East Side Access

Installing Three-Foot Bolts In the Welfare Island Shaft For nearly a hundred years train riders from Long Island bound for the East Side of Manhattan have arrived on the wrong side of town – at Pennsylvania Station on the West Side. The MTA’s East Side Access project will change that.

A quarter million daily passengers ride the MTA’s Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) into Penn Station. With East Side Access, an estimated 160,000 riders will arrive at a new terminal beneath Grand Central Terminal on the East Side. This will save riders over half an hour of backtracking by taxi, subway, bus, or foot from Penn Station, and allow the LIRR to increase overall capacity to midtown, keeping pace with the growing demand for train service from Long Island and eastern Queens to Manhattan.

To complete the East Side Access network, seven miles of new tunnels are needed to connect the existing 63rd Street tunnel to LIRR facilities in Long Island City and Grand Central Terminal. Two types of tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are cutting the tunnels using different methods. In Queens the tunnel is drilled through sand and gravel under a high water table using soft-ground TBMs. Supporting the earth around it, this TBM installs a precast concrete liner as it moves forward. In Manhattan, the hard-rock TBMs, weighing upwards of 400 tons, have sliced through about 14,000 out of 31,000 linear feet of solid rock from 63rd Street at Second Avenue to 38th Street at Park Avenue. East Side Access is currently projected to cost $7.2 billion and be completed in 2015.

63rd Street Tunnel. Circa 1972. New York Transit Museum Collection.

East Side Access has a long history. In 1968 the newly-created MTA assumed control of the LIRR and New York City Transit Authority (TA, operator of the city’s bus and subway system), and began planning improvements to create a more integrated regional transportation network. Studies showed that nearly half of the riders arriving on the LIRR at Pennsylvania Station were backtracking to East Side destinations.  Meanwhile, the TA had been planning a new subway tunnel under the East River.  The MTA proposed a joint-use tunnel: the upper tracks would be used by subways, while the lower level would run LIRR trains to a new East Side terminal, initially proposed at Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.

Welfare Island Station Looking East. 1972. Photograph by Steve DiSanto. New York Transit Museum Collection.

The original master plan for Roosevelt Island, created by Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1971, called for a neighborhood without automobiles with a tramway providing access to Manhattan. Subway service to the island through the 63rd Street tunnel began in 1989.

Westbound Transit Authority Track Looking West. 1972. Photograph by Steve DiSanto. New York Transit Museum Collection.

Construction of the river portion of the tunnel began in 1969 at 63rd Street, but by the mid-1970s the plans were scaled back due to the city’s financial crisis. While the LIRR project was deferred, work continued on the 63rd Street subway tunnel. It was completed in the 1970s and went into service in 1989. Today the upper level of this tunnel carries the F train between Queens and Manhattan. The tunnel’s lower level was completed but did not connect to anything on either side. It has been waiting for the LIRR ever since.

At the Cutterhead of the TBM at Grand Central Terminal. 2007. Photograph by Patrick Cashin.

East Side Access Tunnel Opening in Queens. 2007. Photograph by Patrick Cashin.

Rock Support Above the TBM. 2007. Photograph by Patrick Cashin.

When the TBM hits a soft spot it backs up, letting workers reinforce the tunnel before continuing.

East Side Access Tunnel. 2008. Photograph by Patrick Cashin.

As the TBMs advance, pulverized stone rides a 2.2 mile-long conveyor belt (seen here on the left) back through the tunnel to Queens and is trucked offsite to be used as landfill. The combined volume of rock and soil removed during the project would fill 400 Olympic-size swimming pools. Tunnel workers breathe fresh air pumped through the overhead ventilation tube.

Lowering a Piece of the TBM Cutter Head into the Tunnel. 2007. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

This TBM equipment arrived in mid-2007. It was lowered into the tunnel in pieces – some weighing as much as 34,000 pounds – and assembled underground.

Northern Boulevard Crossing. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

In Queens, the western portion of the tunnel is being excavated using the cut-and-cover method. Tunneling under Sunnyside Yard must proceed without disruption to LIRR and Amtrak operations above ground. Where the tunnel passes under the elevated tracks for the N and W trains, the support columns for these lines will be underpinned with steel and cement to ensure their stability.


In Manhattan: Tunnels and a New Terminal. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

East Side Access Diagram. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

East Side Access Route Map. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

East Side Access will increase the LIRR’s capacity into Manhattan and relieve crowding in Penn Station and on the subway lines that use Pennsylvania station, as well as on the 7 line. City residents will have more options for getting to Long Island and eastern Queens. East Side residents will be able to connect with the Port Authority’s AirTrain to JFK Airport at the LIRR’s Jamaica Station. Transferring between LIRR and Metro-North will also be easier and more convenient when the LIRR reaches Grand Central Terminal. The project is expected to cut auto travel by a half-million vehicle-miles each day, reducing traffic and improving regional air quality as Long Island commuters forsake their cars for convenient rail access to the East Side.


East Side Access Terminal Facilities. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Located deep below Park Avenue between 44th and 48th Streets, the new LIRR terminal will be the first new major rail station in Manhattan in over 90 years.


Cross Section Looking North. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Cross Section Looking West. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

The new terminal will be the largest mined underground station ever built in the United States.


Lower Platform. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

At the platform level, passengers will find a modern open space, free of columns.


Upper Platform. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Escalators, elevators, and stairs will connect two platform levels, bringing passengers up to the concourse and the street. In the area between Madison and Park Avenues, from 44th to 48th Streets, there will be new street-level entrances and direct connections to Grand Central Terminal for access to Metro-North Railroad and the subway.


Elevators to Concourse Rendering. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Elevators will make the station completely accessible to people with disabilities.


Concourse Circulation, Top of Elevators. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

The architecture evolves vertically through the space with modern glass and steel at the lowest level, gradually referencing the Beaux-Art style of Grand Central Terminal as passengers rise up toward street level.


Waiting Area. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Concourse. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

Ticketing. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

50th Street Facility with Public Open Space. Courtesy of MTA Capital Construction Company.

This is one of several ventilation facilities. Massive fans will pump fresh air into the tunnels and terminal and can be reversed if needed to pull smoke out.  A freight elevator and loading dock for trash removal will also be located here. The design of this facility condenses the space needed for these operations and puts equipment underground to minimize the footprint of the building, allowing room for a new landscaped public plaza. The design received a merit award from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2008.


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MTA East Side Access Construction Documentation
1971 -1974
New York Transit Museum Collection

TBM Animation
Courtesy of Herrenkecht