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May 16, 2010

More Secrets of Grand Central

There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. (Note: It’s a ‘terminal’ not a station, because there are no ‘through-trains’).

As the destination of over 55,000 daily commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where we spend a fair amount of time. But rather than rush to or from your train, next time you’re in GCT, look around and enjoy some of its hidden secrets.

Based on 40+ years of commuting experience, here are some of the nooks and crannies within the station that I find most fascinating… and useful.

The Million Dollar Clock: The famous clock atop the information booth in the main concourse looks good for a reason. Its four faces are made from opal, valued in excess of $10 million.

Look Up: Most people know about the zodiac ceiling painting in the main hall. But did you know the night sky is actually reversed? Or that, in its cleaning of soot and cigarette smoke years ago, one small rectangle was left in its darkened form? Just look in the northwest corner of the ceiling.

Underground Access:
Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way underground from blocks away. The new north-end access afforded at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street, and the Helmsley Building at Park and 45th Street walk-ways are dandy. But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park? There’s also a tunnel under Lexington Avenue directly from the Chrysler Building.

Fastest Way from the Lower Level: Many trains from Connecticut dump you on the lower level. But forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level. Instead, walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. It will take you to the upper level or, better yet, punch “E” and you’ll emerge within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).

Washrooms with No Wait: The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line. Take the nearby escalator up one level, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar. Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few, and staffed by a full-time attendant.

Best Place to Get a Cab: Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt. Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs, and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue. Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd Street. Taxis flow through here, leaving off passengers every few seconds. If you are heading west you’ll also avoid the heavy traffic on 42nd Street.

Recycling but Not Re-Reading: When newspaper recycling came to Grand Central in the 90’s, it apparently worked too well. Papers tossed into the open bins were too easily retrieved and re-read by others. To curb the loss in sales, the New York Times paid to have the bins capped and recycling increased by a ton of paper a day.

These are a few of my favorite “secrets” of Grand Central. Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

May 04, 2010

Bar Cars, The NY Times & The Truth

In an earlier life I was a journalist. A pretty good one too, winning awards in my time at NBC News and local stations. We used to have a joke in the newsroom about sloppy reporting, commenting that a reporter “should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

That rubric came to mind when I first read the NY Times’ April 20th feature on pending demise of Metro-North’s bar cars. I had spoken with the reporter, Michael Grynbaum, about the story. I even sent him to talk to others involved in the efforts to save the last commuter rail bar cars in the US.

But despite our conversations, he got the story wrong. Very wrong.

As I have written here before, the eight bar cars serving Metro-North riders in Connecticut are vastly popular but often under threat. When ridership peaked before the recession, there was some talk of adding seats to the bar cars, doing away with their 1950’s style banquette seats. Some of the old bar cars were literally being held together with duct tape while other cars of the same era went thru rehab, getting new electronics and cleaned interiors. Clearly, the priority was seats, not in-transit bar service.

But as of today, our sacred bar cars have been rejuvenated, having gone through the railroad’s CSR (Critical Systems Replacement) program. The cars are good for another 15 – 20 years and there are no, repeat NO, plans to remove them from service.

What is at question is whether we will see bar car designs for the new M8 car coming on line later this year. Here is where the NY Times got the facts wrong.
The paper implied that CDOT and Metro-North had no designs for an M8 bar car. Not so. The CT Rail Commuter Council has seen those designs and we’ve been told in recent days they are in the hands of Kawasaki, the M8’s builder, for bids.
Why would the state be seeking bids on an M8 bar car if they were being eliminated?

But remember that old newsroom mantra: “Never let the facts… etc.”

The Times also implied that when the new M8 cars come into service, all of our older cars (including the eight bar cars) would be scrapped. Not so. CDOT and Metro-North have long planned to retain about 150 of the rehab’ed cars, including the bar cars.

So even if there is no M8 bar car (and I have every confidence there will be), we’ll still have the older models. Ipso facto, the NY Times was wrong. But here’s where the fun begins.

Every media outlet in the NY area ran with the Times’ story, none of them even checking with me (as they usually do) to get the facts. If it was in the NY Times, it had to be true! Wow… what a lesson we’ve learned.

The day after the Times’ story came out, I reconfirmed my facts with the CDOT and Metro-North officials at our long-scheduled Commuter Council meeting. The next week was spent playing one-man truth squad, setting the record straight with commuters, lawmakers and media.

I even e-mailed the NY Times asking for an official correction. Surely, I thought, some editor would see the factual errors their reporter had committed and set the record straight. But of the list of factual flaws I cited in the original article, only one was acknowledged in a tiny correction printed April 28th…

“An article last Wednesday about the uncertain future of the bar cars on the Metro-North Railroad referred erroneously to their interiors. They are decorated with wallpaper designed to look like wood paneling; they do not have actual wood paneling.”

That’s the best I could elicit from the NY Times’ editors, perhaps the smallest of the mistakes I showed them. That the other mistakes were not corrected, or even acknowledged, speaks to the sloppy journalism and arrogance of this once great newspaper.

How sad.