Home View from Underground Video of the Day: The East River Tunnel at 63rd St.

Video of the Day: The East River Tunnel at 63rd St.

by Benjamin Kabak

While this morning I spoke of the subway extension to nowhere, the city’s original subway to nowhere involved the 63rd St. tunnel. What began as an ambitious project to bring super-express service to Queens Boulevard eventually devolved into an expensive extension of subway service underneath the East River that terminated just one stop into Queens. The entire project, which began in 1969, would not wrap until 2001.

Today, the excellent NYC The Blog highlights a 15-minute video report from the early 1970s on the 63rd St. tunnel. Take a watch:

Today, the F train serves Queens Boulevard route via that 63rd St. route, but the bi-level tunnel has yet to realize its potential. The current station at 63rd St. currently plays host to an unused track and platform that will one day be a part of the Second Ave. Subway while the lower level will be integrated into the East Side Access project. Overall, then, is one never-ending forty-year project.

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Marc Shepherd April 14, 2011 - 5:56 pm

The timeline is even a bit worse than that, as the project was approved by the Board of Estimate in 1965!! Construction begain in 1969, and was supposed to take four years. The first two stations (Roosevelt Island and 21st St/Queensbridge) did not open until 1989. The connection to the Queens Boulevard Line did not open until 2001.

Lance April 14, 2011 - 6:49 pm

Three stations actually; Lexington Av-63 St also opened in ’89.

R. Graham April 14, 2011 - 8:00 pm

I remember watching this video and another one like it a few months back. The 70s financial crisis almost completely murdered this project. One thing for sure is that it completely took the flair out of the entire plan. This was supposed to work in junction with the SAS construction, but SAS construction was destroyed all together. ESA was supposed to follow this immediately but that dream died before it could get a good jump start.

Todd April 14, 2011 - 8:41 pm

This is all kinds of awesome.

AlexB April 14, 2011 - 8:43 pm

Was this delayed because of money or mismanagement or both?

Definitely seems like a poorly planned project from the beginning, passing under the Astoria line and the Lexington line without connecting to either in any kind of remotely useful way. Seems like it should have ran under 39th or 40th Avenues in Queens and 67th St in Manhattan, with an extra stop at 31st St in Queens and the transfers I mentioned above. It would have been in a more useful location on Roosevelt Island too.

Joe Steindam April 14, 2011 - 9:49 pm

I think the specific route was set so that it could connect into the Queens Boulevard local and express tracks. After 36th Street, the lines split, so that might be why the 63rd Street line runs under 41st Ave so it connects west of 36th Street.

Also, because of how deep the line runs, I don’t know if a connection to the Astoria line would have ever been feasible, even if the line ran further north. I bet it would have been very expensive. Either way, it’s tough to judge, because the area has changed a bit since it was planned in 1965.

R. Graham April 14, 2011 - 9:59 pm

It was delayed because of the financial crisis of the 70s. It was supposed to be the beginning of the new Queens Super Express. The financial collapse deflated that plan balloon significantly.

Also the tunnel was also apart of the grand scheme of the SAS. The reason the SAS will be able to run down Broadway to begin with is because they built a hidden cross platform transfer on both levels of the 63rd Street station between Queens service and future SAS service.

It would have been very difficult to connect a transfer tunnel between the 63rd Street Station and 59th Street Station. And as mentioned the Astoria line is elevated and the 63rd Street service is well between stations by the time it crosses under the Astoria line in Queens.

John-2 April 14, 2011 - 11:35 pm

Before the financial crisis hit, the 63rd Street project had to deal with the NIMCPs (Not In My Central Park), who pretty much had the political clout to commandeer reams of copy in The New York Times as well as local news airtime fighting the MTA over destroying a playground just inside the park at Sixth Avenue, even though the MTA promised to put the playground back when the work under that area was completed. Along with the street adjustment to placate Rockefeller University, nothing’s ever gone smoothly with the 63rd Street project.

Jerrold April 15, 2011 - 11:48 am

How well do I remember that situation with the Heckscher Playground in the 1970’s!

There was an article (I forget in which paper) about that matter that ended with the words “Bulldozers now romp there”.

The trouble was that this was a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. That playground had been extensively renovated, and then had to be torn up for the tunneling from Seventh Ave. continuing northward under Central Park.
So then the Heckscher Playground had to be built again from scratch.

By the way, I believe that it has recently been rebuilt again,
but that came after more than 30 years of use.

Bolwerk April 15, 2011 - 12:48 pm

At least according to Caro, whiny parents protesting the destruction of a Central Park playground, to make a parking lot IIRC, was the first thing to ever make Robert Moses back down.

John-2 April 15, 2011 - 1:07 pm

The difference IIRC, was that Moses targeted the playground in order to allow for an expansion of Tavern on the Green, which would have been a permanent loss of recreational space. In the case of the 63rd Street extension, the MTA kept explaining that the construction would only temporarily displace the Heckscher Playground, and it would be rebuilt once the work was completed. But the wealthy and well-connected parents and others who backed the cause acted as though the MTA was building an extension of the Sixth Avenue El through the park, not the subway, and wasted time and money on fighting something that — if you went to that area of the park today — few if any people even know is running 40 feet underneath their feet.

Jerrold April 15, 2011 - 1:46 pm

I indicated above what the trouble was.

If there had been proper communication between agencies, then it would have been:
Build subway, then build new playground.

Instead, it was:
Extensively renovate playground, then destroy playground to build subway, then rebuild fancy new playground from scratch.

Also, notice how it was only in Manhattan that Robert Moses could not win.
For instance, anywhere else he could ram an expressway through any neighborhood. But, his dreams of expressways through Chinatown/Litle Italy and through Midtown got nowhere.

Jerrold April 15, 2011 - 2:15 pm

Another interesting point is that the F train uses the route that continues from under SIXTH Ave. to under Central Park.
The route that continues from under SEVENTH Ave. to under Central Park (the Heckscher Playground area) is not now used for revenue service, except when trains are rerouted.
When the Q train is finally running east under 63rd St., and then north under Second Ave., only THEN will that tunnel be part of the regular subway system.

Craig May 10, 2016 - 12:15 am

I was just wondering about that. Thanks for clarifying. This is all fascinating to me.

JS April 14, 2011 - 11:36 pm

Love how they call Roosevelt Island by it’s old name “Welfare Island”!

pea-jay April 15, 2011 - 12:25 am

The use of that discordant soundtrack is another reminder of my general dislike of filmaking from that era. Nice find though

R. Graham April 15, 2011 - 12:50 am


Al D April 15, 2011 - 9:32 am

And now we have a trunk line that bypasses heavily used stations (5 Av, 53 St and Lex/53), Improving, non-stop.

R. Graham April 15, 2011 - 12:13 pm

It’s purpose was to be a Super Express. Not only was it intended to by pass stations like those, it had to in order for a new tunnel to even be possible while linking to Roosevelt Island. The real purpose was to aid Second Avenue and draw people away from the 53rd Street line. It was understood even back then that people wanted to go to East Midtown and 63rd was meant to help in that regard by providing the link to southbound Second Avenue with new service.

AlexB April 15, 2011 - 12:39 pm

If you are trying to have a super express, then one would think you would want to design it with fewer stops. Whether the F goes under 53rd or 63rd streets, it still stops the exact same number of times, with no time saving to Rockefeller Center.

How much time would this super express have really saved anyway? It was going to skip, what, like 2 stops in Queens? I don’t think it would have added much (if anything) to capacity. And aren’t the E and F trains fast enough? I’ve always thought those were some of the best express routes in the city.

Bolwerk April 15, 2011 - 12:56 pm

I believe the super-express was a 1-track bypass that would have skipped to Forest Hills in the peak direction. I don’t think the project was so much about speed. Given the nature of peak-direction travel, it would have added a non-trivial amount of capacity and probably improved throughput. Given how many people really are going to Forest Hills or beyond, it makes sense.

Jerrold April 15, 2011 - 2:25 pm

I’m glad that I’m not the ONLY person who is bothered by that fact.
When they built the pedestrian tunnel that linked the 51st St. station with the Lex/53rd St. station, everybody was happy that we FINALLY had free, underground transferring between
the E and F lines and the Lexington line.
Then they permanently rerouted the F away from the 53rd St. line.

R. Graham April 15, 2011 - 7:24 pm

I remember that platform pre-December 16, 2001. It was an outrage. I never seen a platform more dangerous anywhere else in the city. Something had to be done. Moving the F helped but it screwed a lot of people over in the process. The V was pointless. Ideally in a better world the V would’ve been of more use going from QB southbound on a new Second Avenue Line from 63rd Street. That would’ve allowed the F to stay put.

John-2 April 15, 2011 - 1:17 pm

The one positive thing I’ll say about the long delay in finishing 63rd Street was, at least as far as LIRR East Side Access goes, it gave the MTA the chance to rethink the terminal and come up with the deep cavern station at Grand Central. That’s a better location than the original plan, to dump everyone off at a brand-new terminal on the west side of Third Avenue at 48th Street.

While the revised option will add even more riders headed downtown to the 4/5/6, the original MTA plan basically dumped riders off on the east side of midtown with no adjacent mass transit infrastructure except for the M-101/102 buses (and the 48th Street site still would have dumped more people onto the downtown Lex, either at GC or 51st Street).

R. Graham April 15, 2011 - 7:31 pm

Anyone riding LIRR trying to make their way downtown ideally are going to Atlantic Terminal. It’s a lot easier ride to Lower Manhattan from there as opposed to Grand Central. Commuter rail to Grand Central is truly made for those who work in Midtown. Even though that’s not the case for a lot of people who ride Metro-North then switch to the Lex.

One thing would be extremely helpful for the pitiful dwell times of Lexington Avenue trains in Grand Central and that’s finding some way to extend Metro-North service to Lower Manhattan. But obviously it would only benefit one branch because I see no real logistical way of extending Metro-North downtown from Grand Central itself.

Peter April 15, 2011 - 8:46 pm

The ‘super-express’ portion was to be built along the LIRR right-of-way, from the Sunnyside yards, and then rejoining the Queens Blvd line at Yellowstone Boulevard.


R. Graham April 16, 2011 - 6:39 pm

The current 63rd Street tunnel was fully intended to lead to what would’ve been the Super Express tunnel.

However I have the feeling that service would’ve been curtailed by rain every time the storm clouds rolled in.


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