For a moment, GCT again means “intercity”

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, August 07, 2017

Grand Central Terminal, pictured during World War II, is too glorious a setting for mere commuter trains. Yet since 1991 that's all GCT has hosted — until this summer, when trackwork at Penn Station prompted Amtrak to move some intercity trains back to GCT temporarily. NYC photo
One of the most interesting bits of news to come out of the Northeast this summer is the temporary reassignment of some New York–Albany/Rensselaer Empire Service trains to Grand Central Terminal while Amtrak performs critical track work at Penn Station 

Suddenly, if briefly, you can board a passenger train from the hallowed, subterranean platforms of GCT and actually stay on the same train beyond Poughkeepsie. Somewhere the ghosts of William White and Lucius Beebe are smiling.

The move involves the rerouting of only six trains, and only into September, Amtrak says. But it’s making it easier for an army of track crews at Penn Station, especially those working on “A” Interlocking, just west of the station platforms, where capacity has been reduced from six tracks to two.

The need for the repairs became a big story in New York in the spring when, in a classic bit of New York exaggeration, Gov. Andrew Cuomo predicted a “summer of hell.” Delays at Penn Station for riders of all three of the station’s rail carriers — Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Long Island Rail Road — also became a trial by fire for Amtrak President Wick Moorman, who’s been skewered by New York’s feverish news media.

Whether hell broke loose depends, I suppose, on whether you’re obligated to ride in and out of Penn Station every day. I’m not. In fact, I haven’t managed to get to New York in more than a year.

Some 55 blocks north of Grand Central, a New York Central P-2 electric bursts out of the Park Avenue Tunnel with the Chicago-bound 'Pacemaker' in the 1950s. Herbert H. Harwood photo
But I’m still taking comfort in knowing that Grand Central has temporarily shed the derisive moniker “world’s most glorious commuter station,” a title it has held since 1991 when, in a bid for efficiency, Amtrak moved all its GCT trains a dozen blocks over to what was left of the former Pennsylvania Railroad's station at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue. That year, with the flip of a timetable page, Amtrak ended a glorious tradition that went back to the Terminal’s opening in 1913. 

Grand Central needs no introduction. Its history is a catalog of glories: a Beaux Arts monument created by the partnership of two distinguished architectural firms, Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore; the nightly sailing (as Beebe would put it) of the 20th Century Limited; artist Paul Helleu’s constellation-studded ceiling; those immutable New York destinations of the Oyster Bar and the clock-topped information booth.

Not to mention the stunning civil engineering that pushed NYC’s steam locomotives off Manhattan and created the modern Park Avenue above Central’s electrified right of way. The railroad had done New York a great favor by building the massive Grand Central complex. Here was a train station that literally changed the face of a city.

Despite all that, a bit of Grand Central’s magic wore off after 1991. All of sudden you could no longer book a roomette to Chicago, or hear the station announcer’s incantations of “Rochester” or “Toledo” or “Elkhart” echo off the marble walls, or plan to ride past Poughkeepsie or New Haven. I don’t have anything against Metro North trains, but their destinations don’t quicken the pulse.

I can’t claim to be an inveterate GCT intercity traveler. In fact, I can’t claim to have even departed the station aboard the New York Central. I was born in the wrong year and grew up in the wrong place.

NYC's '20th Century Limited' from Chicago curves onto the Park Avenue Viaduct as an elderly S-motor hauls an empty train from Grand Central to the coach yard in late 1961. David Plowden photo
However, I do have a cherished memory of Grand Central. It came in July 1977, after a weekend visit to New York. I was booked to return to Chicago aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, departing on a Sunday evening.

Although I’m sure the vast concourse made its usual wondrous impression, what I recall most is making my way down the ramp to that high-level platform, where No. 49 waited with all those coaches, sleepers, and the diner right at eye level. I walked along the entire consist, relishing the prospect of settling into one of the cozy roomettes that beckoned near the rear of the train.

Soon I stepped into the vestibule of my car, a former Union Pacific 10-6 sleeper, and found my way to my roomette. Yes, it was on the left side of the car, the “Hudson” side, if you will. Before long we began that thrilling ride through the darkness, bounding along below Park Avenue before bursting into the light above 97th Street in Harlem.

Over the next few minutes, as we rattled along the elevated tracks then curved our way along the Harlem River, I thought of all those memorable photos depicting NYC’s Great Steel Fleet it its heyday, imperiously negotiating this very same real estate.

The ride out of Grand Central to the control point at Spuyten Duyvil, where Amtrak’s normal route resumes, is only 11 miles, so these temporary changes won’t mean much to the people riding those detoured trains. They’re only going to Albany, after all. But how nice it is know that once again, however briefly, Grand Central means “intercity.”

On the evening of that 1977 trip, I treated myself to a steak dinner (New York strip, no doubt) as the Lake Shore negotiated NYC’s graceful tangents along the Hudson, the river bathed in twilight as the sun began to set behind the Catskills to the west. Somehow it all meant more to me because my journey had begun where it should: at the intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd Street. 

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