TALKING TRANSPORTATION: Building Great (And Really Expensive) Things

By Jim Cameron

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open. When it’s fully operational it’s expected to serve 160,000 daily Long Island RR riders. And by freeing up space at Penn Station (once dominated by LIRR), some Metro-North trains will be able to terminate there instead of at GCT.

As a friend from an engineering consultancy put it in social media: “This new station proves we CAN build great things (in the US).” Yeah… a decade late and 400% over budget.

I hate always to be the cynic, but if we don’t understand our mistakes we’ll keep repeating (and over-paying for) them.

The New York Times did an investigation in 2017 showing that the construction cost for Grand Central Madison and its new tunnels was seven times the average of such projects elsewhere in the world. Why?

Feather-bedding for one: 200 of the 900 construction workers digging the huge tunnels were being paid $1000 a day but effectively doing nothing. This was discovered in 2010 and the excess workers were laid off, but the incident was not reported to the public which is paying for the project.

Right now the MTA is facing a fiscal cliff: it doesn’t have enough money to keep the region’s mass transit running without a fare increase. But they’re still burning through $51 billion on capital projects like this one: new ADA access at subway stations, new signal systems, important stuff but never cheap.

During the pandemic the MTA paid McKinsey consultants millions to predict when transit ridership would return (thereby reducing their operating deficits). The consultants told them what they wanted to hear, that commuters would soon be back in droves! Wrong.

Subway ridership is now only 65% of pre-COVID numbers, buses about 62% and Metro-North only 68%. On the subways the perception (and reality) of crazies and criminals is discouraging riders further… while actually encouraging fare beaters.

The MTA says it loses a half billion dollars a year in uncollected fares!

Those are facts. So too is the reality, finally, of a brand new train station in New York City! But will it deliver on the promises that were made to justify its expense?

The MTA (parent of the LIRR and Metro-North) says the new Grand Central Madison will save “40 minutes commuting time” for Long Island riders heading to the east side of Manhattan. Maybe.

Just emerging from the new station, 15 stories below street level, takes almost 12 minutes riding one of the four ginormous 182 foot long escalators. I have a pool going as to how quickly one of them breaks down. (Email me if you want in.)

Metro-North can’t keep a single story escalator from the lower to upper level of GCT working… or the escalators constantly broken down connecting to Madison and Park Avenues, let alone these monsters.

But next time you’re in Grand Central, go take a look… while the new station is still sparkling, bright and in full working order. After all, you paid for it.

JIM CAMERON has lived in Darien for over 25 years. He serves on the Darien RTM and is Program Director of Darien TV79. He served 19 years on the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, four as its Chairman. In 2014 he founded a new advocacy group, The Commuter Action Group which speaks on behalf of Metro-North riders. His newspaper column “Talking Transportation” runs in 25+ weekly newspapers, as well as The Greenwich Free Press. Archives can be found at