Digging into the Archives: The West Side ConnectionComments
April 3, 2013
Rail travelers in the Northeast received exciting news in the summer of 1988 when Amtrak and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced a plan, known as the West Side Connection or Empire Connection, to consolidate all intercity passenger rail services in New York City at Pennsylvania (Penn) Station.
Since 1971, Amtrak had operated from two facilities in America’s largest city: Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. Trains operating over the busy Northeast Corridor and points as far south as Miami and New Orleans used the former, while trains headed to northern and western destinations such as Buffalo, Montreal and Toronto used the latter. The trains traveling over the corridor between New York, Albany and Buffalo were collectively known as the Empire Service in reference to the state’s well-known nickname. In 1988, approximately 100 daily Amtrak trains, carrying 5.5 million passengers a year, used Penn Station, while Grand Central accommodated 18 daily trains with 1 million annual riders.1
The existence of the two complexes dates to the early 20th century when passenger rail service into the city was controlled by two great rivals, the New York Central (NYC) and Pennsylvania (PRR) railroads. Penn Station, opened to the public in fall 1910, provided the PRR with its first direct link to the island of Manhattan via two tunnels beneath the Hudson River, thereby eliminating a ferry ride from the PRR terminal at Exchange Place in Jersey City, N.J.
Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1913 by the NYC, replaced an earlier station erected in the 1870s. Growth in rail traffic—both commuter and long distance—coupled with city laws against the use of steam engines, had convinced the NYC to construct the new terminal. Taking advantage of improved electric power systems and the possibility for real estate investment around the new station, the NYC chose to bury the tracks, rail yard and concourses at an average of 30 feet below street level.
Amtrak’s consolidation at Penn Station was expected to result in improvements to operations and finances. Passengers from upstate New York and the Hudson River Valley would no longer have to transfer between stations, and Amtrak would only have to maintain and staff one facility. In a July 1988 New York Times article, Amtrak stated that the added convenience of a seamless transfer was expected to attract an additional 120,000 passengers in the first year of operation.2
The Amtrak-NYSDOT plan took advantage of a strategic freight line, shuttered in 1982, that ran approximately 10 miles up the west side of Manhattan and crossed to the mainland in the Bronx; from there, the line connected with the existing tracks used for northbound service. The rail line was expected to be easy to obtain since it was then owned by Conrail, a freight railroad formed by the federal government from the remnants of seven bankrupt companies. The roadbed would be rehabilitated to support passenger service, but there were two obstacles to address at either end.
To take the line into Penn Station, a tunnel had to be constructed close to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. At the northern tip of Manhattan, the steel turntable Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, built in 1900 to span the Harlem River, needed repairs before it could be put back into service. Following the closure of the freight line, the bridge had been left in an open position to permit waterborne traffic. Total costs for the West Side Connection were initially estimated at $85 million with NYSDOT contributing 40 percent and Amtrak assuming the remainder.3
Work wrapped up by spring 1991, and on April 7th, operations began over the West Side Connection. Across Midtown, the last day of service at Grand Central was described in an Associated Press article: “Mournful railroad porters and train buffs snapped photographs in a flurry of flashes and then bid farewell to Albany-bound Train 271 at about 8:30pm….Moments before pulling out of the terminal, engineer Jim Sweeney leaned out of his locomotive and hoisted a sign reading, ‘Last Amtrak Train Out of Grand Central Station. April 6, 1991.’”4
The system timetable issued on April 7, 1991
featured the new West Side Connection.
For Amtrak, the West Side Connection was a fitting achievement marking the company’s 20th anniversary. In celebration, the cover of the system timetable issued on April 7, 1991 featured a sleek Turboliner gliding along the Hudson and under the George Washington Bridge, with the Manhattan skyline fading into the distance. A company advertisement declared: “Now that we’ve made cross-town transfers a thing of the past, we’re your best connection through New York.”
Although the consolidation made travel easier for Amtrak passengers connecting to other parts of the national system, the West Side Connection also meant that Grand Central Terminal lacked long-distance trains for the first time in its history. In an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer, assistant station master Bob Smith commented: ‘“It’s a great old building…You won’t hear a conductor yell ‘all aboard’ here now…You don’t yell ‘all aboard’ for a commuter train. It’s things like that, you know? The atmosphere will be different. People going on a trip just act and feel differently than people getting on and off the same old commuter car every day. You won’t see people with baggage. You won’t have trains with names like the Lake Shore Limited…”5
This year, Grand Central Terminal's 100th anniversary is being celebrated with a full calendar of special events and exhibits. Amtrak is proud to have been part of the terminal’s rich history. In May 2012, Amtrak equipment, including its Exhibit Train and an Acela Express train set, made a rare appearance on Grand Central’s tracks to celebrate National Train Day and wrap up Amtrak’s year-long 40th Anniversary celebration.
Since 1983, when Metro-North Railroad took ownership of the building, it has undergone a multi-million dollar series of restorations. Grand Central is not simply a transportation hub for commuter rail, the subway and local buses, but is also a popular destination for fine dining and shopping—and an international symbol of New York.
Across Midtown, Penn Station remains the busiest station in the Amtrak national network, with almost 9.5 million passengers beginning or ending journeys there in fiscal year 2012. Approximately half a million passengers on Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit trains pass through the complex every weekday. Including some long and short-distance trains, the Empire Service corridor offers three daily round-trips east of Niagara Falls, four east of Buffalo, six east of Schenectady and 12 south of Albany to New York.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1 “Amtrak Trains To Stop Using Grand Central,” The New York Times, July 7, 1988.
2 “Travel Advisory; Grand Central Trains Rerouted to Penn Station,” The New York Times, April 7, 1991.
3 “Amtrak Trains To Stop Using Grand Central,” The New York Times, July 7, 1988.
4 “Last Amtrak Train Leaves Grand Central,” Associated Press, April 6, 1991.
5 “Grand (But Not As) Central Today, A New York Landmark Becomes Just Another Commuter Stop. Well, Not Exactly-They Don’t Have Golden Zodiacs And Double Marble Staircases In Poughkeepsie,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 1991.
In addition to the above links, works consulted include:
Annual Reports for fiscal years 1988-1992, National Railroad Passenger Corporation.