Lackawanna Cutoff Program Cleared for Engineering

Lackawanna Cutoff MapNew York to Scranton service could be ready by 2014.

Earlier this week, the EPA declared a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for a new passenger rail line between Morris County, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania. The project, if completed as planned by New Jersey Transit and the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority in 2014, would provide a new connection to New York City along previously abandoned right-of-way. The route will be served by diesel locomotive-driven commuter rail trains and cost some $550 million to build.

The project has been under study for several years now. Once opened, the 88-mile line will be an extension of New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-Boonton and Morristown Lines from Port Morris Junction to Scranton through the Pocono Mountains. Though most of the right-of-way is still in operation for freight travel, a portion between Port Morris and the Delaware Water Gap at the state line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey is abandoned; New Jersey Transit will need to install new track there on a corridor section that was last used in the late 1970s. The first phase of the project will be a 7-mile line reconstruction from Port Morris to Andover.

When the line opens, commuters will benefit from a ride taking them through some of America’s most beautiful scenic landscapes. It’s a mostly rural line, meaning that it’s unlikely to attract many passengers, especially considering that the riding time between New York and Scranton will clock in at over three hours; the existing trains between Mt. Arlington and New York Penn Station, with a transfer in Newark, take an average of 100 minutes to complete their journeys. Scranton itself only has 70,000 inhabitants, though its metro has more than 500,000, so it will likely expand commuter rail ridership by a bit overall.

34 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Avi

    The transfer is in Secaucus not Newark. And the proposed extension will still run to Hoboken with a Secaucus transfer to NYP. The train can’t run into NYP until ARC is completed.

  • Scott

    The importance of this project runs beyond Scranton. Amtrak and NYS (pushed by Chuck Schumer) are looking to run rail service from Binghamton to NYC via Scranton and the cutoff. That increases the population served dramatically, and could eventually lead to the creation of a Syracuse/Binghamton extension of service along the same ROW in the future.

  • Avi –
    If you take the Montclair or Morristown Lines from Mt Arlington, you transfer at Dover or Newark Broad Streets if you’re not on a Manhattan-Bound Train already. Secaucus doesn’t have anything to do with this equation.

  • Vin

    Who is going to use a Binghamton-NYC rail connection aside from college students? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea – and riding a train through the Poconos sounds nice – but, I can probably think of half a dozen rail projects in or near the five boroughs that will have a greater impact than a Binghamton-NYC rail link. It does not seem like the most effective use of the state’s money.

  • This would be a positive for visitors to the city who do not want to drive/be stuck in traffic.

  • Kyle

    “The train can’t run into NYP until ARC is completed.”

    Even when ARC is completed, it still won’t be able to run into NYP.

  • AlexB

    The route is incredibly beautiful, the Scranton area could probably benefit, and I-80 is very congested. However, this isn’t really a commuter rail line. It is a long distance interstate route that will be used by vacationers, some business travelers, people visiting friends/relatives, and a small handful of commuters. I think it is a great project, but instead of being run by NJ Transit, the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, and potentially Metro North if it continues to Binghamton, isn’t this theoretically where Amtrak should step in? It’s obvious that Amtrak doesn’t have the resources or political capital to open new routes, but aren’t long distance interstate lines supposed to be its responsibility? Eventually, if the tracks were improved significantly, it could provide a faster, more direct route from NYC to Rochester, Buffalo and Toronto.

    Also, Is there no way to speed up the trip from Mt. Arlington? Do trains ever skip stops on that line? Why so slow?

  • Woody

    “Project Cost
    $551 million (2006 Estimate). This estimate does not include property acquisition costs. The full project is not funded. The estimated cost of the first phase to Andover is approximately $37 million. The first phase is fully funded …”

    Adding Andover to the commuter network seems cheap enough. Half a billion to get to Scranton, wow. That compares, for example, to more than $400 million for a proposed subway station at 11th Ave & 42nd St on the #7 extension. But it’s not out of line with the cost of a new cloverleaf interchange on the Interstates.

    Since Jersey and Pennsylvania will apparently fund this, along with their share out of federal pot, it does not directly compete with most projects in the core of NYC. I’d be complaining too if they tried to tap the Port Authority’s funds.

    I wonder about the loooooong range possibilities for this corridor. The straightest line between NYC and Cleveland and Chicago does not drop down to pass through Philly. Perhaps someday this route could take pressure off the overloaded NEC line by taking trains to Pittsburgh and points west, as well as those heading northwest toward Upstate cities and Toronto.

  • This line is going to be all but useless for service to points north of Binghamton. The Empire Corridor is straighter and faster and hits most of the intermediate population centers. On Empire, three hours from New York, you’re in Schenectady. The only way New York-Syracuse will be faster through Scranton is if they build new tracks along the route to HSR specs; but then they might as well do that on Empire, which will serve more cities and be cheaper because of the flat terrain.

    Because of the curves, it’s not going to be of any use from New York to points west, either. They might use the alignment for HSR from New York to Chicago, but that obviates the need for the current tracks.

  • Adirondacker

    I can probably think of half a dozen rail projects in or near the five boroughs that will have a greater impact than a Binghamton-NYC rail link. It does not seem like the most effective use of the state’s money

    Not everybody lives in the five boroughs. Binghampton used to have air service to New York City, I’d have to go look but I think the best you can do now is fly to Philadelphia and then to NY. Can’t fly from Binghampton …. to anyplace in NY if I remember correctly…

    Secaucus doesn’t have anything to do with this equation.

    … sure it does. You get to look at it from track level as your train as it passes through. :-)

    Even when ARC is completed, it still won’t be able to run into NYP.

    Sure it will. They can either electrify all the way to Scranton, which I doubt they will do, run dual mode locomotives which is how trains from Albany get to Penn Station or change locomotives in Dover.

    This line is going to be all but useless for service to points north of Binghamton

    Not to people in Binghamton who want to get to Syracuse or Rochester. It might even make sense for someone in Montclair who wants to go to Utica. . . not everybody lives in the five boroughs…

    Woody, the fastest way to drive from NY to Buffalo is through Scranton. The fastest you can go legally on any of the roads between the two is 65 MPH. Via Albany, with relatively cheap upgrades, the train could go 110 most of the way, spend a bit more and 150 is doable. Between the Delaware Water Gap and Buffalo there’s lots and lots of mountains. Means the train has to go around lots of curves or they would have to build lots and lots of tunnels.

  • Woody

    Alon got what I was, er, driving at. He said, “The only way New York-Syracuse will be faster through Scranton is if they build new tracks along the route to HSR specs … They might use the alignment for HSR from New York to Chicago, but that obviates the need for the current tracks.”

    I know the current curving route is slow, that’s why it will take 3 hours to get to Scranton. But I think there could be great value 10 or 15 years ahead to having that alignment preserved.

    By one map’s measure, NYC-Philly-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland is about 577 miles, plus slowdowns for those many stops. Upgrade the Pennsy main line for many billions and it’s still a long trip.

    Meanwhile Cleveland-NYC comes in around 460 miles. With a little better than 150 mph average speed, that straight shot could be a 3-hour trip, very competitive with air and a third of the time driving a car.

    Sure, going to HSR specs would mean many new tunnels and viaducts, but they might use the existing ROW as approaches to the new segments.

    We could go that way. The NEC is so crowded that Amtrak can’t run Acelas more than once an hour. If you raise the speed, and add more trains, at some point you fill up the tracks again. Maybe sooner than you’d like.

    Then you look at the route heading west and say, We can do some work on this and get ourselves a second route. Maybe it will be the third route, after the Empire Corridor. But I could see it getting serious upgrades and heavy use by say 2040 or so.

    So I’m glad to see that this corridor will be kept viable for rail. And we’ll see what happens waaaay down the line.

  • Adirondacker

    But I could see it getting serious upgrades and heavy use by say 2040 or so.

    Probably never, not through the mountains Scranton to Buffalo. At the risk of offending people in northern Pennsylvania and southern NY.. there’s a whole lot of nothing between Scranton and Buffalo. It would take a very long time to saturate the Keystone corridor and the Empire Corridor.

    Syracuse to Philadelphia, maybe. Not so much to get people from Syracuse to Philadelphia but to get people between Syracuse and Scranton and between Scranton and Philadelphia and Binghamton and Easton and ….

  • Sean

    While providing rail access from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area to New York City is a good idea, I much prefer a more direct, high speed line that can connect the two cities QUICKLY. Upgrading existing lines doesn’t do much to increase speed.

  • Adam

    Personally, I think this line is a waste of money unless they design it for the long term, or at least leave in a “shell” of sorts for major improvements in the long term (which I would throw my entire weight behind). This includes extensions of electrification, especially if ridership exceeds expectations, maybe some track straightening in some segments or some new starts (which would be VERY costly, but could be useful in the long run, such as a track line above Route 3 in NJ so you can avoid things like the long curve between Chatham and Summit or Montclair if they choose to run the trains that way). I know I sound ridiculous here, but I do want to think long term and I don’t want the anti-rail, pro-highway Randy O’Tooles or George Wills out there to scream “boondoggle.”

    There are already some improvements on the Morristown Line that I saw (one of the two tracks is concrete tied at least to Denville).

  • It might even make sense for someone in Montclair who wants to go to Utica. . . not everybody lives in the five boroughs…

    The economics of train travel heavily favor a hub-and-spoke pattern. The best way to get from Montclair to Utica by rail should be to get on the NJT to Penn Station, and then to switch to Amtrak to Utica. Even now it should be faster than getting on the winding rail lines through the Southern Tier to Syracuse and switch there. Of course, there’s a separate line from Binghamton to Utica, but it’s very unlikely there will be any demand for both NY-Binghamton-Utica and NY-Binghamton-Syracuse.

  • They should call this the Jacobs line, as it does run from Jane Jacobs birth place to New York.

  • Jacobs would be flipping in her grave if she knew her name would be used for a rail line that subsidizes the hinterland of northwest Jersey and northeast Pennsylvania with the money of the New York city region.

  • Neither the Empire nor the Keystone corridors will be Express HSR corridors … and for an Express HSR alignment connecting into the various planned Emerging/Regional HSR corridors, a nearly straight shot from Chicago through northern IN, OH and PA would end up around Scranton.

    But OTOH it would require substantial upgrade to that alignment to allow the train to keep going above 200mph toward NYC.

  • The straight shot would save about 100 km relative to going through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which is probably not worth it.

  • But it will mostly be a new alignment in any event. And saving 100km would be worth quite a bit given the distance between NYC and Chicago. Fort Wayne / Chicago might be a common corridor, but junctions with the Emerging/Regional HSR network between Pittsburgh and Youngstown, between Cleveland and Columbus, and between Columbus and Toledo create a lot of Express HSR routes running out onto the Regional HSR network, in addition to the straight Express HSR run.

  • Trains will need to go 400 km/h anyway to be competitive on NY/Chicago with air, so going straight would save 15 minutes and cost tens of billions.

  • AlexB

    HSR from New York to Chicago will never compete with air travel for a significant share of the New York-Chicago travelers. It’s just too far. It’s hard to imagine the Keystone Corridor not being the most used route, and the one most deserving of expensive upgrades. It connects to millions more people.

    I think the idea behind running HSR trains from New York to Chicago via Scranton would be analogous to the way the Queens Boulevard express subway in New York City runs in a straighter line than the local subway. The longer a train can stay as close to I-80 as possible, the more time it could save on an overall trip to anywhere along the route west of Cleveland. And, if you are decreasing your overall distance, that decreases the amount of money you have to put into track upgrades to achieve the same time savings.

    My original comment on this post was not so much about the potential for a New York-Chicago route, as much as it was a question about which government is most appropriate to oversee a long distance train route entering multiple states. The very fact that the discussion of the possibilities of this route have been so drawn out implies that Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority and NJ Transit may not be the best long term stewards.

  • Vin: “Who is going to use a Binghamton-NYC rail connection aside from college students?”

    even assuming that you’re right (which you aren’t) college kids are a huge population. They can easily support the line by themselves.

  • Vin

    Adirondacker and Gry:

    This is a sort of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. Binghamton-Scranton-NYC would not attract enough ridership, on its own, to have a dedicated rail link (assuming a reasonable speed) without many other stops. But with many other stops, which seems to be how this plan works, the line is slow – probably slower than driving or even existing Greyhound bus service.

  • AlexB: the Queens Boulevard Line only has a one-mile section dedicated to express tracks; I-80 is almost 400 miles between New York and Youngstown. The Keystone Corridor will have to be maintained anyway, so this extra track will have to be maintained in addition to it rather than instead of it. This will increase rather than decrease maintenance costs.

  • Adirondacker

    Binghamton-Scranton-NYC would not attract enough ridership, on its own, to have a dedicated rail link (assuming a reasonable speed) without many other stops.

    The train from Binghamton doesn’t have to make all the stops.

    There are no ROW acquisition costs. The part without tracks was designed a century ago for high speeds. Almost no gradient, very very broad curves.

    The Phoebe Snow made it from Hoboken to Scranton in 3:15, the Merchants express, which made all of the stops in Penna. did it in 3:20. ( according to the 1956 schedule I checked ) I assume they are installing concrete ties and welded rail on the new parts and there’s probably a lot of it along the installed parts. An express that stops in East Stroudsburg, Dover and Newark could probably make it in 3 hours. Google says it’s 122 miles between Scranton and NYC and it takes 2:11. That’s wildly optimistic. ( Average speed of 55 MPH )

    Binghamton is a bit more of a stretch. The Phoebe Snow’s schedule was 4:27. They’d have to speed that up a bit to make competitive with the bus and driving.

  • Norman Brown

    Clearly operations are not the focus of this thread but,,,,what are the head times envisioned on this route? What sort of fare box operating ratio can this achieve? Yeah there are 30,000 students in Binghamton, half from the NYC metro area, how many trips a year do they take? Maybe 6. That is 90,000 fares. How many other asses in the seat could there be?

  • Woody

    Now this route is gonna be all of America’s trains in one route fits all? Because the part closest to NYC will just be another five-day-a-week commuter line, a little longer commute than most, but not longer than the farthest exurban outposts of MetroNorth or the easternmost stops on the LIRR.

    The Poconos may be a bit far for most five-day-a-week commuters. But it could get a lot of traffic from once-a-week and twice-a-week commuters. For example I know a couple who were living in Houston when he retired. They moved to a lovely small town. But she wanted to work a few more lucrative years. So she drove three hours to H-town every Monday morning, sometimes Sunday evening, and back to their retirement home for the weekend. Sometimes, depending on her lawyerly schedule, she would work in Houston on Monday and Tuesday, back with her husband on Wednesday, return to H-town for Thursday and or Friday. And I knew a computer jockey who worked three 11 1/2 hour days the City and spent four days with family at their home in the Poconos. Methinks the Poconos are filled with second homes that could put sometime-commuters on these trains.

    And then there’s Scranton, poor Scranton, in decline since the coal played out. PA built a toll road, the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike iirc, back in the 60s or so, to try to help Scranton. I’m sure the politicians figure that this train will somehow help Scranton. Won’t hurt it. Not sure it’s worth half a billion, but hey, trade in a couple of cloverleaf interchanges and you’re there.

    Then onward to Binghamton, and points north? I dunno. Gas is going up again, nearing $3 a gallon. Gas at $4 again will mean panic again out in AutoLand, and at $5 a gallon a train to Binghamton may look very smart.

  • Woody, there is some commuter market from the Poconos to New York. Pike and Monroe Counties in Pennsylvania are growing quickly as New York’s newest exurbs. They probably won’t support a new commuter line, though. It’d be a lot better if the New Jersey Transit spent its scarce capital funds on improving service to close-by suburbs that need it, for example Bergen and Passaic Counties.

  • Adirondacker

    there is some commuter market from the Poconos to New York. Pike and Monroe Counties in Pennsylvania are growing quickly as New York’s newest exurbs. They probably won’t support a new commuter line, though. It’d be a lot better if the New Jersey Transit spent its scarce capital funds on improving service to close-by suburbs that need it, for example Bergen and Passaic Counties.

    there is some commuter market from the Berkshires and Hudson Valley. Columbia County is growing quickly as New York’s newest exurb. They probably won’t support a new commuter line, though. It’d be a lot better if Metro North and NYDot spent its scarce capital funds on improving service to close-by suburbs that need it, for example Westchester and Rockland.

  • Columbia County’s population is down 1.7% from 2000; Pike County’s is up 29%, Monroe County’s is up 19%.

    That said, there are a lot of good inner-suburban projects in Westchester, like rail on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, connecting to White Plains. Though in terms of bang for the buck, they’re probably not even remotely close to electrification and a one-seat ride to Manhattan for the Pascack Valley, Main, and Bergen County Lines.

  • lexslamman

    After this is completed, I would like to see MTA/NJT trains extended over the I-84 corridor from Port Jervis to Scranton. Complete the triangle and provide transit into the steel town for the ‘reverse commute’ crowd. NJT is starting to grow beyond a commuter agency anyway, I am sure there are some people in Pike County, PA besides my aunt and cousins that would be thrilled to have that kind of transportation available in two directions. The point is that these trains should not just funnel manpower into NYC, but should also bring the innovation, intellect, and fiscal power of the metropolis out into the surrounding areas. It has to be built as a two way, mutually beneficial concept or people aren’t going to be using stations like Delaware Water Gap and Pocono Mountain. We’re already moving beyond just cramming bodies east of the Hudson.

  • The Lehigh Valley to the south of the Poconos has also been studying returning rail service to their region to Philadelphia and New York City. There is many more people in the Lehigh Valley and hopefully it can be as far a long in the process as the Poconos in a few years. I believe the Lehigh Valley is the 8th largest metro area without rail service at 800,000 people and in all honesty would probably attract more ridership than the Poconos. Pennsylvania is working on a statewide plan for expanding passenger rail service which is due out later this year.

  • I used to work summers for the Erie Lackawanna RR when I was a civil engineering student. I once asked some of the oldtimers about riding the Phoebe Snow out of Hoboken toward Chicago via Scranton and Salamanca.

    The answer was fairly unanimous. It was a slo-go and the train only existed because it was subsidized by the Department of the Post Office. And this was even before Rte 17 was a limited access highway and I-80 was a gleam in Gen. Eisenhower’s eye.

    The PO is no longer the destination for congressional pork so I gotta ask… who needs it and who’s going to subsidize it?

    When you put this route on the pecking order that includes Jerry Nadler’s proposed trans-harbor freight tunnel (a project that can potentially take 400 trucks/hr off the GW Bridge), I’m just a little surprised that this proposal even gets this amount of attention.

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