Gov. Kathy Hochul was among the first group of passengers to ride the LIRR into Grand Central Madison station on Wednesday. NewsdayTV's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; Craig Ruttle

The automated announcement warned riders to “stand clear of closing doors,” and at 10:46 a.m. — one minute after its scheduled departure time — the train pulled out of Jamaica Station.

“Ladies and gentleman, the next stop on this train is Grand Central Madison,” the conductor announced over the applause of some of the 900 people on board.

With that, the first Long Island Rail Road passenger train to Manhattan’s East Side was on its way — the culmination of six decades of planning, about two decades of construction, and $11.1 billion in spending.

"I wanted to be part of the history for the first train," said Steve Keeney, 57, a certified personal accountant from Farmingdale, who was on the first train. "This has been discussed since before I was born and it's great to finally see it come to fruition."

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The first Long Island Rail Road passenger train to Grand Central Madison arrived at 11:07 a.m., carrying 900 riders. 
  • East Side Access was an $11.1 billion effort conceived in the 1960s. It aims to shorten commutes for those working on Manhattan’s East Side and expand the LIRR's capacity to run trains between Long Island and Manhattan.
  • Only limited shuttle service between Grand Central and Jamaica will operate for at least the next three weeks, with trains running once per hour during peak periods, and every half-hour during middays and weekends. 

David Morrison, 77, of Plainview, a retired LIRR branch manager and unofficial historian, posed with train conductors and held a photo of the first train to leave Penn Station in 1910, noting that Grand Central and Jamaica opened in 1913.

"Here we are 110 years later and it's finally happening," Morrison said. "It's so exciting to be here."

When the train arrived, on time, 21 minutes later on Track 302, passengers stepped off and marveled at what awaited them — a pristine 700,000-square foot transit complex. For hours, riders — many of them self-professed “rail fans” — roamed the sprawling corridors of the station, shooting photos and videos of electronic art installations, massive escalator wells, and other modern amenities inside the rail station, the largest to open in the United States in 67 years, according to state officials.

“This is way better than Penn Station. … It’s bigger, nicer, and newer,” said Darien Williams, holding a commemorative “golden ticket” given to passengers who experienced the LIRR’s maiden voyage to Grand Central.

Williams, 19, typically commutes from Far Rockaway to Penn Station, then walks to Manhattan’s East Side, where he works as an Uber driver. “I just find it amazing that East Side Access is finally open for the public. … It saves us a 20-minute walk. I’m tired of making that walk,” he said.

Though Metropolitan Transportation Authority leaders and Gov. Kathy Hochul celebrated the milestone, opening day for Grand Central Madison did not go exactly as originally envisioned.

Rather than the robust full schedule that the LIRR began promoting in June, which would include up to 24 trains an hour into and out of the new station, the railroad is offering only limited shuttle service for at least three weeks, with trains running only once every 60 minutes during rush hours, and more frequently during middays and weekends, when the railroad has more capacity.

Even with the station now open, Joseph Weiss, of Bayport, questioned whether the railroad was equipped to provide the level of rush hour service it is  promising.

“I wonder if they’re really going to get the number of trains in and out of here that they expect to. I think it’s going to be a long time before they have enough trains to do what they’re promising,” said Weiss, who believes the limited shuttle service was MTA officials’ way of “keeping their word that they would start something.”

The opening was also three weeks past the MTA’s long-promised December 2022 target, postponed because of an issue with the station’s ventilation system. The “grace period,” as MTA chairman Janno Lieber called it, was the latest delay for a project that ran more than a decade late, and billions of dollars over budget.

Still, Hochul, who called herself the ninth governor to oversee plans to bring the LIRR to the East Side, said the project was worth doing.

“We’re talking about a legacy project,” said Hochul, who rode with project officials in the rear car of the first train. “Leaning hard into complex but necessary infrastructure is not always for the faint of heart. But I guarantee 100 years from now when they look back … they will all see that it was worthwhile. They will agree this was a project worth undertaking.”

Although the reviews from riders, public officials, and Long Island leaders, were largely positive, day one of East Side Access was not without its hiccups. One rider complained about a stall door in a bathroom not having a working lock. Station officials needed to troubleshoot electrical outlets in a station waiting room that weren’t functioning.

Some riders complained about how long it took to traverse the station’s escalators — the longest in the entire MTA system. One of those escalators had to be temporarily “shut down for safety reasons while a group of unruly teenagers was removed,” according to MTA spokesman Tim Minton.

Still, on the whole, Lieber said, the new LIRR service to Grand Central will “dramatically improve and change transportation in the region” by shortening travel times for those commuting to the East Side, helping Long Island employers recruit workers from New York City, and improving regional connectivity by allowing for one-ticket rides from “Port Jeff … to Poughkeepsie,” via a transfer to Metro-North, which operates upstairs from the LIRR at Grand Central.

“My message to New York is, come see this amazing facility,” Lieber said. “We love Grand Central. It is the temple of mass transit. And now it has a new chapter.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who helped secure more than $2 billion in federal funding for the effort, noted that Grand Central Madison comes with the added benefit of freeing up capacity at Penn Station, which is in line for its own major renovation. “Long Islanders have been asking for this for two decades,” Schumer said.

EAST SIDE ACCESS BY THE NUMBERS

  • MTA decides to move ahead with project: 1998

  • Tunneling began: 2007

  • Cost: $11.1 billion
  • New tunnels: 13 miles
  • New track: 40 miles
  • Time on deep escalators: 1 minute 38 seconds
  • Size of new station: 700,000 square feet
  • Time saved for East Side commuters: 20 minutes each way

Latest videos