United States

Golden age of rail travel at the world’s largest station: Visiting New York’s Grand Central Terminal

There is something immensely pleasurable about people watching in bustling city centre railway stations. Office workers rush to catch their commuter service home, friends meet on the concourse and tourists catch a train to explore another part of town. Many have cars on their driveways and planes can whisk you to the other side of the world in a relatively short period of time yet stations around the world remain important hubs in our daily lives.

Grand Central Terminal in New York – the largest station on planet Earth – is testimony to the fact that rail travel’s best days are far from over. Some 700,000 people (equivalent to the entire population of San Fransisco) pass daily through this amazing building which covers 49 acres between 42nd Street and 97th Street. It has 45 track platforms and 63 tracks in total.

Built in 1913 by the ultra wealthy Vanderbilt family to replace the 1871 Grand Central Depot which was used by steam trains, it was a monument to the arrival of electric rail travel. The exterior consists of Connecticut Stony Creek granite and Indiana limestone, which is constructed on a frame with 18,600 tons of steel – more than twice the amount used to build the Eiffel Tower.

To take in the surroundings of the main marbled-floored concourse is quite an experience and if it wasn’t for the presence of indicator boards you could easily be in a ballroom. The bright turquoise painted vaulted sky ceiling, with a gold-leaf mural encrusted with long-lasting LEDs.

Many are drawn to the 1913 four-sided glass and brass clock – said to be worth around $15 million – which is a popular meeting point for New Yorkers. Like all the other clocks in Grand Central it is incredibly accurate in that it is set to the atomic clock in the Naval Observatory in Maryland. But the attractive glass and marble information booth on which the clock stands is equally fascinating. Clerks deal with around a thousand questions a day – some as bizarre as where to rent a horse – and in the centre there is a hidden steel staircase in leading to another counter downstairs and below that a floor for them to take breaks.

What I particularly like about Grand Central is the detail. If you look carefully at the ticket windows for example, you will see an acorn carved into the wood. This is the emblem of the Vanderbilt family and is symbolic in that acorns grow mighty oak. It said something about their determination to dominate electric-power rail travel in America.

The marble staircases on the western and eastern sides of the station are modelled on Paris Opera House, but although the latter was on the architect’s plans it was not built till 1998 because the building’s owner did not think there was anything visitors would want to reach that side of the terminal.

Above the concourse, there are beautiful walls of glass – which were painted black during the Second World War to avoid the building being seen by the enemy – that not only help flood the station with light, but also allow office workers on walkways to connect to different blocks. It is quite a surreal experience watching people travel along these catwalks as it appears as if they are walking through the air.

Grand Central was the first train terminal to use ramps, rather than stairs, which continue to help keep people flowing through the station. Stores set in the marble arcades evoke an upmarket experience and in terms of income per square footage it is the most most successful shopping centre in the country.

Most people come to Grand Central to catch a train, but it is also a destination in its own right, with dining options for all budgets. On the lower level dining course, there are some 20 food outlets and the seating area feels like you are sitting in a long distance dining car. The wooden benches in this section were originally used in waiting rooms in 1913.

There are plenty of options for people on more lavish budgets as well; the plush oyster bar has been here since the day the station opened. Vanderbilt Hall with its marble surroundings and some original oak benches has some upmarket counters, alongside exhibition space. And Grand Central Market is a popular food market where commuters can pick up some food to take home for dinner.

Given how thriving the terminal seems today it is hard to imagine that in the 1970s it was not in a dingy and dirty and generally not in a good shape. Plans were even announced to tear it down and replace it with a skyscraper. But New Yorkers, with the help of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, rallied round and won a successful campaign which went right to the Supreme Court to make it a protected National Historic Landmark. Long-distance trains may have been moved elsewhere in the city (its just used by New York commuters), but visiting today still evokes the golden age of rail travel.

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