IEEE Milestone Honors the Electrification of New York’s Grand Central Terminal

The project introduced innovative locomotive designs

22 July 2016

Many technologies designed at the turn of the 20th century to electrify Grand Central Terminal continue to be integral to today’s electric railroads. The electrification of the railroad station was fundamental to New York City’s growth and development. About 84 million people pass through the station each year.

The electrification project, which lasted from 1906 to 1913, was honored on 15 June with an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.


Before trains were electrified in the 19th and early 20th centuries, steam locomotives pulled trains on elevated railways, which blocked sunlight and rained cinders on the pedestrians below. Also, the steam and smoke from locomotives polluted the air and deposited filth on buildings in the vicinity.

In the 1860s philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, a business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping, controlled the New York and Harlem, Hudson River, and New York Central railways. From 1863 to 1867, all three lines traveled along a busy four-track route that, for the final 8 kilometers, cut below the street level of Park Avenue. They traveled to the Grand Central Depot, on the site of the present Grand Central Terminal. The smoke and steam made signals in the Park Avenue tunnel difficult for locomotive drivers to see.

On 8 January 1902 the engineer of an inbound New York Central train missed an obscured stop signal in the tunnel and rear-ended a stopped commuter train from Connecticut. Fifteen people were killed. In response to public outrage, the state legislature passed a law banning steam locomotives from Manhattan, effective 30 June 1908.

William John Wilgus, chief engineer of the New York Central railway (and its 1903 vice president), had been interested in electrifying the line before the collision. He and Frank J. Sprague, who was already well known for his design of electricity-powered trains and multiple-unit control (a method of simultaneously controlling all the traction equipment in a train from a single location), met in 1902 to discuss ideas.

Many questions had to be answered. To quote Frank Rowsome Jr.’s biography of Sprague, The Birth of Electric Traction, published by the IEEE History Center, “The technical problems were immense…alternating or direct current; third rail or overhead wire; moderate or high voltage; electrify only to the tunnel’s mouth (where there was no space for locomotive changes) or farther out; and if so, how far?”


One of the first decisions made by Wilgus and Sprague was to electrify the tracks all the way from Grand Central to the North White Plains (New York) station on the Harlem Line (a distance of 38.6 km) and from Grand Central to the Croton-on-Hudson station on the Hudson Line (53 km). It also was decided that the trains would get their power from a third-rail system. The electrified train Sprague designed for Chicago in 1898 also used such a system. Sprague strongly recommended 660-volt DC instead of AC for propelling the trains. For electrifying the routes, he proposed using 11,000-V AC power connected from the power plant to substations along the way using overhead high-voltage wires and then converting it to 660-V DC for the third rail.

Sprague and Wilgus designed and patented an upside-down, or underrunning, third rail to carry the electric power. With an underrunning third rail, the contact shoe from the train touches the bottom—and not the top—of the electrified rail. Such a system was safer than having the train receive its power from an overhead catenary. The top of the rail also could be covered to minimize accidental contact by track workers, as well as to prevent the buildup of ice and snow from attenuating the trains’ electrical contact.

An underrunning third rail is still in use on the lines except for the tracks owned by the former New York, New Haven, and Hartford railways, which are still electrified using overhead AC.

Trains running in and out of New York City were electrified by 1907, a year ahead of the deadline. Between 1903 and 1913, Grand Central Depot was torn down in phases and replaced by the current Grand Central Terminal. The new facility expanded railroad capacity, because the electric trains, unlike the steam locomotives, could go in reverse and did not need to be turned around. Therefore, tracks that were originally designated for that purpose could be used by additional trains.

Electric trains freed land surrounding Park Avenue for development because, in the absence of the smoke from steam trains, living and working there became more appealing. Significant suburban development in southern New York was encouraged by the introduction of fast, frequent rail access to the business district of New York City.

The terminal remains the busiest railroad station in the United States in terms of the daily number of commuters and visitors, many of whom shop in its stores and eat at its restaurants.


The Milestone dedication ceremony was hosted by Metro-North Railroad in the terminal’s marble Vanderbilt Room. Howard Michel, 2015 IEEE president, kicked off the event and spoke about the importance of the Milestone and IEEE’s pride in the achievement. He then unveiled the Milestone plaque on behalf of IEEE.

Also participating in the ceremony was Region 1 Director Ronald Tabroff, an IEEE life senior member, who presented a letter of congratulations to the IEEE New York Section on behalf of the IEEE History Committee, as well as certificates to each of the three proposers, Joseph Cunningham, John Sprague, and Robert Walker.

Sprague, the grandson of inventor Frank J. Sprague, was the keynote speaker. He described the history of the electrification from a technical standpoint. Three generations of Sprague descendants were at the ceremony: grandsons, a great-grandson, and a great-great grandson.

The plaque was mounted in Grand Central Terminal next to Track 32. It reads:

Grand Central Terminal, in continuous use since 1913, was the first large-scale railroad electrification project, a development that enabled it to become a major railroad terminal. The design of the terminal included several notable achievements in the field of electric traction, such as innovative designs of electric locomotives, multiple unit (MU) control of electric rolling stock, and the pioneering use of underrunning third rail.

Robert Colburn is the research coordinator at the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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