Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Grand Central Terminal: TOD hub just gets better

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Grand Central Terminal is 100 years old this year, in case you've somehow missed the cacophony of ongoing reminders from even the general media, not just railroad print and digital voices (including Railway Age, of course). Few centenarians have ever looked better.

There may be more beautiful stations or terminals in North America, let alone worldwide, and plenty of people can single out their own legitimate hometown gems, such as Los Angeles Union Station (a movie and TV star), Cincinnati's Union Terminal, Toronto's Union Station, 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, or of course Washington, D.C.'s blessedly restored Union Station, worthy of celebration each time I pass through it. Yes, those stations, or still others, may be more majestic, more elegant, more ethereal stations. Grand Central is still "better."

One reason is simple: It never faltered in or lost its primary role of handling rail passengers, even in the darkest days of passenger rail's decline (or the physical threat of being torn asunder, as Penn Station was across town). That continuity by itself makes it stand out from so many of its worthy U.S. brethren, who slumped precipitously before being rescued (in LA or D.C.) or, in too many cases, became simply "dead history" relics. Every time I visit the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in Jersey City, I mourn. It's a beautiful building, and an empty shell. No Blue Comet, or even a lesser successor. Dead history.

Plenty of visitors I accompany on tour in and around New York may or may not be impressed by the standard city landmarks, so while I enjoy playing amateur tour guide for the Empire State Building, Central Park, or (especially) city subways, I really make it a point to sneak in "just a quick stop" at Grand Central—and wait for the response.

European guests, especially, pause to take in the grandeur, mixed with the urban humanity, with somber silence, as they might not for other locales. And though Europe has plenty of distinguished rail stations and terminals, old and new, Grand Central has not yet failed to impress. "Wow," is often the understated initial response, followed by a variant of, "Now this is a New York experience." Indeed it is. True, no 20th Century Limited graces the property, but the trains never left for good, never stopped coming and going.

That continuity fosters, and in turn is fostered by, a second reason for GCT's success and longevity. The terminal is, and for so long has always been, a sterling example of what we today call Transit Oriented Development. We in the 21st century are reliant on acronyms, but the TOD offered by GCT not only is real, it's ongoing, and in fact it's growing. That's recognized by the city of New York, by Metro-North Railroad, and by folks at the Regional Plan Association, which this week released a report detailing the potential financial benefits Long Island Rail Road's East Side Access construction project has for Long Island homeowners, and the businesses on Manhattan's East Side.

I've already heard pushback on this: Manhattan's East Side developed still further? It's already too crowded. Beyond the flip two-word response any New Yorker can offer negating such limits ("air rights"), the reality is the East Side indeed may be too crowded—for automotive traffic. But more people? That the neighborhood can handle—and so will Grand Central.

Some U.S. demographic trends finally are turning in the favor of urban locations after decades of sprawl-em-out, build-more-roads incentives working counter to such a thing. Approve or not, TOD has become a go-to concept for established city centers, diffuse urban areas seeking a center, and evolving suburbs alike, and that could be a very good thing for local, regional, and intercity passenger trains, let alone for a nation's energy efficiency. No doubt some of the new TOD designs will be creative and innovative.

Grand Central is secure in its century-old role as inspirational, as a place to be, not just pass through—and not just to transportation specialists, either. The spiderweb of pedestrian access points linking Grand Central with neighborhood skyscrapers keeps being refined; The New York Times reported one building owner is revamping its existing lobby to better serve tenants predominantly favoring the "backdoor" entrance, the one used to get to and from Grand Central.

In late summer 2010, Paul Dalida, vice president, infrastructure, for engineering firm Arcadis, guided Railway Age on tour of ongoing East Side Access construction work, adding a new subterranean complex to GCT, designed to inject up to 80,000 daily Long Island Rail Road riders to the existing mix of people going to and from Grand Central by 2019. Part of his job is to help Grand Central grow and adapt. But his respect, his reverence, for the existing terminal needed no assist; it mirrored my own despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he knows the physical plant better than I ever will. "There's no place quite like it," he said simply.

In my view, that's true when it comes to serving as a railroad hub, and as a role model for TOD. Happy 100th, Grand Central, grand terminal.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.