The Future of Student Commutes

A 2021 photo of the new subway car model from Wikimedia Commons

November 30, 2017: 34 St–Hudson Yards station. 

A prototype of the latest model sits in the concourse above the unidirectional platform. Kawasaki Rail, a worldwide rail manufacturing company, has been awarded the $1.4 billion contract, which is their design for the all-new R211 class of subway car. The subway cars are planned to be equipped with WiFi, digital route map displays, open gangways, and LED head & door lights. Meanwhile, Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway opened in January of the same year, and Grand Central Madison was well underway in construction for the new Long Island Railroad (LIRR) terminal at the East Side transit hub.

Asked what the future commute of Grace students and faculty will look like, Steve Zaretsky, Grace’s Mass Transit elective teacher, told the Gazette: “In the very near future, we’ll start seeing new cars running; the R211 cars will start replacing the R46 cars on selected lines within the next few months. The Second Avenue Subway (currently the Q train) will extend from 96th Street to 125th Street. […Eventually], the line will extend further south, becoming the T line, reaching as far south as Houston street by the end of Phase 3.”

He continued: “Soon, Long Island Railroad trains will begin using the new terminal under Grand Central, called Grand Central Madison. It has the potential to save more than half an hour per trip for commuters from Long Island.”

Mr. Zaretsky explained that Grand Central Madison is due to open this December, with a date yet to be released. The history of this new terminal dates back over 40 years and even involves the construction of an entirely different subway line. 

The current route of the F train between Manhattan and Queens via 63rd Street on the East Side was constructed in the 1980s, connecting 47-50 Sts–Rockefeller Centre station in Midtown to 36 St station in Queens, where it merged with the E, M, and R trains. The F line provided a vital subway connection to Roosevelt Island. In the finalized 1967 plans for the project, the MTA had included a lower track below the subway line across Roosevelt Island for future mainline rail running across from Queens into Manhattan. These are the tracks that the LIRR will be using to connect from the existing mainline in Queens through to Grand Central Station. The tracks junction off in Sunnyside, Long Island City, before the existing Penn Station tunnels, running parallel underneath to the current F train route along 63rd Street. It then travels south diagonally under 59 St–Lexington Av station into Grand Central Madison. 

As Mr. Zaretsky mentioned, the LIRR coming into Grand Central will save half an hour getting into the city independent of other factors. However, more importantly, the new terminal connects conveniently with the 7 train as well as Lexington Avenue 4, 5, and 6 trains, the latter of which will provide a no-transfer 5-stop ride from 42 St–Grand Central into Astor Pl station, which is only a short 3-minute walk from our High School campus. 

Previously, students travelling in from Long Island would either have to change at Jamaica, the main LIRR hub in Queens, for a subway train and continue from there or get from Penn Station on west 34th street to school on Cooper Square, whether via bus, bike, or a convoluted subway route. This new terminal, along with the recently completed third track along the LIRR mainline between Floral Park and Hicksville in Nassau County, will relieve congestion along LIRR services across the board, regardless of the Manhattan terminus. Fortunately, these new transportation updates will aid in making trains faster, more frequent, and more reliable.

Unlike Grand Central Madison, which has been running “close” to schedule as of late, the R211 cars have been facing further delays. Both the new LIRR cars and the aforementioned R211s subway cars– which Mr. Zaretsky explained “have updated electronic signage, wider doors and wifi, but will still have similar seating configurations,”– are running upwards of 17 months behind on their manufacturing timelines with the current delivery date for the R211s now placed as far as January 2025. The subway cars began testing in summer of last year and were expected to enter regular revenue service between the holiday season of this year and the summer of next

However, Kawasaki Rail, the aforementioned manufacturing company awarded the R211 contract, is experiencing severe issues at their manufacturing plant in Lincoln, Nebraska. The MTA blames mismanagement issues in Lincoln, while Kawasaki blames a labor shortage. 

Siu Ling Ko, CMO of the MTA, told the Daily News that “Kawasaki every month was losing about 45 employees who build subway cars in Nebraska.” 

At the same time, Kawasaki continues to blame the pandemic for labor shortages. However, a glimmer of hope is shining as recently railfans and trainspotters have noticed late-night deliveries of the R211T subway car in early November. This “-T” variant has open gangways — articulated “accordian-style” passageways — that allow passengers to freely move between train cars without having to cross the treacherous gap between cars.

photo courtesy of Wikimedia under Creative Commons license

The Second Avenue Subway is currently in revenue service along Phase 1, which opened in January of 2017, in the tunnels between 57 St–7 Av and 96 St–2 Av stations. Now, the MTA is awaiting a capital grant to continue their work on the Second Avenue Subway north of 96 St–2 Av station; fortunately, however, there are existing tunnels from the 1970s stretching between 110th and 120th Streets on 2nd Avenue

Many transit experts outside the MTA believe that Phase 2 will have an insanely expensive budget, akin to the final cost of Phase 1, in which the project rose above its $3.8 billion budget to $4.5 billion and was delayed for over three years. Phase 2 will have a predicted budget of $6 billion, but many believe that the planned large and overbearing concourses akin to the existing Phase 1 stations will bring the project to a higher price than it needs to be. The MTA cited in a FONSI document that anticipated passenger load and emergency exit placements had required such large concourses for single-line stations. However, plenty of smaller stations across the network support higher ridership per station than the Second Avenue Subway stations. This is a product of highly restrictive ADA & safety guidelines requiring overbuilt stations and is what seems to be pushing the prices of the construction so high. 

It’s no secret that infrastructure funding has been an issue in the United States as of late. However, with the passing of H.R.3684 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, things are looking up for transportation in New York, and the completion of substantial projects from terminals to subway lines to subway cars will have a dramatically positive impact on the commutes of Grace students and faculty.