the floor, which I’ve seen time and time again and makes it hard for me to delight in how adeptly it directs traffic.

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