A century of great railway romance

Chris Coplans celebrates 100 years of New York's Grand Central Terminal

Just as a suave Cary Grant did while trying to make his escape from New York in Hitchcock's classic 1959 thriller North by Northwest, I'm standing at booth 15 on the main concourse of Grand Central. Unlike Grant, I'm neither suave nor attempting to flee from secret agents. Instead, I'm embarking on a leisurely train ride upstate. Ticketless Grant snuck onboard The 20th Century Limited, the overnight sleeper to Chicago, whereas I will legitimately board the 08.12 to Poughkeepsie.

Grand Central Terminal – to give it its official title – celebrates its 100th anniversary on 1 February. A number of events are planned to commemorate the occasion (with some of Grand Central's restaurants undertaking to sell food at 1913 prices).

The fact that Grand Central still stands in all its early 20th-century glory is something of an accomplishment in itself. In the late 1960s, plans were afoot to demolish the historic building, a fate that had already seen the ravishing old Pennsylvania Station destroyed, to make way for the new Madison Square Garden stadium.

The plans to flatten Grand Central drew huge opposition, most prominently from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She campaigned to save it, saying, "Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?"

However, when I first visited Grand Central in the 1980s, one could have been forgiven for asking what was actually worth saving. The romance and elegance of the place had been sucked out by decades of neglect. The roof leaked; the stonework was crumbling away and pollution and dirt had stained the rich tapestry of its surfaces. Commercial billboards and blackout paint – dating back to the Second World War – blocked out natural light. Grand Central had been colonised by the homeless and the transient; it was not a place in which to linger.

Happily, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which took over the operation of Grand Central in 1994, undertook major renovations to restore the Beaux Arts building to its 1913 splendour. Although the British were the first to lay tracks below street level 150 years ago on the London Underground – another railway to celebrate an important birthday this year – the genius of the Grand Central designers was to build the platforms underneath the terminal, rather than cluttering up the main building. This allowed for the creation of the cathedral-like, cavernous grand concourse: 124ft high and 275ft long. It was built to celebrate railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt's ever-expanding empire.

Today, as you walk in through the Vanderbilt entrance and on to the elevated balcony that overlooks the main concourse, shafts of light beam through the vast windows, creating shimmering pools on the floor. Above is the elaborately decorated astronomical ceiling, only recently revealed during the ongoing restorations. It had been obscured by decades of what had been thought to be coal and diesel but turned out to be tar from cigarette smokers.

Sharp-eyed observers might notice that the night sky has been flipped backwards. Apparently when this was pointed out to the Vanderbilt family, it claimed that the ceiling reflected God's view of the sky from outside the celestial sphere. It seems slightly more likely that the image was reversed by accident.

In the centre of the frenetic concourse is Grand Central's most recognisable object, the four-faced clock on top of the information booth, where – according to one of the many Grand Central guides – more than 1,000 questions an hour are fired at its helpful staff. The clock faces are made from opal; the clock itself is valued at over $10m.

Within the marble and brass pagoda lies a "secret" door that conceals a spiral staircase leading to the lower level information booth. Further down is a platform – number 61 – that was apparently used only once, in 1944 to convey a paralysed President Franklin D Roosevelt in his armour-plated Pierce Arrow directly into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, thereby avoiding the public. Another "secret" sub-basement power station, known as M42, is under the terminal but the exact location is a closely guarded secret.

On the main concourse, the Michael Jordan Steakhouse perches on the balcony, the grand staircases of which were modelled on the Paris Opera House. It's a fine vantage point from which to people watch and marvel at all this transit splendour. There's none of the hectic retail babble of a London terminus; indeed, the only commercial outlets on the concourse are the steakhouse and the Cipriani Dolci Italian restaurant on one balcony, and an Apple store opposite.

Below the main concourse is a dining concourse that, apart from a rather dingy Starbucks, contains only private outlets and small franchises. Take one of the eight restored 1913 passenger lifts down to the ornate Grand Central Oyster Bar or, for those with a cupcake addiction, the small Magnolia Bakery of Sex and the City fame.

Three lines run out of Grand Central. One serves the Hudson Valley; the Harlem Line winds north into Westchester County; and the third takes passengers out to coastal Connecticut. Today I'm taking the train to the end of the scenic Hudson Line. Tickets can be bought at machines and booths on the concourse; my return fare is $31.50. The tracks run directly below glitzy Park Avenue and the train emerges from the darkness at 97th Street, rising on to the elevated tracks for its first stop at Harlem 125th Street.

From there, the route continues north before crossing the Harlem River and into the Bronx. The tracks follow the Harlem River, which joins the Hudson River within a few minutes, after the splendidly named Spuyten Duyvil station. Make sure that you are sitting on the left-hand side seats for the best views of the river. At times the track hugs the waterside. You feel as if you could almost jump into the Hudson from the platforms of small riverside stations such as Riverdale and Ludlow, just 15 minutes from Manhattan. Sailboats bob in the breeze, and there's the impressive high bluff of the Hudson's west bank.

My favourite stop on the way to Poughkeepsie is Beacon, one of the jewels of the Hudson River Valley, just over an hour's train ride from Manhattan. The small town is awash with bohemian cafés, art galleries and boutiques and has attracted artists such as identical twin brothers Mike and Doug Starn. More importantly, Beacon is the home of the Dia Art Foundation. The Dia Beacon occupies a former Nabisco factory, which means it can exhibit some colossal works. There are some stunning sculptures here by Richard Serra, a Louise Bourgeois spider and large-scale works by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

The train continues north along the east riverbank. The reason Poughkeepsie is so popular is its proximity to the fascinating Franklin D Roosevelt Home and Library at nearby Hyde Park. Time your visit to coincide with the National Park service tour, which picks visitors up at the station (arriving on the 10.35am train) and includes a guided tour of all the Roosevelt sites as well as one of the Vanderbilt's suitably extravagant mansions.

I make my return as the sun sets over the Hudson. By the time the train crosses the Harlem River, the sparkling Manhattan skyline has started its evening light show. Back at Grand Central, I make my way across the grand concourse. Here secret lovers steal one last kiss before their suburban commute home; rugged movie heroes make their escape from their devious pursuers. Grand Central is the most romantic of all railway cathedrals.

Manhattan transfers

At weekends, the Harlem Line train stops at the Appalachian Trail station, which is really no more than a bench in the woods. Climb down from the train and you are on the Appalachian Trail.

On the New Haven Line, an hour's ride from Manhattan, is the charming Connecticut coastal town Norwalk. Take a boat trip out to the islands in the Long Island Sound. Restored Washington Street is full of cafés, restaurants and boutiques.

If you don't have the time to travel outside the city, opt for a New York City getaway. Wave Hill is a 28-acre garden oasis and cultural centre overlooking the Hudson River on the outskirts of the city. Take the Hudson Line to Riverdale station where a free shuttle service is available.

See bit.ly/ManTran for more information.

Movie magic

Grand Central has been used extensively in the movies. Hitchcock loved it and first used it in 1945 for Spellbound (he also shot in the original Penn Station), and again in 1959 for North by Northwest. Passengers on the main concourse spontaneously burst into dance in The Fisher King and bounty hunter Robert De Niro makes his escape with mafia informer Charles Grodin from Grand Central in Midnight Run. Brian De Palma staged a magnificent shootout there for the finale of gangster flick Carlito's Way with Al Pacino.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Chris Coplans travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers three nights at the Roosevelt or 70 Park Avenue from £689 and £715 respectively with flights on Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) from Heathrow to JFK or Newark. BA flies the same routes. Delta flies from Heathrow to JFK; American Airlines flies from Heathrow and Manchester to JFK; and United flies from six UK airports to Newark.

More information

grandcentral terminal.com; mta.info/gct; nycgo.com. Audio tours can be purchased from the "GCT Tour" window on the main concourse for $7(£4) or the official app for £2.99.

The Grand Central Partnership sponsors a free walking tour (001 212 883 2420; grandcentralpartnership.org).

To see more of Chris Coplans' photos of the trip, visit: coplans.co.uk

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