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Long Island rail service opens to Grand Central

New York Governor Kathy Hochul and MTA Chair & CEO Janno Lieber onboard the inaugural LIRR train from Jamaica to Grand Central Madison on 25 January. Marc A. Hermann / MTA

A key part of the USD11.1bn East Side Access Project, the new Long Island Railroad (LIRR) station below New York’s Grand Central opened on 25 January as Grand Central Madison, initially with a 30-minute shuttle service to Jamaica between 06.15 and 20.00. The inaugural 11.07 train carried Governor Kathy Hochul and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) CEO Janno Lieber, taking 21 minutes to cover the journey from Queens to Manhattan.

Once open to all 11 LIRR routes – which the MTA has confirmed will follow with revised schedules by the end of February – the new connection promises reductions in journey times of around 40 minutes for around 160 000 passengers each day. Around 45% of LIRR commuters are expected to travel to Grand Central Madison, with 24 trains/hour, relieving crowding at Penn Station on the West Side, previously the line’s only stop in Manhattan.

A separate project has created a new stabling yard in Queens which can accommodate up to 300 cars, and the Harold Interlocking has been updated, including the installation of 97 new track switches, 295 catenary masts, five new bridges, and over 2.5km (1.55 miles) of retaining walls.

Grand Central Madison is the largest passenger facility built in the US since the 1950s and includes 17 55m escalators and eight platforms. Lying more then 40m below ground it is reached by a 5.6km (3.5-mile) tunnel, including single-track tubes beneath the East River which were built in the 1960s but never fitted-out. Stymied by the municipal fiscal crisis of the 1970s, for decades planners sought to revive the project.

The plans gained momentum again in the late 1990s when Republican senator Alfonse D’Amato made the case to Congress for supporting the scheme. Work started in 2006 with a planned opening in 2009, but proceeded slowly due to financial constraints.

East Side Access is the MTA’s largest project – one of several major programmes underway as the agency faces a budget gap of nearly USD3bn by 2025, caused in part by dramatic falls in farebox revenue since the pandemic. The MTA is considering increasing the USD2.75 base fare to USD2.90 in 2023 and to USD3.02 in 2025 in an effort to reduce its debt burden as federal aid programmes expire.

Governor Hochul unveiled her state budget proposal on 1 February, including an increase on the payroll tax for businesses (from 0.34% to 0.5%) that benefit from the MTA’s network of subways, buses and commuter rail lines. An anticipated USD1.8bn is expected in 2023, and a 0.16% rise would generate another USD800m annually. New York City is also being asked to contribute an additional USD500m/year.

System-wide passenger levels have recovered to around 60% of 2019 levels, although the MTA estimates that by the end of 2026 it will reach only 80% of pre-pandemic usage.