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Remembering When Grand Central Terminal's Trains Went Electric

More than a century ago, the third-rail technology we still use was hammered out in the aftermath of a disaster

2 min read
Remembering When Grand Central Terminal's Trains Went Electric
Photo: Patrick Batchelder/Alamy

Despite what the old saying purports, there are new things under the sun. And they get all the press. All too often the old stuff gets short shrift—particularly if it’s under the earth.

Yesterday, at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, attention was paid to the old in an IEEE Milestone ceremony commemorating the electrification of its rail traffic (much of it underground, even then) in 1913. Present at the unveiling of the plaque was John L. Sprague, grandson of Frank J. Sprague, a chief consultant on the project. The elder Sprague was already famous for electrifying the trolleys of Richmond, Va., in the 1880s.

The Milestone was given its due recognition by the IEEE History Center, which is funded in part by the IEEE Foundation.

The electrification project got its start in 1902, when a train engineer, temporarily blinded by smoke from a locomotive’s stack, drove his train into another one, killing 15 people. As a result, the New York State Legislature banned steam-powered locomotives from entering the city after 1908, leaving engineers no alternative to electricity.

In 1903, plans were drawn up, money was appropriated, and train tracks—many already conveniently sited below grade—were encased in tunnels and covered in earth and greenery. The result was what is now known as Park Avenue. The contrast with its smoke-besmirched past jacked up real estate prices—including the associated “air rights,” the sale of which helped to fund the project.

Grand Central was fully operational by 1913, about 11 years after the idea had been proposed. (People worked faster then, didn’t they?) For a stark contrast, look no further than New York City’s Second Avenue subway line, whose first 3-kilometer stretch is supposed to open any day now—about 10 years after workers broke ground.

imgImage: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

What’s most striking about the train propulsion technology introduced back then is how little it has changed over the past century. At the plaque-unveiling ceremony, a rusty old segment of the famed, current-carrying third rail was juxtaposed with a new version, and the only visible difference is in the shinier, more conductive alloy. The shape is as Frank Sprague and his colleague William Wilgus described in their patent; the design allows the train’s “shoe” to complete the circuit by touching the rail from underneath. That way, snow and rain can’t easily interfere.

Now is a good time to put up a plaque. Grand Central Terminal is in the midst of a US $210 million facelift, and every bolt is being polished and every slab is being refurbished. Vanderbilt Hall, where the plaque was unveiled, is a marble vault with stately chandeliers and three-story windows worthy of a cathedral. It’s all very old-timey—as is the technology itself.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most technology never dies, and much of it doesn’t even fade away. Instead it continues, right alongside all the newfangled stuff. In his 2006 book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, British historian David Edgerton argues that seemingly futuristic inventions often become museum pieces (think Concorde) while some old standbys just keep on going (think the B-52).  

Nothing has come along to shove electric light rail technology aside, and it’s not for lack of trying. Just ask Elon Musk!

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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