Electric motors produced fewer noxious fumes and no obfuscating smoke or steam. Moreover, as [project chief engineer William] Wilgus explained, electricity “dispenses with the need of old-style train sheds,” because it made subterranean tracks feasible.That air-rights concept almost became the terminal's undoing, as subsequent owners contemplated the possibility of office towers replacing the open spaces of the great room and associated waiting rooms, as realized a few blocks away at Pennsylvania Station, and in an ugly form on the concourse building portion of Chicago's Union Station.
Absent the smothering smoke, soot and cinders, the depot could be expanded on the same footprint by delivering trains to platforms on two levels, the lower for suburban commuters and the upper for long-distance trains. For the first time, the entire rail yard all the way to 56th Street, to where the maze of rails that delivered passengers to the platforms coalesced into four main-line tracks, could be decked over. The “veritable ‘Chinese Wall’ ” that bisected the city for 14 blocks could be eliminated. The air above the yards could be magically transformed into valuable real estate in the heart of Manhattan.
For starters, Wilgus envisioned a 12-story, 2.3-million-square-foot building above the terminal that could generate rents totaling $2.3 million annually.
Although the terminal has been cleaned, and Lex Luthor evicted, it is no longer possible to board a sleeper for Chicago or a parlor car to Rochester or a coach to Wells River, there are still enough suburban trains to overwhelm the plant at rush hour. One such suburban service is the Harlem Line, and there's enough Grand Central material at I Ride the Harlem Line to occupy a reader all the way to Brewster.