Power Trips

Safety concerns sparked the creation of the first electrified rails that transported passengers to and from Grand Central Terminal

By Kirk Klocke

Electrified railways are the mark of modernity in the development of any big city’s transportation system–especially in New York at the turn of the last century, when trains were increasingly going underground to accommodate a booming population. Before the “third rail” became commonplace, steam, smoke, soot and noxious fumes from locomotives polluted rail tunnels—in some cases literally killing passengers and crew.

A 1910 drawing for Grand Central Terminal. (Wikimedia Commons)

A 1910 drawing for Grand Central Terminal. (Wikimedia Commons)

The developers of Grand Central Terminal at 42 Street and Park Avenue set out to change that situation amid political pressure to clean up the city’s underground railways. To do so, they experimented, creating in the early years of the new century a secret facility—not found even in the written plan—called M42 that would house big, turbine-like devices called rotary power converters.

An old rotary converter, similar to those used in Grand Central Terminal. (Andy Dingley/Wikimedia Commons)

An old rotary converter, similar to those used in Grand Central Terminal. (Andy Dingley/Wikimedia Commons)

Electricity comes from power plants in the form of alternating current, which travels long distances more efficiently than direct current, a delivery method in which electrons flow in one direction down a single cable or rail. Engineers designing the new terminal dealt with competing evidence from two big prospective contractors–General Electric and Westinghouse. Though implementing a system of direct current was initially more expensive, they found it would save in the long run, because DC-powered train motors start faster and more efficiently. The same system is in use in New York City subways today.

The shroud of secrecy surrounding M42’s exact location in the terminal was necessary because an attack on the conversion facility—of particular concern during World War II—would have left hundreds and possibly thousands of passengers stuck and stranded in train tunnels.

Solid-state technology replaced the rotary converters in the late 20th century. The old converters still sit silently in the bunker-like sub-basement, intentionally preserved by the Metropolitan Transit Authority as treasured relics of the bygone heyday of rail travel.

 

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