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Grand Central's multimillion-dollar secrets

On Road Trip 2010, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance to see a side of New York's flagship train terminal that few get to see, including a hidden underground station with secret presidential ambitions.

Grand Central Terminal, in New York City, handles 700,000 visitors a day. It also harbors a series of secrets, some of which are visible to anyone walking through the great main concourse. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK--If you want to know what the very latest tech toys are, don't go to Best Buy or an Apple Store. Go to the lost-and-found department at Grand Central Terminal.

That's because in a train terminal that services 700,000 people a day, and more than 2,000 lost items a month, those with the latest cell phones, laptops, or other tech gear are bound to lose them while at Grand Central. And there's a really good chance those people will be reunited with their hot new items.

"We start seeing technology as soon as it hits the streets," said Grand Central lost-and-found clerk Chris Stoll. "Yesterday, we had three iPhones [come in] and we've had iPads."

Added Stoll, "I've joked with customers that I'm going to start making my investments based on what comes through [the lost-and-found] window."

Click here for a full photo gallery on the hidden secrets of Grand Central Terminal.

As part of my Road Trip 2010 project, I got a chance last week to see some of Grand Central's many hidden secrets, as well as to learn a lot about the storied terminal's past. This is a building, first opened in 1913, and fully restored in 1998, that helped keep President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's polio hidden from the American people, that has $20 million worth of precious jewels in plain site, and that to this day provides top-secret assistance to any sitting American president who comes to New York.

But more on that later.

80 percent return rate
Since most people never have any reason to interact with the folks at lost-and-found, they probably don't realize that Grand Central is home to what may be the world's most efficient system for reuniting people with their lost items.

According to Daniel Brucker, a medial relations officer in the public affairs office of the Metro-North Railroad, which today operates Grand Central, representatives from lost-and-found departments the world over come to New York to study how the folks here do it. Most such departments claim a top return rate of about 30 percent, yet Brucker said that at Grand Central, fully 80 percent of items turned in eventually find their owners.

Walking around the lost and found, it's a wonderland of cell phones, umbrellas, backpacks, laptop computers, and one inevitable item: toy train sets. Just about all these items are kept together with similar objects and are mainly stored in boxes marked, say "Cell Phones w/info June."

Brucker explained that when any item is found or turned in, clerks in lost-and-found, or personnel in the terminal, or on trains know to quickly ask a series of questions about when it was found, on which train, the train car number, and even which seat it was found in, or whether it was in an overhead bin. They also want to know what brand it is, and, say, what kind of umbrella it is.

If found on a train or in the terminal, someone will first put the item in a lockbox, and then transfer it to a police evidence bag that is locked with a padlock, before bringing it to lost and found.

A mechanized coat rack that holds the dozens of jackets being stored in the Lost and Found department at Grand Central Terminal. Each month, more than 2,000 items come through the department, and fully 80 percent of them are returned to their owners. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The secret sauce of the department's success rate, though, is the innovative cataloging system it uses and the doggedness with which the clerks try to track down items' owners. Clerks will go through bags and purses, looking for identifying features. If there's a credit card or a driver's license in a bag, it's easy, of course, but many don't have such things. So, often, the clerks will resort to calling numbers on business cards left in jacket pockets to see if the contact knows the owner, or call the last-dialed numbers on a cell phone for the same reason.

And it's not just cell phones, purses, and jackets that turn up here. There's also artificial limbs, basset hounds, Ray Charles toys, and, of course, a great deal of technology. Indeed, Brucker said that 100 percent of laptop computers are successfully returned to their owners.

In fact, since staffers are entering great deals of salient details about found items into a computerized database, the public can now go online and enter details about items they've lost, and if there are matches, they are invited to come to lost and found and provide any final details--such as exactly what was inside that Fendi bag.

To Stoll, though, the most surprising find was probably a backpack containing 250 pairs of VIP tickets to a Dave Matthews Band concert. The bag turned out to belong to a local radio DJ who was supposed to mail the tickets to contest winners but had lost his bag. Stoll didn't get any of the tickets as a tip.

And while nearly everyone must provide details proving an item is theirs, Brucker recalled one time when that wasn't necessary. An elderly woman came in looking for her dentures, and when she saw them, she popped them in her mouth and said, "yeah, it fits." Enough said.

Secret train station
When FDR was president in the 1930s, the White House put a simple demand on the owners of Grand Central: protect the secrecy of Roosevelt's polio.

They weren't being vague: They had a plan, and that involved the construction of a secret, fully functional train station deep below Grand Central. And so it was built. Brucker took me to see it--through doorways I'm not allowed to identify, for reasons that will soon become clear--and explained what went on, and still goes on, underneath the busiest train terminal in the U.S.

FDR was from New York state and often returned to New York City. Because his physical condition was not understood by a public that likely would have been unsympathetic to seeing the commander-in-chief in a wheelchair, the president would arrive in New York on a special private train.

But instead of pulling into a normal platform and having a normal train car, FDR arrived on a custom car that contained his 1932 armor-plated Pierce-Arrow limousine. By the time the train would get into the secret tunnels, the president would be inside the limo, and when it hit the platform, the car would be driven out through special, wide doors and then into a special wide elevator. He would then alight into the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel above.

The secret train car was armor-clad, and had bullet-proof glass, which in those days meant little more than many, many layers of glass, Brucker said. In addition, a series of vents along the top of the train car were actually gun ports, and it featured unique wheel assemblies that allowed no lateral movement. That was because any such movement would have shaken FDR out of his wheelchair.

The vents on FDR's secret train car were converted to gun ports. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Today, the train car is sitting on a track in the secret train station. The FDR Museum wants it back, but moving it from the tunnels below Grand Central would be an astronomically expensive task, given that it would likely need to be taken apart, piece by piece. So until the museum ponies up, it sits hidden away in New York City.

You might think that this history would mean that Grand Central allows the public to come down to see FDR's train car, but that's not the case because of a more contemporary presidential responsibility.

In fact, when any sitting president comes to New York City, a platform and a special train car are made ready in case the chief executive needs emergency egress, Brucker said. And that means that during any presidential visit, all possible entrances that lead to the platform are guarded by a series of federal and local police, and anyone unauthorized to visit the secret station who attempted to do so would likely be taken into custody until the president leaves town.

And that's why, Brucker said, a few years ago, when the chairman of the Metro-North Railroad tried to go down to the secret station and was stopped by security, he said, sternly, "This is my railroad." To which the equally stern response was, "Not today."

Other secrets
Besides the secret train station and the wonders of the lost-and-found, Grand Central is a treasure trove of other little hidden gems.

One is actually a literal gem. When I got to the terminal, Brucker took me into the famous and iconic main concourse (see video below) and asked me if I could see the $20 million jewel that was in plain sight of everyone in the giant room. I couldn't, and later, he explained that sitting atop the main information booth in the middle of the hall is a lovely, and in fact perfectly accurate clock that is synched to the atomic clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Otherwise, however, it appears unnoteworthy.

It turns out, however, that the clock's four faces are made from incredibly valuable opal, and it was recently appraised at around $20 million.

Another little known fact involves a small hole high on the concourse ceiling. Unnoticed by most, it is actually the sole remaining artifact of a late-1950s NASA promotion in which the space agency brought a Redstone rocket into the terminal in a bid to garner public support at a time when the Russians were winning the space race.

Unfortunately, the rocket proved to be just a little bit too big for the hall, and a six-inch hole had to be made in the ceiling in order to accommodate the Redstone.

The wrong departure time
Perhaps the most clever secret of all is one that is rooted in humanity. Brucker explained that every single schedule on display in Grand Central Terminal, and indeed anywhere that lists trains leaving the terminal, are off by one minute. It's not a mistake, either. Indeed, the schedules are amiss because it seemed like a good way to handle the chaos of people running to catch a just-departing train. Rather than have them trip and fall, or drop things, or run into people or pillars, the one-minute discrepancy gives the conductors the ability to say to the running people, calm down or slow down: You still have a minute to go.

And in the world of trains, a full minute is a lifetime.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.