Right now it is a hazy labyrinth of pulverized bedrock, knee-deep trenches of grayish muck and clanging heavy machinery, navigated by 130 scurrying construction workers with their hard hats and reflective orange vests that read "East Side Access" across the back.
But Andrew Thompson can already envision the finished product: a new Manhattan terminus for the Long Island Rail Road. The native of Manchester, England, has the formidable task of leading construction of the $7.3-billion project - the most ambitious undertaking of transit infrastructure in the state's recent history.
Thursday, Thompson took a group of about two dozen journalists on a tour of the project's key underground construction site, located beneath the Metro-North Railroad's operations at Grand Central Terminal.
Nine years along, considerable progress has been made on the railroad connection from Queens to Manhattan's East Side. But considerable, too, is the amount of work yet to go before the targeted September 2016 "opening day," as transit officials have called it.
"Right now the pace is picking up," Thompson said. "This is our key year of the project. This year is going to be a really big year constructionwise."
The gateway to the LIRR's future is the entrance to Metro-North's Track 115, located in the lower-level dining concourse of Grand Central, just beside the Chirping Chicken eatery. Behind a white tarp and down some stairs next to the train platform is the LIRR's future concourse - a 10-block-long, one-block-wide area that once was a rail maintenance and storage yard for Metro-North.
In this construction zone, wooden planks are scattered about the floor and piles of rubble are sorted by workers using forklifts. Stacks of tubing, steel pipes and cinder blocks are piled against walls. Like all the materials being used, they were brought in by train along a single track that connects to a Bronx yard.
Many workers' current task there is a daunting one - relocating and replacing the numerous load-bearing steel and concrete columns that support the streets and buildings above ground. The goal is to clear space for the 350,000-square-foot LIRR customer concourse, which will house a large public area as well as ticket windows and other administrative space.
"If you were to drive over 48th Street, this is what's holding you up," Thompson said, pointing to an assortment of newly installed steel beams.
Even deeper underground, deafening machinery drills and hammers away at granite to clear space for four escalator wells that will house 17 escalators. Transit officials say they will be the fastest-moving escalators in the state.
Nearby, a construction elevator that looks like no more than a steel icebox descends into the tour's main event - the "caverns." But no one is allowed aboard until they "turn a brass." A wall beside the elevator is adorned with a number of dangling metal tags. They are green on one side and red on another, and anyone who goes down into the caverns must turn a tag from green to red on his way down, and back to green upon a safe return. It is a precautionary head-counting system.
"We would rather take everybody out that came in," Thompson quipped. "We haven't lost anybody yet."
A murky cave
The elevator opens 150 feet below street level in a dark and murky cave. Cold air blows in from a large duct, and puddles of thick mud swallow up work boots and don't release them without a fight.
Nearby, workers chip away at what will be the westbound tunnel for LIRR trains, its walls jagged and freckled in spots with pink spray paint. That is where the explosives will be placed to do some of the bigger excavating.
For years, hulking tunnel-boring machines have been used to dig out the route for the trains, with each machine averaging about 80 feet a day. Tunnels already created go from 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue all the way into Grand Central.
"If you follow that tunnel all the way out, eventually you'll come out in Queens," Thompson said, pointing east.
The eastbound tunnels still have a ways to go before being finished. Freshly dug out by the boring machines, the cavern is a perfectly round cylinder.
Scrawled in spray paint at the mouth of the tunnel are the words, "Start tunnel." Thompson said all the tunnel boring will be completed by a year from now.
"We're progressing nicely. We've got a lot of work done," Thompson said of the "Madison Yard" phase of the project, which he said constitutes about one-third of the MTA's overall budget for East Side Access, and is about one-third complete. "This one's got to succeed. And it is succeeding."
East Side Access facts and figures
September 2001: Construction begins
September 2016: Grand opening, projected date
$7.3 billion: Total projected cost
$1.9 billion: Money already spent
1.225 million: Cubic yards of excavated soil and rock
150-160 feet: Deepest point of new tunnels, at a location beneath Grand Central Terminal
8: Number of miles of tunnel excavated along a 3.5-mile route
8: Number of tracks at new LIRR terminal at Grand Central
350,000: Square feet of new LIRR passenger concourse at Grand Central
30-40 minutes: Amount of time commuters are expected to save traveling to Manhattan's East Side