Photographer: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

Inside the Massive New Rail Tunnels Beneath NYC’s Grand Central

It’s been two years since New York’s MTA allowed reporters into the cavernous East Side Access project, America’s largest transportation project and first update to the Long Island Railroad in 100 years. Current cost: $10.178 billion. Once completed in December 2022, the nation’s busiest railroad will run directly into Grand Central Terminal—with massive escalators and concourses connecting to the street.

  1. Western Cavern

    Western Cavern

    At the heart of the East Side Access project are two caverns 68 feet high. Excavated 150 feet below Park Avenue, just north of Grand Central Terminal, each cavern will ultimately be sectioned into three levels: a lower track level serving two 12-car-long train platforms, a middle mezzanine level, and an upper two-track level. That's eight tracks total. In this image you can see the four tunnels in the distance, which were bored through solid Manhattan schist rock. Dynamite took care of the rest.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  2. Tunnel Split

    Tunnel Split

    Looking south, a single tunnel splits into two as it enters the LIRR Grand Central Terminal. The yellow plastic-looking stuff is a geotextile that seals out moisture that seeps from the excavated rock walls, before a permanent layer of concrete can be poured.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  3. At Work

    At Work

    There were 6.1 miles of tunnels bored in Manhattan (at depths of 80 to 140 feet), and an additional two miles dug in Queens (from the surface to 90 feet down). The East Side Access project includes the expansion of an existing four-track tunnel to a six-track version beneath Roosevelt Island and the East River. Built in 1969, that tunnel currently serves the F subway train.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  4. Muck Away

    Muck Away

    Temporary flatbed rail tracks connect to existing Metro North rail lines up through the Bronx to get materials in and out. In Manhattan alone, enough "muck" (crushed-up rock and debris) was displaced—1.5 million cubic yards, or 75,000 truckloads—that if stacked could be a building 1,012 feet high, just a touch over the spire height of the Chrysler Building. 

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  5. Crane Job

    Crane Job

    Workers lift rebar onto what will be an upper traverse area of the Eastern Cavern. More than 30,000 tons of metal will ultimately be used, or roughly the equivalent of 1,000 Boeing 737s.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  6. Checking Plans

    Checking Plans

    The complexity of the project cannot be understated, said Michael Horodniceanu, the MTA's chief engineer on the project, as he led a scrum of reporters through the noisy, humid caverns. The $10.178 billion project was initially expected to cost $4.3 billion and begin service in 2009. "December 2022 is the date I'm going to give now," he said, noting that 24 months of wiggle room are built in. "We look forward to beating that date." As of September 2015, the MTA reports East Side Access to be 59.2 percent complete with 72.3 percent of funding committed.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  7. Surveying


    Aside from what Horodniceanu characterized as misestimations of actual costs, technical difficulties have stymied the project, such as being able to use only a single conveyor belt to remove materials during excavation. The Northern Boulevard Tunnel in Queens cost about $1 million per foot alone (because of two active subway lines and a street above and a running creek and gravel below, which had to be frozen prior to excavation). 

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  8. Escalator Down

    Escalator Down

    There will be 17 high-rise escalators to get travelers from the LIRR Concourse level down to the mezzanine and tracks (and of course, a small handful of elevators, too). Going 100 feet per minute, commuters will take just over 2 minutes to get up or down through the multiple levels to the tracks. Here you can see the beginning of the steep diagonal grade where the longest escalators will be installed. 

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  9. Rush Hour

    Rush Hour

    The East Side Access station will initially serve 24 trains per hour during rush hour, or roughly 162,000 people per day. By avoiding a subway/bus/walking transfer from Penn Station, that should shave an estimated 30 to 40 minutes off the twice-daily commutes of East Midtown workers.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  10. 46th Street Intersection

    46th Street Intersection

    A 350,000-square-foot concourse level runs north to south from 50th Street to 43rd Street about 80 feet below Vanderbilt Avenue. On Tuesday, Nov. 10, MTA officials will break ground on the main entrance stairwell and escalator from Grand Central's food court (which itself is underground). Additional entrances to the LIRR terminal are planned at 48th Street, 46th Street, and eventually 45th Street (once a building there is secured). 

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  11. Moving Along

    Moving Along

    Workers install wiring along a lower-level tunnel that's already been finished in concrete. In total, 175,000 cubic yards of concrete have been used so far, enough to fill 53 Olympic-size pools. Tunnel boring began at 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan in September 2007 and took just over three years to complete.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  12. Wide Scope

    Wide Scope

    In addition to the work beneath Grand Central, six ventilation facilities have been built along the new tunnels, and $758 million has been committed to upgrading the Harold Interlocking train yard in Queens. As the busiest rail switch yard in the U.S., handling 750 to 800 trains a day, its the unsung lynchpin for keeping the entire endeavor on track once it goes live.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  13. Into the Void

    Into the Void

    Right now a cage elevator is the only way to get down from the concourse to the caverns. At its peak, the East Side Access project employed 2,629 workers, down to 1,840 as of August.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  14. First Steps

    First Steps

    As an active construction site, mud, metal, and spray-painted cinderblock dominate, but the finished $404.8 million design seeks to emulate Grand Central above, although in a modern way. "We won't have Carrera marble on the floor or wide-open spaces," said Horodniceanu. (Indeed, ceiling heights range from 9 feet to 13 feet in passenger areas.) "It'll be fantastic here as well, but in a different way."

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  15. Immense Scale

    Immense Scale

    Workers frame rebar into what will eventually be the concourse level, the main underground thoroughfare to the tracks that will be lined with 25,000 square feet of retail space. The scale of the project is immense—170 to 240 feet wide and approximately four football fields in length without the end zones.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  16. Finish Line

    Finish Line

    After a long climb back up a stairwell, a tour for reporters emerged in the 50th Street Commons, a new, small public park above ground. "The only thing we need to do is learn from the past and move forward," said Horodniceanu, when asked about past mistakes and cost overruns. "We can't keep looking back if we're going to do the job. It will cost more to mothball this thing than to finish it, so that's not even an option. It will get done."

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg