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Platforms at New York Grand Central

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Springs Branch

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Recently I saw Michael Portillo's TV documentary Great American Railroad Journeys. Portillo was at Grand Central Terminal in New York with veteran station tour guide Dan Brucker. During the interview Brucker stated Grand Central is "still the world's largest train terminal".

I've been through Grand Central in the past, both as a Metro-North passenger and doing the tourist thing. Certainly, there's no doubt GCT is a bustling place and has architecture on a magnificent scale, but I never felt I was in “World's Biggest” territory by any obvious measure.

A bit of research shows GCT get a Guinness Book of Records place on account of having the greatest number of platforms – 44 of them, on two levels (not counting the subway station or new construction for the LIRR East River crossing).

At the moment Grand Central is only used by Metro-North commuter trains, and a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate suggests it's in a similar league to one of the larger London termini like Liverpool Street or Victoria. 44 platforms sounds like quite a generous provision (I can imagine AGA or SWT’s job being much easier if they had 44 terminal platforms on two levels at Liverpool St or Waterloo)
  • Does anyone know if all 44 platforms at Grand Central Terminal are in regular use for Metro-North passenger trains?
  • Has some fraction of these been mothballed since the heyday of US railroads?
 
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edwin_m

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I read the Wikipedia on Grand Central the other day, and it included some detail on which platforms are in and out of use.
 

AM9

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Recently I saw Michael Portillo's TV documentary Great American Railroad Journeys. Portillo was at Grand Central Terminal in New York with veteran station tour guide Dan Brucker. During the interview Brucker stated Grand Central is "still the world's largest train terminal".

I've been through Grand Central in the past, both as a Metro-North passenger and doing the tourist thing. Certainly, there's no doubt GCT is a bustling place and has architecture on a magnificent scale, but I never felt I was in “World's Biggest” territory by any obvious measure.

A bit of research shows GCT get a Guinness Book of Records place on account of having the greatest number of platforms – 44 of them, on two levels (not counting the subway station or new construction for the LIRR East River crossing).

At the moment Grand Central is only used by Metro-North commuter trains, and a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate suggests it's in a similar league to one of the larger London termini like Liverpool Street or Victoria. 44 platforms sounds like quite a generous provision (I can imagine AGA or SWT’s job being much easier if they had 44 terminal platforms on two levels at Liverpool St or Waterloo)
  • Does anyone know if all 44 platforms at Grand Central Terminal are in regular use for Metro-North passenger trains?
  • Has some fraction of these been mothballed since the heyday of US railroads?

I also think that their turnound times are a lot more leisurely than in a typical London commuter terminus so platform availbility is lower as they are used to park trains at.
The whole terminus is fed by a four track railway so maximum traffic capacity is constrained well below what 44 platforms would handle in a UK situation.
 

stut

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"Platforms" are platforms in the American sense two, in that one platform may serve multiple tracks. In total, there are 67 tracks in passenger use at GCT (some tracks use the 'Spanish Solution', meaning that a track may be served by two platforms: one for entry, one for exit).

There are plenty curiosities, and some tracks not served by Metro-North. For example (from Wikipedia):

Track 14 is used for a garbage train.
Lower level tracks 100, 101, 113 and 116-126 are currently out of use (the latter of these being sacrificed to the LIRR when it arrives).
Track 61 is part of the Waldorf Astoria, and was built for FDR.
Several of the outer, upper-level tracks are actually on balloon loops.

It's a fascinating place - but does continue the US Railway Terminal tradition of having stunning buildings, but platforms like underground car parks.
 

Springs Branch

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I also think that their turnound times are a lot more leisurely than in a typical London commuter terminus so platform availbility is lower as they are used to park trains at.
The whole terminus is fed by a four track railway so maximum traffic capacity is constrained well below what 44 platforms would handle in a UK situation.
As I understand it, the 4-track approach from The Bronx into GCT is reversibly signalled and operates on a 3-in-1-out arrangement in the peak direction. That means a lot of rolling stock accumulated around GCT in the middle of a weekday - maybe some of the 44 platforms are used just to stable trains between the morning and afternoon peaks.
 

ac6000cw

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As I understand it, the 4-track approach from The Bronx into GCT is reversibly signalled and operates on a 3-in-1-out arrangement in the peak direction. That means a lot of rolling stock accumulated around GCT in the middle of a weekday - maybe some of the 44 platforms are used just to stable trains between the morning and afternoon peaks.

Quite likely (and there are storage tracks as well at GCT) - relatively poor (by UK standards) rolling stock utilisation seems to be a feature of many US commuter rail operations, with limited promotion of reduced off-peak fares etc. to encourage usage between the peaks.

Different city (and travel culture) but last time I was in LA, I was a bit surprised that the weekday fares on Metrolink trains were purely distance-based, a return was priced as two singles, and there were no off-peak fares, even on routes that had a reasonable off-peak service. There is a very cheap system-wide 'day pass' at weekends, but the service is more limited then.
 

Myb

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Here are some figures to show just how generous Grand Central platform provision seems to be:

Osaka Umeda Hankyu: 9 platforms for ~2 350 000 passengers per day
London Waterloo: 22 platforms for ~260 000 passengers per day
Paris Saint-Lazare: 27 platforms for ~275 000 passengers per day
Paris Saint-Lazare (excluding long-distance): 20 platforms for ~250 000 passengers
New York Grand Central: 67 platforms for ~114 800 passengers per day

Considering the high land costs in central New York, it seems quite astonishing some platforms have not been converted into shopping space :lol:
 

jopsuk

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The LIRR is currently adding 8 more tracks/4 platforms (US terminology) on a level below everything else- apparently targeting 24tph in the peak
 

me123

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Quite likely (and there are storage tracks as well at GCT) - relatively poor (by UK standards) rolling stock utilisation seems to be a feature of many US commuter rail operations, with limited promotion of reduced off-peak fares etc. to encourage usage between the peaks.

It's very much commonplace in the US that many passenger railways essentially serve commuters only. They seem to operate on a "for profit" basis - i.e. each individual service has to turn a profit. This sees quit a lot of trains during the peaks, but little to no service outwith the rush hour. For example, the Needham to Boston route from MBTA has a half hourly service in rush hour that drops to just 1tp2h off peak.

Some frequencies are very low compared to what we'd expect in the UK. Looking at the schedules, there is poor stock utilisation out of peak times. I would be reluctant to use them because staying late in work can easily add several hours to your day, whereas in big UK cities you'll still have a good service frequency in the evening. I do wonder if the US companies are missing a trick here - having higher service frequencies would encourage more people onto the trains. Of course, the infrastructure is often more restrictive too.
 

dutchflyer

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Different city (and travel culture) but last time I was in LA, I was a bit surprised that the weekday fares on Metrolink trains were purely distance-based, a return was priced as two singles, and there were no off-peak fares, even on routes that had a reasonable off-peak service. There is a very cheap system-wide 'day pass' at weekends, but the service is more limited then.

To me (Yes, Dutch) it rather seems that you Brits are mostly the odd-ones out with such a bewildering and for the average foreigner incomprehensible system of time-related fares. Also giant commuter networks like around Paris/FR and most in Germany work on a one-fare (zonal or by the KM) system with generous discounts for season-tickets and special groups.
The fare as calculated by the mile/KM in about all US-systems are quite low-probably lower as even the lowest off/off-peak anywhere in the UK. They have to compete with very low ''gas'' (read petrol) prices and also fairly low parking prices. Downtowns-where all systems feed into-are about empty all evenings and weekends, except for the largest cities as NY, CHI.
Also around Chicago/Metra they had a 5US$ weekendpass (both days-sat+sun), but as all routes served then only run in+out you cannot really do circle trips. Ditto for the Metrotrain around LA-though distances are up till nearly 100 km.
 

edwin_m

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It's very much commonplace in the US that many passenger railways essentially serve commuters only. They seem to operate on a "for profit" basis - i.e. each individual service has to turn a profit. This sees quit a lot of trains during the peaks, but little to no service outwith the rush hour. For example, the Needham to Boston route from MBTA has a half hourly service in rush hour that drops to just 1tp2h off peak.

These operations are generally known as commuter rail and the clue really is in the name.

Some are peak only and others started that way and have since acquired a service (often a pretty desultory one) at other times of day. This is partly because most of them (like Amtrak) use the tracks of the freight railroads, who may want to keep the off-peak periods free for their own operations. Also, I don't know how access charges are set for commuter rail, but I wouldn't be surprised if there is a high fee per train. This would change the economics compared with the European situation where it costs very little extra to keep the trains running all day.
 

AndrewE

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...The European situation where it costs very little extra to keep the trains running all day.

Quite right. Commuters assume that because their train is full it must be profitable, whereas the opposite is true. Providing stock for one trip into town in the morning, stabling it all day (at the cost of providing sidings in the city or running it empty back out into the suburbs) then using the set once or twice more in the evening peak is a very inefficient use of resources. If a Metropolitan area wants to under-write it then that's fine, but don't try to pretend that funding it is either a national priority or that the commuters are being short-changed by paying something like half as much per mile as long distance travellers.

Cross country inter-city services which load well throughout the day over most of their length are far more cost-effective.
Which is why pendulum-type services (e.g. Thameslink) are so much more logical. Drop off a 4-car set or two at a "country" terminus after the morning peak and pick them up again when traffic builds up again p.m.
 

AM9

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Cross country inter-city services which load well throughout the day over most of their length are far more cost-effective.
Which is why pendulum-type services (e.g. Thameslink) are so much more logical. Drop off a 4-car set or two at a "country" terminus after the morning peak and pick them up again when traffic builds up again p.m.

Interesting that you mention that. Of course GCT is a terminus plain and simple with access only from the north, but NYC Penn. Station is a through line on the main eastern seaboard route. ISTR that apart from the long distance Amtrak services e.g. the NE corridor trains, most commuter paths terminate there and return back to from where they originated. In other words, services from New Jersey generally turn and go back under the Hudson tunnels, similarly the LIRR services arrive from Queens via the East River tunnels then turn and pass back that way. Part of the reason is the limited access to platforms other than the central Amtrak lines but much space in a prime location is wasted with NJ Transit and LIRR train storage. The LIRR yard is probably bigger than Hornsey or Cricklewood sidings. If commuter trains could run double ended, most of the storage issues of stock could be solved, giving off-peak passengers better services throughout the day with lower running costs.
 

edwin_m

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Interesting that you mention that. Of course GCT is a terminus plain and simple with access only from the north, but NYC Penn. Station is a through line on the main eastern seaboard route. ISTR that apart from the long distance Amtrak services e.g. the NE corridor trains, most commuter paths terminate there and return back to from where they originated. In other words, services from New Jersey generally turn and go back under the Hudson tunnels, similarly the LIRR services arrive from Queens via the East River tunnels then turn and pass back that way. Part of the reason is the limited access to platforms other than the central Amtrak lines but much space in a prime location is wasted with NJ Transit and LIRR train storage. The LIRR yard is probably bigger than Hornsey or Cricklewood sidings. If commuter trains could run double ended, most of the storage issues of stock could be solved, giving off-peak passengers better services throughout the day with lower running costs.

The other reasons are different electrification systems (third rail on LIRR, overhead on NJ Transit) and probably most important the fact that they are run by different administrations from different States. It does seem extravagant to use a slice of Manhattan for rail yards, although I think it is being (or is planned to be) built over. Once this happens, as with the vast space occupied by GCT, it's probably difficult to find an alternative use for it.

There is a plan (mentioned on Wikipedia I think) to bring some Metro-North trains from Connecticut into Penn via the Hell Gate Bridge. These would run through onto the Hudson route by electrifying Amtrak's Empire Connection. This is as well as the connection of LIRR into GCT mentioned above, which may well be necessary to free up capacity at Penn. So to some extent the MTA in New York is moving towards the UK Southern Region practice of providing a choice of city centre terminals.
 

tranzitjim

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I loved his European series, and am starting to get the first of his American ones, and seem just as great.

So far we have had series one of the US ones.
 

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Drop off a 4-car set or two at a "country" terminus after the morning peak and pick them up again when traffic builds up again p.m.

The Tube hasn't done this for years, nor will Thameslink soon enough. For a given unit type, train length doesn't massively vary the overall cost, unless you have a hair-brained lease model that makes that so e.g. LM.
 

edwin_m

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The Tube hasn't done this for years, nor will Thameslink soon enough. For a given unit type, train length doesn't massively vary the overall cost, unless you have a hair-brained lease model that makes that so e.g. LM.

Sometimes dropping a unit allows maintenance between the peaks, which may allow a smaller fleet and depot size. But there are various logistical reasons why it is more difficult than it may appear.
 

Taunton

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Grand Central and Penn station are in pretty much the same part of Midtown Manhattan (it's about a 10-15 minute walk between them), so sending LIRR into GCT won't improve access greatly. More useful would have been extending the other LIRR terminus, Flatbush Ave over in Brooklyn, into Lower Manhattan, giving a direct terminal there.

US main stations do indeed have this surprising division between the elegant terminal building and the dismal, industrial platform/trackside area, the latter often not visible at all from the former. About the only one I can recall with any architectural design on the trackside part is the 1930s Los Angeles Union.

Grand Central and its approach tracks out to 100th St up in Harlem have, as I understand it, be wholly covered by property or by Park Avenue for the last 100 years, there is no waste of valuable land at all.

Looking at the schedules, there is poor stock utilisation out of peak times. I would be reluctant to use them because staying late in work can easily add several hours to your day
Commuter bus services in the US can be much the same. A notable initiative I recall from the 1970s was a suburbs-to-city commuter bus into Washington DC with a journey time of about an hour, mostly nonstop on the freeway. There were five inward journeys arriving 0700-0830, and five outward 1615-1745 (US office hours tend to be a bit earlier than in the UK, many start by 0800). However they also provided another outward at 1900, and the intention was to allow people to use the service even when there was a chance they might have to work late. The vehicle that did the 1615 outward returned to provide the 1900 so there was no extra vehicle required. Analysis after it started showed that, although this late service typically carried about 12 passengers, overall about extra 30 passengers per day were generated for the service as a whole.

However, the conventional accountants just could not get their heads around this, they divided overall costs by passengers, and on this basis having only 12 passengers was "loss-making". There were multiple attempts by remote financial analysts to cancel this last trip and their figures could not show otherwise. Eventually they won, and ridership took a significant drop; eventually, as it fell off, they cancelled one of the mainstream runs as well.
 
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philabos

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It's very much commonplace in the US that many passenger railways essentially serve commuters only. They seem to operate on a "for profit" basis - i.e. each individual service has to turn a profit. This sees quit a lot of trains during the peaks, but little to no service outwith the rush hour. For example, the Needham to Boston route from MBTA has a half hourly service in rush hour that drops to just 1tp2h off peak.

.

I can assure you no US commuter agency operates on a for profit basis.
Most of the lines serving GCT operate at least hourly or better during the off peak periods which is really quite adequate for the demand.
Some of the crews on the rush hour services work to the city, have a second job in the city, and work out again in the evening rush.
Some years ago I did a back of the envelope comparison of the subsidies in the US vs the UK. The comparison was the total UK subsidy vs the total US subsidies including commuter rail. Although Amtrak alone handles about 30 million trips per year, when you add in the US commuter numbers that number expands to about 500 million. About 75% of that number is concentrated in the Northeast. When you look at total transit, subway, bus, commuter rail combined, over 90% of the US transit trips are in the New York metro. Not sure how London compares.
After adding up all the supports for Amtrak and commuter rail, I found the annual numbers are about the same for each country. Fairly amazing when you consider the UK has over three times as many annual railway passengers.
 

MarkyT

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Eventually they won, and ridership took a significant drop; eventually, as it fell off, they cancelled one of the mainstream runs as well.

This is likely to become a growing problem with provincial and rural bus services in UK too, with many companies curtailing commercial evening bus services that are fairly frequent during the day, but finish very early, often before 19:00. Recent local Stagecoach examples around Torbay include Kingswear from both Brixham and Paignton, and the coast run to Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren. The evening services, although never carrying many punters themselves admittedly, are an important part of the service offer IN CASE customers need to work/shop/ socialise after work a little later, and without that guarantee of service, for some occupations the bus can become effectively completely useless for commuting. I noticed the same in Somerset. When Webber were operating, there were buses every 15 minutes between Taunton and Minehead, but as soon as you hit that witching 18:30 hour or thereabouts . . . nothing. And of course no council has a single penny to subsidise even a single bus any later in these austere times. Depressing, and possibly short sighted commercially as far as the companies are concerned.
 

Taunton

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I think the issue in Britain is the operators try and get everything into a single shift. Not just drivers but supervision at base etc as well. Vehicles leased by the mile rather than purchased outright leads to elimination of marginal runs as well.
 

philabos

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Well, some good news today.
Metro North New Haven have announced they are restoring bar cars to their trains between New York G C T and New Haven. Ten cars.
Who said we were on a race to the bottom?
 
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