Q: Engine Bob, the other day I was using the men’s room near the bottom of the escalators that lead to the food court downstairs at Grand Central. Suddenly, there was a low rumbling noise that got pretty loud—and then, seriously, the whole room started to shake. Guys were looking around to see what was going on. Do you know what it was?
A: Consider yourself lucky. You heard a sound that rarely echoes through the bowels of the terminal anymore—or the bowels in the men’s room, for that matter. (Sorry, that was cheap but I had to take it.) Anyway, the reason for this other kind of shakin’ goin’ on at the urinals (sorry, that was cheap, too, but I had to take it) is this: About a foot away, on the other side of the wall to which was bolted the porcelain commode into which you were relieving yourself, a commuter train was rumbling past. Past? But, don’t all the trains stop at the platform ends that are, like, way far away from the men’s room? Most of them do. But not all of them. Now, the difficulty at this point is that there are two ways to go on with this question. There’s the Joe Commuter Explanation, and the Train Geek one. I’m a train geek but you are my guest, so I’ll indulge the former first and make the latter an optional read. Ready?
Joe Commuter Explanation: The train you heard was using one of the loop tunnels, which hook like an umbrella handle around beneath the 42nd Street facade of the terminal. The Upper Level has a loop and so does the Lower. The loops connect the extreme outside tracks on either side of the terminal (just think of a huge “U” with the passenger concourse nestled in the center, near the bottom, and you’ll get the picture.) Back in the day, the loops allowed trains that had come head-first into the terminal to be turned around and then switched back into the platform tracks, ready for an outbound trip. These days, because Metro North trains can be run forward from either end, turning isn’t really necessary, but it’s sometimes still done as a way to get a train from one side of the terminal to the other without cutting in front of other trains. Okay, that’s it. Good enough? Now, skip past the next paragraph.
Train Geek Explanation: Midtown Manhattan was too expensive for yard space, so the Central was forced to assemble and turn its trains up at the Mott Haven Yards, just north of the Hudson/Harlem split in the Bronx. But Mott Haven was a good five miles from the terminal, and dispatchers needed a quicker way to turn a train if necessary. Chances are the crack limiteds—which needed cleaning and commissary re-stocking—wouldn’t be turned in the loops. But the loop tracks were very useful for turning, say, an all-coach train as well as getting trains from revenue tracks over into the layup tracks along Lexington Avenue for storage or servicing. The loops were also great for moving engines around. While there is one loop for each level, each loop in turn contained an inner and outer track at its narrowest point. Tracks 38, 39, and 40 converged into the Upper Level Inner Loop; Tracks 41 and 42 would join to form the Upper Level Outer Loop. If you sent a train southbound down any of these tracks, it would re-emerge on the other (eastern) side as Tracks 1, 2, and 3—which were and are part of the layup tracks skirting Lexington Avenue and not in revenue service. Meanwhile, on the Lower Level, the arrangement was a bit more complex, with Tracks 115, 116, and 117 merging for the Lower Inner Loop and Tracks 119-125 converging for the Outer. However, the Inner Loop tracks would branch off at the centerpoint of the turn, feeding into Tracks 101-103; while the Outer Loop would continue on the larger arc and become Track 100, also part of the yard area on the extreme eastern side of the interlock. One of the Inner Loop tracks would also continue off to join the Outer Loop, past the centerpoint branch-off.
So anyway, the loops were a great idea—and still are, if one used only rarely. I’ve got two more things to add (and I know: You were just using the little boy’s room and did not want this much information. But listen, okay, because this is cool). First, the Lower Level Loop continues on past the men’s room and skirts behind the wall of the Oyster Bar’s bar and then, in the dining room, behind its kitchen. If you’re seeking to experience one of the better—and ever vanishing—Classic New York Moments, you can still have one while sitting in the Oyster Bar as a train rumbles through. The vibration and noise of the train wheels scraping on the rails brings a respectful hush over the room, and also, depending on where you’re sitting, creates little shockwaves in your martini or your water glass (the clam chowder is too thick for this effect, I’ve surmised). Finally, about a decade ago I was way down by the bumper posts of the lower level tracks and noticed that some of the rails leading to the loop were being ripped up. I’d been down there, with my camera, with the ultra-intelligent idea of actually walking around one of the loops. The sight of a pitch-black maw with NO clearance on either side of the tracks assisted me with changing my mind. But later, I was talking with a motorman friend and I asked him if he’d ever had the chance to “ride the loop” at the throttle of a train. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I used to take the old diesels around in there. It’s like another world, man, let me tell you, spooky.” He paused, then said, “It’s like driving a train on the moon.”
Imagine. All of that—on the other side of the wall where you stood peeing.