Timetable confusion and marathon transfers aside, there’s a much simpler reason why the opening of full service to Grand Central Madison last month has caused trouble for riders: Almost a quarter of the Long Island Rail Road’s cars can’t get through the East River tunnel serving the new train station.
This has limited service to the East Side Access Terminal. And the MTA’s failure to order new LIRR cars has forced the agency to bring some of its oldest and least reliable cars out of retirement.
To operate the new service, the MTA has been forced to operate fewer trains to and from Penn Station, meaning more passengers have to make frustrating transfers at Jamaica Terminal.
MTA officials were aware as early as 2016 that the train fleet could cause problems for the new service, according to Federal Transit Administration records.
The tunnel used by trains to Grand Central Madison was completed in the early 1970’s, but it is too small for the LIRR’s diesel trains. The subway runs between Long Island City and East 63rd Street and carries subway trains on the upper level and LIRR trains on the lower level.
The agency’s diesel trains, which serve areas of Long Island without electrified tracks, are 14 feet tall. And MTA officials said its 1980s M3 train cars are small enough to fit in the tunnel but don’t have the proper equipment to run on its tracks. .
These trains make up 22% of the LIRR fleet, and the only East River tunnels they fit into are those serving Penn Station.
The MTA’s service schedule for the Grand Central Madison launch could have been more flexible if previous plans to order 160 new electric train cars, known as M9As, to operate into the new terminal had been honored.
But like so many things with the MTA that rely on third-party vendors, the order was botched.
Federal reports show that the wagon order was already behind schedule at the end of 2016.
As of early 2018, they still hadn’t been ordered. The Federal Transit Administration’s Project Management Oversight Contractor, who oversaw the project and was then called East Side Access, wrote to the agency that it “remained concerned about the schedule shift.”
The MTA scrapped plans to order these cars in September 2018, records show. The agency said it would increase the order from 160 to 460 cars, split the contract with Metro-North and hoped to place an order by June 2019.
June came and went, and records show that the MTA notified federal authorities that it could finalize the contract for the new cars by October 2019. Even at this late date, with the time it takes to manufacture and test railcars, they would not be ready to hit the tracks before April 2023, federal authorities noted.
Federal authorities warned in their July 2019 monthly report on the project that the MTA “must determine how vehicles will be delivered from its existing fleet in order to include LIRR service in GCT [Grand Central Terminal].”
Fast forward to today, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
When the new terminal opened, the MTA increased LIRR service by 41%. To do this, it had to bring some of its oldest trains back into service – the M3s from the 1980s, with their wood paneling and occasional taped seats.
“The LIRR retained 100 M3 cars that were earmarked for retirement to expand capacity for the Grand Central Madison-related service increases,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan wrote in a statement.
The new M9A cars are still not ordered.
The MTA is also waiting for manufacturer Kawasaki to deliver 50 of 202 cars the agency ordered for the LIRR in 2013. The company is the only company to have built trains for the railroad since the late 2000s.
The new terminal could lure riders back to the LIRR. Last Tuesday, the railroad recorded the second-highest number of passengers since the pandemic began, with 205,559 drivers. That number still represents just 66% of pre-pandemic ridership and a fraction of the 3,766,431 subway riders the MTA reported on the same day.
MTA officials said the LIRR receives more subsidies than any other agency property. The agency spent $11.6 billion to build the new service in Grand Central Madison.
About 40% of LIRR commuters now head to Grand Central Madison, MTA data shows. But looming construction efforts by Amtrak could force the MTA to send more trains into the new terminal, which won’t fit a sizable portion of LIRR’s fleet.
Amtrak operates two East River Tunnels used by LIRR, Amtrak trains and NJ Transit trains that go to Sunnyside Yard for storage. But Amtrak needs to repair one of those tunnels that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While the tunnel is being repaired, space for all these trains is limited to one tube.
MTA officials said some tweaks to the LIRR service may be needed once tunnel repairs are underway.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to distinguish which LIRR train cars fit in the Grand Central Madison tunnel and which are not equipped to operate in the tube.