Thursday, October 28, 2010

LIRR’s new digs

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor
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Construction proceeds to give the largest U.S. regional railroad access to Grand Central Terminal, while a revitalized and upgraded Brooklyn hub goes into service.

Most U.S. regional railroads count on one major station in a Central Business District. The Long Island Rail Road, the largest U.S. regional railroad, also has the nation’s busiest terminal—Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station. But it will add a second Manhattan endpoint of equal or greater prestige—Grand Central Terminal. Add a terminal in Brooklyn newly renovated after decades of neglect, and “To your terminal health!” becomes something other than an oxymoron.

East Side Access is a massive $8.1 billion undertaking, by some accounts the first major expansion of LIRR access in more than 100 years. Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue Station redesign, at a relatively modest $108 million, nonetheless is significant as a gesture to supplying more and better rail service to downtown Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough.

(Left out of any capital investment, for now, is yet a fourth terminus, Hunterspoint Avenue Station, just across the East River from Manhattan in the borough of Queens. Offering the most traditional “commuter” service of the four endpoints—inbound to Manhattan by morning, outbound to Long Island points in the evening—the station may yet see busier times, since its location in Long Island City is set to experience real estate redevelopment.)

East Side Access: Slow but steady progress

The vast majority of LIRR trains currently serve Penn Station, on Manhattan’s West Side. But as with many things on a Gotham scale, it’s no longer sufficient—some would argue it has never been—to deliver Long Island riders to and from Midtown Manhattan’s Central Business District, the largest concentrated job base in the U.S. East Side Access, long delayed, anticipates 32,000 linear feet of new tunnels beginning in Sunnyside Yards, Queens, going west under the East River and Manhattan’s West Side, to allow some LIRR trains to go straight to the East Side, bypassing Penn Station and the West Side entirely.

The tunnel project is, in fact, two projects—one in Manhattan, one in Queens—both linking to an existing 63rd Street Tunnel under the East River begun during the 1970s. The upper-level tunnel, activated in 1989, hosts the F line subway service; the lower level, designed for LIRR service, has of course remained vacant.

All the necessary new tunnelling connections are targeted for completion by 2012, and construction on the new LIRR terminal at Grand Central, which will be directly below the exiting Metro-North terminal, began last March. MTA LIRR officials in August gave Railway Age a tour of the work under Grand Central (and the adjacent Park Avenue Tunnels), including access points drilled 90 feet down to where the subterranean LIRR platforms will be located; they eventually will house 22 elevators and 47 escalators. (See diagram below.) A close-up look at the tunnel approaches in Queens, amidst a rearranged Sunnyside Yard complex serving LIRR, Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit, also showed diverse construction activity.

Revenue service using ESA could begin by 2016, though almost predictable concerns about delays have been mounting in recent months. Whenever it is completed, East Side Access will shorten the trips for an estimated 180,000 people by 30 to 40 minutes, according to official estimates.

Positive redundancy promised

Spillover benefits include less surface congestion on Manhattan streets from other needing to “double back” from Penn Station to East Side points, as well as some freeing of subway capacity (at least on Manhattan’s West Side).

ESA proponents also suggest East Side subway routes and Grand Central Station (the stop for five subway lines) will be less crowded, but some say ongoing construction of the No. 7 Subway line extension to Manhattan’s Far West Side makes that assertion somewhat doubtful; some observers, though supportive of ESA, insist LIRR access to Grand Central Terminal makes for a more convenient and/or comfortable option than comparable service to Penn Station, with a long walk, offers.

ESA track tunneling in Manhattan is largely complete, with the first tunnel boring machine (TBM) launched west and southbound from the 63rd Street tunnel in September 2007; it reached Grand Central in July 2008. The second machine began boring a parallel tunnel in December 2007 and had completed its tunnel at 37th Street on Sept. 30, 2008. Each tunnel is 22 feet in diameter and carry trains 140 feet beneath street level.

Grand Central’s access points (escalator and elevator banks) to the new LIRR platforms have been more labor intensive, requiring careful drill and blast procedures (and, at surface level, strict and careful drill-only procedures), according to Paul Dalida, vice president, infrastructure, for Arcadis, who serves as Manhattan area construction manager. As well, numerous pedestrian access points north of Grand Central Terminal up to Park Avenue locations at street level must be added or augmented to handle the expected additional customer load.

Dalida says the existing Grand Central Terminal infrastructure at and below current Metro-North track levels, where the LIRR passenger mezzanine will be placed, is in “excellent shape, almost as good as when it was built,” with only minor concrete repair necessary in a few places. It’s representative of Grand Central’s overall value that, in Dalida’s view, is itself some justification for LIRR to make ESA work. “There’s no place quite like it,” he says with understated reverence.

Big question: Queens access

East Side Access’ eastern access point within Sunnyside Yards, Queens, gets much less attention, but in some ways is more challenging. Years of rearranging the railroad “furniture” has presaged the beginning of “soft-bore” tunneling to connect the yards with the tunnel proper; the soft-bore or “Slurry” TBM equipment is designed to handle the more problematic subsoil conditions not faced by TBMs in Manhattan, which cut through the famous Manhattan schist, a hard but stable and predictable subsurface rock that lies under much of Midtown Manhattan.

In September 2009, MTA awarded a joint venture of Granite Construction Northeast, Traylor Brothers, Inc., and Frontier-Kemper a contract to supply four tunnels (10,500 feet total length), reception pits for three tunnels, and three shafts for emergency access and ventilation on the Queens end. Contractors and MTA Capital Construction staff emphasize that while the distance is relatively short, and initial access is relatively roomy, the tunneling here is daunting, as it must travel beneath North America’s busiest interlocking, which carries more than 800 trains per day, including Amtrak Acela service to Boston, as well as a major midday storage yard for Amtrak and NJ Transit trains.

Last August, MTA awarded Perini Corp. a contract to clear more of LIRR’s Harold Interlocking and Amtrak’s F Interlocking, including construction of new retaining walls to create more usable space for the railroads, to add to LIRR’s operating flexibility. That news was overshadowed by a fire Aug. 23 at Hall Signal Tower in Jamaica, Queens, severely hampering LIRR operations.

All work is proceeding with only minimal disruption to or interference with active daily rail operations by LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak; contractors in one instance pointed out to Railway Age active machinery positioned mere feet from right-of-way as passenger consists headed west to Penn Station to begin revenue service. The clearance was “very close and always constant”—and constantly monitored, one host said.

Asked if subterranean infrastructure “surprises” have slowed work, Construction Manager Philip Stummvolli says that so far unexpected obstacles had been few and far between.

New life for Atlantic Avenue Terminal

MTA’s other new digs, Atlantic Avenue Terminal in Brooklyn, by contrast has a long history of service, functioning both as a terminal for Brooklyn-bound riders and as a transfer point (and backup route) for those headed to Manhattan by subway. But MTA in early January opened a new entrance pavilion to serve the roughly 25,500 LIRR riders and 31,650 subway riders using the station each day to tap numerous subway routes (and three distinct subway stations).

More riders on both systems are expected as major redevelopment projects take hold on the site, including a new mall directly above the station and the controversial $1 billion Barclay’s Center arena, planned home for the National Basketball Association Nets, set to rise close by. Parsons Brinckerhoff, in a joint venture with the architectural firm di Domenico & Partners, oversaw project engineering.

More than rail right-of-way placement, pedestrian access and flow between subway and LIRR elements were deemed of high importance, given the expected increase in use. Security and safety concerns called for concentration on pedestrian sight lines, while access also was improved to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like other MTA projects, Atlantic Avenue Terminal was not immune to delays, with construction beginning in 2002 and finishing 30 months behind projected deadline, and more than $26 million over budget. One portion of the project, involving improvements to the three station platforms, six tracks, and related facilities, was completed on time in 2005.

The semicircular outside walls and ceiling of the new three-story pavilion are paneled with glass, with the intent of allowing light to flood through the half-moon shaped atrium—which includes an artistic interpretation of a natural stone bluff or cliff—and down a granite staircase to the remodeled limestone-clad platform level below. Customer response to the architecture has been mixed; customer response to the improved access generally has been a collective sigh of relief.

LIRR has served Brooklyn (via Jamaica, Queens) since the 1830s, opening a terminal at the current site in 1877. Known for most of its lifespan as the Flatbush Avenue Terminal, the terminal by many accounts suffered for decades from the same disdain Brooklynites charge Manhattan with levying on the borough as a whole. The site was proposed for repositioning Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn (Trolley) Dodgers in the mid-1950s, an idea rejected by master builder Robert Moses.

Mirroring the generally declining fortunes of the borough through the 1960s and 1970s, the terminal building at the time suffered disuse, vacancy, and resultant vandalism, with resultant water damage forcing MTA to close the upper level waiting room. That structure was razed in 1988, with customers using a temporary replacement structure for nearly 22 years.

“This new terminal means improved interconnectivity between the Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit’s subways and buses—with better information and a more spacious, comfortable and accessible facility,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder at the dedication ceremony early this year. “The glory of the original 1907 Flatbush Avenue Terminal has been restored in modern form.”

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