For weeks, the ideal stage had been set for the full launch of Grand Central Madison, finally connecting the Long Island Rail Road to the bedrock of Midtown Manhattan.
Or so it seemed.
Limited shuttle service between Jamaica station and Grand Central Madison gave commuters roughly four weeks to try out the new travel routes in advance of the big day, warming them to the idea of the $11 billion East Side terminal.
But as the new service rolled out, some reinforced their concerns. While a number of service lines have been expanded, others have been completely rescheduled. And there were those who worried about inadequate direct service to Penn Station and Atlantic Terminal after timed connections would be eliminated at the Queens station, as well as through direct transfers across platforms at stops like Jamaica under the new schedules.
Then, full-service started Feb. 27, and contrary to the MTA’s calculated expectations, the ensuing first days of its historic Midtown terminal turned into the most dizzying and distressful for commuters in recent memory.
Riders — coping with the rush-hour meltdowns at Jamaica station and onboard Penn Station-bound trains — poured their anger and disbelief onto social media. Images and posts showed commuters cramming into train aisles. Others making frantic sprints to catch their connecting lines. And many finding themselves tightly jammed inside an antsy crowd of riders on waiting platforms.
By the end of the first week, MTA officials rushed to provide relief in the form of extra train cars added to roughly 30 of its busiest trains, most of them rush hour excursions on the Penn Station service routes, as well as ramping up the frequency of shuttle service between Brooklyn and Queens.
While the adjustments have managed to ease overcrowding and quell a frantic commuter flow, the fumbled full launch of Grand Central Madison has left some commuters scratching their heads — and shaking their fists — at what went wrong.
The reason, according to Long Island Rail Road interim president Catherine Rinaldi, can be chalked up to a miscalculation on how many commuters would actually shift from Penn Station to Grand Central.
The LIRR’s original service plan was designed to accommodate a “60-40” split of ridership, with most still traveling to Penn Station. So far, however, the split has been more “70-30,” although new ridership figures are still pending.
For all the initial bumps, however, Barry Kleinworm — a diamond inventory manager in Midtown Manhattan — said full service to the East Side was a “home run” decision.
“Grand Central station is only five minutes from my office, so I’m loving it,” the Woodmere commuter said. “Before, I had to walk 20 minutes from Penn Station. So this is a benefit for me for sure.”
It’s something that should have happened 30 years ago, said Jack Halpern, who rides the Far Rockaway branch.
“I’m a lawyer, and my office is in the Grand Central area,” he said. “But of course, I don’t go all the time what with hybrid work. It would have been really helpful to have this service pre-Covid when I was going five days a week.”
Despite the benefits, however, Halpern did note that finding his way in and out of Grand Central has proven difficult.
“When exiting the station, going up the escalators is ridiculous, so I use the elevators. But they’re not all in the same area,” he said. “Entering the station, there is no clear signage on the street level to point you to what looks like a temporary construction elevator that takes you down into the station, so they have to make the signage a little clearer.”
Melvin Medina says commuting on the Babylon branch is “not so bad,” but feels the benefits tilt toward Grand Central commuters at the expense of everyone else.
“There used to be an express train straight to Penn Station,” the commuter from Bay Shore said. “Now, by around 8 a.m., I have to transfer to Wantagh to get to Penn, and the train stops at every stop.
“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to plan ahead. But I don’t really agree with all the changes made.”
Then there are commuters like Debby Washington who say navigating the new train schedule changes has been nothing but daily stress.
“I hate it. It’s just so much confusion going on,” the Wantagh commuter said. “It’s just not organized right now. The schedule is crazy, and the trains come out of nowhere with no announcements.
“I’m paying a lot of money in taxes, and my service is not that great. In fact, it’s getting worse.”
But a lot of that might simply be a resistance to change, based on long-term familiarity to what’s already been in place — even if what’s there now wasn’t all that great.
“I think people are used to what they had before, and so if you’ve been commuting to Penn Station for decades, it definitely throws a wrench in your regular routine,” said Amy Zervas of Merrick. “I travel to both stations, but I prefer Grand Central because there are fewer people on those trains. Either way, I’ve had no issues.”
While opinions appear sharply divided, Rinaldi reassured commuters that changes are being made as needed.
“We are going to be continuously making adjustments based upon ridership and loading data. We look at it every single day,” she said. “The Long Island Rail Road team is all over the rollout in terms of looking for trends, what ridership is looking like, what trains are popular, and adjusting accordingly.”
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