The 42nd Street Shuttle is a quirky relic of New York City subway history. When the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened city’s first subway in 1904, the current east-west jag across 42nd Street wasn’t a shuttle at all. Rather, it was a key part of the route from the now-abandoned City Hall stop to 145th St. and Broadway. But 101 years ago, on August 1, 1918, the 42nd St. connection was severed when the Dual Systems’ H system went into service, and thus it has remained a three-track shuttle since then. The Times Square terminal is even on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, three tracks will be reduced to two, and the 42nd St. Shuttle will see its most significant overhaul in a century, the MTA officially announced on Friday. The work will result in two-track island platforms at each end of the Shuttle, two fully ADA-compliant platforms, six-car trains and a new passageway from Times Square connecting the Shuttle to the Sixth Ave. trains. Work is scheduled to begin on August 16 and will wrap in 2022 to coincide with the planned opening of the East Side Access project.
“Making our system accessible and easier to use for all New Yorkers is essential to modernizing the MTA, and this 42 St Shuttle transformation project is another example of our progress. Instead of simply fixing the most urgent conditions, we’re taking this opportunity to truly transform the 42 St Shuttle,” MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim said in a statement on Friday (while Andy Byford was on vacation). “The project will allow the MTA to move more people, run longer trains and simplify transfers for customers between the city’s busiest transit hubs. We’re making crossing Midtown Manhattan quicker and easier for millions of customers.”
The MTA is calling this a “modernization” project, and here’s what that entails, per the MTA’s press release:
- Expanding current 4-car train length to 6-car trains: The consolidated track operation will also allow longer 6-car trains to enter the terminals, increasing total peak-hour capacity on trains by 20 percent
- Centralizing the three-track operation to two tracks on one platform: This will make it easier for customers to identify and get to the next arriving train
- Reconfiguring the current operation from three tracks on a curve to two straight tracks: This will eliminate large platform gaps, making the shuttle fully accessible for mobility-impaired customers, including wheelchair users, and increasing overall platform safety
- Replacing the current signal system, which dates back to the 1930s, with new modern signals
- Upgrading the terminal’s electrical infrastructure and adding new crew facilities
It’s not clear though if this is a true modernization effort, leading to a fully automated shuttle, and the six-car configuration could lead to two-person train operations along 42nd Street. It’s also not clear what the reduction from three tracks to two will do to train frequency, but considering short run times, any change in the number of trains per hour should be minimal. The reconfigured track layout will reduce delays on the Times Square side, and the MTA promises a 20% increase in capacity.
They key to both ends of this project though are the reconfigured platforms. Track 2 met its demise back in 1918, and now Track 3 will be covered over. At Grand Central, the new platform, according to the MTA, will be one of the largest in the entire system. At Times Square, the trains on Track 1 will no longer open toward the IRT and BMT complex, and the new platform will be 28 feet wide.
The MTA doesn’t plan to shelve Shuttle service while this project unfolds, but the agency warns of “a few extra minutes of travel time” during a.m. and p.m. peaks. At some point, after all, one the Shuttle tracks will be out of service long before the project wraps. Still, it’s about time — the MTA has been talking about this project, as I mentioned, for years.
It is worth at least a short aside on the value of this project. It’s not immediately clear how much this project will cost. In the capital dashboard, costs are a shade under $240 million for ADA accessibility upgrades and around $30 million for the station reconfiguration work, but the press release did not include a price tag. The MTA states that over 100,000 riders per day take the Shuttle, and the train alleviates pressure on the 7 — which would be unable to pick up most of the slack. Short of turning 42nd St. in a true transitway — Vision42, anyone? — the Shuttle work is required for ADA compliance purposes and to streamline operations.
Ultimately, though, the Franklin Ave. Shuttle is better, and I will stand by that opinion.