An Audio Postcard from Beneath the East Side

The MTA’s budget is in bad shape these days, but officials say they are serious about completing their big capital projects. In order to prove their point, this week they took reporters on a tour of the East Side Access Project, a set of tunnels that will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Station.

There is a slide show of the tunnels here.

The lower level of Grand Central is usually where people get lunch and catch local trains to Westchester. But behind the closed doors at Gate 115, there’s another world taking shape.

To the west of Grand Central’s tracks, in an area formerly used for underground train storage, contractors are building a whole new terminal for Long Island Railroad trains.

"This area here, from this column line to this column line, will be the main public space of the future concourse," Andy Thompson, the project manager, says.

Hopefully, in seven years, this is where passengers will buy their tickets and newspapers. Right now it just looks like an underground warehouse.

Work on the $7.3 billion project started in the late 1960s, then stopped, and then started up again about two years ago. Right now, Long Island Railroad commuters come through Queens, go under Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Penn Station, on the West Side. Some of them have to backtrack by subway or cab, adding another 15 to 30 minutes to their commute. This project would bring them directly to east midtown through another set of tunnels that will go from the railroad’s trunk line in Queens, under the East River, and into Manhattan at 63rd street. Then they will turn south under Park Avenue to Grand Central via four escalator well-ways, with 17 escalators.

The catch is these tunnels lie about 14 stories below ground. And passengers will have to go down that far to catch trains home. At that depth, it’s easier for machines to bore through Manhattan bedrock horizontally.

Thompson says there is enough rock cover so they can stitch it together, so that Grand Central won't collapse above them and can continue to operate without any problems.

But the MTA still needs to dig down through 14 stories for the escalator shafts. And it’s a painstaking process. You can’t use dynamite too close to the surface. Hydraulic hammers drill holes in the rock and workers fill them with a chemical grout. The grout expands and fractures the rock. Then machines drag out the pieces.

Thompson laughs when asked how many feet they drill each day.

"It’s more like days per feet," he says.

About 50 yards away, there’s a shaft that is finished. An elevator goes down and visitors step out into a piece of Jules Verne’s imagination. It’s a dimly lit cavern, wide and spacious, with an arched ceiling and craggy floor.

The first thing you notice is it's very windy and noisy, like you’re standing behind an airplane. The second thing you notice are machines in the distance. One looks like an animatronic dinosaur, chewing away at the schist in a jerky, uneven motion.

It’s called a road header. Thompson picks up a metal knob from a bucket called a pick. The road header has nearly 300 of these on a rotating head. They go through about 100 a day.

The wind turns out to be manufactured to help the workers, who call themselves sandhogs, breathe. Giant ventilation tubes snake down from the surface, the air pushed and pulled by fans.

Jon Medl is the project safety coordinator and says, "It helps keep the dust down. It helps keep the humidity down. Obviously it’s cooler."

The project is about four years behind its original schedule. Now, officials say it will be finished in September 2016. At that point, trains coming in from places like Babylon and Ronkonkoma will arrive at platforms located here, in this cavern. Contractors have already finished most of the tunnels from Queens under the East River and into Grand Central. But Andy Thompson, the project manager, says, "We’ve got a long way."

One reason it’s taking longer is the MTA’s broken up its big contracts and put them out to bid again, in order to save money. Another reason: no one wants Manhattan to collapse.