The long-awaited East Side Access tunnels connecting riders to the new Grand Central Madison station opened Wednesday. NewsdayTV's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Craig Ruttle

More than a century after the opening of Penn Station, the Long Island Rail Road will open its second Manhattan terminal on Wednesday, Grand Central Madison.

On Tuesday, construction workers put the finishing touches on the 700,000-square-foot new station — polishing the glass walls abutting the longest escalators in New York City, and screwing in handles on new doors installed to address a problem with the station’s ventilation system.

The 10:45 a.m. shuttle scheduled to depart from Jamaica, and arrive at Grand Central at 11:07, will mark the culmination of East Side Access — the $11.1 billion megaproject that formally began construction in 2007, but was conceived in the 1960s, when the New York City Transit Authority began work on the 63rd Street tunnel under the East River.

For at least the next three weeks, the LIRR will operate limited shuttle train service to and from Jamaica before implementing full service.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • After 16 years of construction and nearly six decades of planning, Grand Central Madison, the LIRR’s new Manhattan terminal, is set to open Wednesday.
  • Initially, there will be only limited shuttle service to and from the station, with trains running more frequently outside of the rush hour and on weekends. The chairman of the MTA said it will be another three to four weeks before the LIRR begins full service to Grand Central.
  • An issue with the new station’s ventilation system delayed the opening of the station. The problem was resolved with the construction of a temporary wall separating the station from Grand Central’s dining concourse above. 

Throughout years of delays, unexpected construction challenges, and billions of dollars in cost overruns, transit officials have maintained that the project — once expected to be finished by 2009 at a cost of $4.3 billion — will be worth the trouble.

“Today, Long Island gets closer to New York,” said Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber, who acknowledged that, because fewer people are taking the train since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership demand at the new station may not initially be as heavy as once envisioned. “It’s not bad, I think, for us to have a little room, especially since Long Island is dynamic, and wants to be more dynamic and growing. To make it closer to the city and more convenient … is a great thing.”

East Side Access represents the most significant amendment to the LIRR’s territory map in decades. It gives every station on Long Island a direct route to a second Manhattan terminal — shortening the trips of tens of thousands  who work on Manhattan’s East Side, easing pressure on overused Penn Station, and giving the railroad a needed second route onto and off Long Island. It also creates new routes to Metro-North stations throughout the state and in Connecticut. It also means fewer trains to Penn Station during the morning rush hour and the elimination of most direct service between stations on Long Island and in Brooklyn.

'It's really been forever'

Stephen Melly and his 85-year-old father, Steve, have made it a point to be on that first train to Grand Central. Since the MTA formally proposed East Side Access in the mid-1990s, the Merrick father-and-son accountants have looked forward to the day they could take a train directly to Manhattan’s East Side, where the elder Melly’s offices were located. He no longer works, but plans to come out of commuter retirement on Wednesday for the historic occasion.

“It’s really been forever. We’ve had this kind of running joke since then. It’s like, ‘We’ll do it before I retire.’ Then he retired 20 years ago. He’s like, ‘I hope I get there before I die,’” Stephen Melly, 58, said of his dad. “I called him up last night. … He was like, ‘I don’t know. What about church?’ I said, ‘Skip church for one day. … We’re going on the train.’”

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials had promised for years — and as recently as last month — that the new station would open in 2022. But an issue with the new station’s ventilation system prevented the railroad from receiving the necessary permits to open it. On Monday night, the LIRR announced its new Manhattan hub was ready to go.

Lieber on Tuesday showed off the low-tech solution to the problem: a temporary wall erected at the bottom of the escalators leading from Grand Central’s dining concourse level to the new LIRR concourse.

A temporary entrance wall is completed Tuesday to deal with...

A temporary entrance wall is completed Tuesday to deal with a ventilation issue that had delayed the station's opening. Credit: Craig Ruttle

The separation will keep exhaust fans in the new station from pulling unwanted air from the level above. But it also means LIRR riders entering or exiting from the dining concourse will have to walk through two extra sets of doors. MTA officials said engineers are still studying whether a permanent wall, which could be made of glass, is necessary at the location.

The station, which stretches six blocks underneath Madison Avenue, otherwise appears largely finished. An LIRR customer waiting room that, a month ago, was mostly exposed lumber, is now complete. Electronic billboards display paintings of Long Island landmarks.

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann, who first toured the site more than a decade ago, on Tuesday called it “an engineering marvel.”

“I remember going through when it looked like caves. It was literally just chopped out. There were no finishes. … You had to wear hip boots to get around down there, the mud was so deep,” Bringmann said. “Because it’s been all these years, you develop an attitude of, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Now it’s here.”

Workers buff and clean one of the deep escalators at...

Workers buff and clean one of the deep escalators at Grand Central Madison on Tuesday as the station is prepared for the first passengers to arrive.  Credit: Craig Ruttle

Even after Wednesday, LIRR commuters will have to wait several more weeks to experience Grand Central Madison at full strength. The railroad will initially run only limited shuttle service to and from Jamaica, operating between 6:15 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays, and between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends.

The “Grand Central Direct” will run every 30 minutes during off-peak periods, and only once every 60 minutes during peak periods. The plan appeared backward to some commuters, but railroad officials say they have more flexibility, trains, and crews to run the extra service outside of the rush hours.

Bringmann said the “counterproductive” schedule may mean that many regular LIRR commuters won’t get to visit Grand Central Madison until full service rolls out.

“We’re going to have a lot of people that might want to give it a try, but get to Jamaica and … have to wait 43 minutes or something like that to get to Grand Central. Forget about it,” Bringmann said.

The “Grand Central Direct” service will be in place for at least three weeks before the railroad pulls the trigger on its full service plan, which will include up to 24 trains an hour running into and out of Grand Central.

The railroad has not released a final schedule for the new service, but said it will “mirror” draft schedules published in June.

Getting to Grand Central Terminal:

For at least three weeks, there will be only limited service on the “Grand Central Direct” — a shuttle train between Jamaica and Grand Central Madison.

The first train will depart Jamaica at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. Trains will operate every 30 minutes during off-peak hours and on weekends, and every 60 minutes during peak periods. 

The shuttle service will run from 6:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and from 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends. 

The cost of a ticket to Grand Central is the same as one to Penn Station, and Penn tickets can be used for travel to the new station.

Full service to Grand Central is not expected to begin for at least 3-4 weeks.

In Manhattan, customers can enter the new station from several locations near Madison Avenue, including 45th Street, 47th Street, 383 Madison, an elevator on 48th Street, 1 Vanderbilt, and from Grand Central’s dining concourse.