Underneath 42nd St., a conveyor belt that wasn’tBy
The 42nd St. shuttle was always supposed to be a temporary train route. It is funny then, that 92 years after it first entered service, the shuttle is one of the most necessary and crowded routes as it ferries commuters in between Grand Central and Times Square. Imagine, if you will, a similar route but filled with open-air cars on a conveyor part as was once proposed and prepared for the underground stretch of track in between the East and the West Sides.
On September 28, 1918, the Interborough Rapid Transit company opened service on its so-called H routing. With the 7th Ave. line south of 42nd St. serving customers and the Lexington Ave. line north of 42nd St. playing host to trains, the original east/west routing that connecting the southern half of the IRT on the East Side with the northern half on the West Side was to become a shuttle, ferrying passengers from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square. From the start, the service was an engineering disaster. “We called the H system for more reason than one,” William Jerome Daly, the Board of Transportation secretary, said with a wink and a smile in 1949.
On opening day, The Times said that service started smoothly, but the article and subsequent tales from underground described a scene that was anything but. Straphangers complained of the long walk from the Lexington Ave. IRT line to the shuttle station. They complained of the crowds and of the way the lighted signs announcing the next train did not give ample warning as customers had to run to catch the next train. The complained of cramped spaces and generally poor engineering as support beams at the West Side interfered with movement. “Shuttle service faulty,” said one 1942 letter to The Times.
By the time 1949 rolled around, the temporary shuttle — called such because the Board of Transportation had never funded upgrades to the Times Square end — still drew the ire of the city’s straphangers, and it was with great fanfare that the Board of Estimates announced an overhaul. For the princely sum of $3.5 million, the Board planned to build double platforms at Times Square to ease the crowd and allow for boarding on one side and detraining on another. The Grand Central terminal would be extended 200 feet east to cut walking distance from the shuttle to the IRT station. Still, these upgrades were “pretty far down” on the list of overall subway improvements, and it took a while to get the ball rolling.
After a few years of fits and starts, the Board of Transportation hit upon another idea: Instead of upgrading the shuttle, the city would instead replace it with a people-moving conveyor belt. As Time Magazine described in a 1954 article, “The jammed, jolting old subway shuttle train between Grand Central Station and Times Square, half a mile crosstown, will be replaced by a gigantic conveyor belt carrying an endless chain of lightweight passenger cars. Riders will step onto a belt moving at 1½ m.p.h., and from there into cars which will then speed up to 15 m.p.h. for the two-minute trip to Times Square and slow down again to let them off.”
The project was to cost $5 million — $3.8 million for the conveyor belt system, $1.2 million for necessary tunnel updates — and The Times loved it. Proclaiming the novelty factor, the editorial staff opined, “The conveyor belt has proved itself on many jobs. We have faith that the engineers of today can make this new shuttle idea a working reality…Admitting that it is something of an adventure into experiment, we hope city officials have enough of the pioneering spirit to try it in curing an old ill at a busy crossroads of the city.”
Unfortunately, City Comptroller Lawrence E. Gerosa wasn’t feeling that pioneering spirit. In an August 1955 report condemning the plans, Gerosa warned of “high maintenance charges and risk of injury to passengers.” Noting that this system would be both more expensive than anticipated and the first of its kind anywhere, he issued a warning: “New York City cannot afford to be the guinea pig for such a costly and complex investment particularly in one of the most congested areas in our subway system.”
Two months later, the conveyor belt plan died an ignoble death. Instead of a new investment, the Transit Authority promised to reengineer the Grand Central bottleneck and invest in rolling stock upgrades for the much-maligned shuttle. Thus ended one of the great thought experiments in New York City transit history.
Today, the shuttle suffers from some of the problems described in those missives from the 1950s. The Grand Central IRT stop is still a long walk away from the shuttle, and commuters still have to sprint to catch the train at Times Square when the “next train” sign lights up. The shuttle is a microcosm for improvement plans that were never funded yesterday and aren’t on the table for the future.
From the start of the 1950s onward, The Times repeated a call for a river-to-river shuttle that would service the Hudson River ports, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Times Square, Grand Central and the UN area on the East Side, and it still doesn’t extend that far 60 years later. An island-wide route would have revolutionized crosstown access and would have been a true international subway. Instead, the TA and the Board of Estimates settled for a patched-up shuttle, and New York’s transit riders are still today hoping for river-to-river rail along the avenue I’m taking you to, 42nd Street.