Commuter Rail New York

Regional Rail for New York City – Part I

» A proposal for New York regional rail improvements.

This is the first post in a two-part series by guest author Alon Levy. This part explains the reasoning behind the proposal and the general principles underlying it. The second part, coming tomorrow, will describe the regional rail network that would emerge from this proposal.

Most proposals for commuter rail expansion in New York focus on the ends: extending lines further out, extending electrification, extending multi-tracking. The only improvements at the center, East Side Access and the ARC tunnels, are stub-ends, in line with the current thinking that commuter rail exists to get people from the suburbs to the CBD.

Although this form of operation seems natural in New York, many other cities have instead improved their regional rail system by combining stub-end lines to form lines that go from one suburb to another, through the central city, making for convenient travel between inner suburbs. Almost all subway lines work like this: nobody expects the A to run from Upper Manhattan to Midtown and discharge all riders, with a separate line running from Midtown to Queens.

A better framework for regional rail improvement in and around New York should focus on revamping the LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit along the lines of the Paris RER, the SEPTA regional rail system, or any S-Bahn system—that is, with through-routing and a priority placed on easy transfers from each line to the others, and on serving multiple city center destinations from each line. At a time when the current thinking about urbanism is to have seamlessly integrated regions, with central cities and suburbs working together rather than competing, it is ideal to run a region’s rail system like a single city’s.

Ideally there might also be integration of governance, under one agency, but this is not necessary. After all, some subway systems, such as Tokyo’s, are run by multiple companies. And the RER is run by two separate agencies, the local transit agency RATP and the national rail SNCF; the RER line B is run half by the RATP and half by SNCF, and yet commuters can travel from one agency’s section to another on a single train, without a significant wait at the boundary. No such through-running is offered today in New York.

The Need for Through-Running

The New York metro area has many stub-end terminals—Flatbush Avenue, Grand Central, Hoboken, Long Island City, St. George—as well as one station, Penn Station, which is a through-station by layout but a terminal by use, except by Amtrak. Such a configuration works in getting people to take commuter rail from the suburbs to Manhattan, but is inherently limited for all other functions.

To get from Westchester to Midtown Manhattan is easy: one need only take Metro-North to Grand Central. However, to get from Westchester to Brooklyn, or Newark, or Queens, one needs multiple transfers. The other suburbs are just as their limited in their access to secondary downtowns. Thus, at their most transit-oriented, New York City’s secondary job centers have about a 50% rail modal share. Suburban job centers are even worse: Stamford and White Plains have a rail modal share of only a few percent.

Manhattan acts as a barrier to transportation, both by auto and by rail. By train, one needs to transfer. By car, one needs to cross jammed roads and pay multiple tolls. Through-running is a way of breaking this barrier by enabling people to live in North Jersey and work in Queens and Brooklyn, Long Island, or Connecticut, and vice versa. Though some people live on one side of Manhattan and work on another today, the current stub-end use of Penn Station lengthens those commuters’ travel time and restricts their number.

Worse, the stub-end layout reduces track capacity. A rapid transit train can dwell at a through station for under a minute, even if it is crush-loaded with passengers trying to enter or exit. At a terminal, the minimum dwell is about five minutes, and mainline trains discharging all or most passengers at the terminal typically dwell more. This clogs the tracks, leading to the absurd situation that while the RER’s central transfer point, Châtelet-Les Halles, serves 500,000 daily passengers on 6 tracks, Penn Station strains to serve 300,000 riders on 21 tracks.

Such clogging increases costs down the line: the main reason the ARC tunnel is being built to feed into a new deep-level station rather than into the existing Penn Station tracks is that the existing station is unable to handle the additional load without through-running. Thus the project’s budget is billions costlier than would be an extra two-track tunnel connecting New Jersey with Penn Station.

The RER Example

The current situation in New York is similar to that of Paris until a few decades ago. Paris famously has six major train stations, each serving trains to a different part of France, with no easy interconnections. The Métro proved impossible to expand outward after World War Two: its average interstations were very short, and there were no express tracks for trains, which kept average speeds down. Thus, as the city sprawled, it found itself relying on mainline rail for its rapid transit needs. The existing SNCF suburban lines proved inadequate in getting people to the emerging job centers, and had difficult transfers.

To deal with the problem, RATP bought two unprofitable commuter lines from SNCF and connected them with new subways. In 1977 the first line, RER line A, was complete, with an east-west connection through the La Défense business center and the heart of Paris. It was built with much longer average interstations than the Métro, so that its average speed was double, enough to attract suburban commuters. The system was an immediate success, spawning four more lines. Nowadays, Paris has a billion commuter rail riders a year, mostly on the RER; New York, with twice the metro population, has 250 million among its three commuter rail agencies.

The RER’s primary innovation over traditional commuter rail, besides through-routing, is that it treats itself as rapid transit. It keeps dwells short even at crush-loaded Châtelet-Les Halles. It is fully electrified and double-tracked. It is signaled as rapid transit. Altogether, its maximum frequency is one train every two minutes in the peak direction on line A, or 30 trains per hour, on a par with a typical subway system. Traditional commuter rail can’t reduce frequencies under two and a half minutes, or 24 tph. An increase in frequency would alleviate some of the capacity issues on the LIRR and NJT, which are hard-pressed against their 24 tph limit.

Another way the RER looks more like rapid transit is that it provides some local service, on a similar level as the NYC subway’s express lines: it serves major neighborhood centers and local job centers, rather than just downtown Paris and the suburbs. In New York such local commuter service exists on the LIRR, whose lines in Brooklyn and Queens are much like super-express subways without fare gates. However, Metro-North barely has any local service, and the NJT has none. Expanded service increases ridership; New York’s regional rail system should aim to create infill stations on existing lines in Hudson County and in Queens, as well as ensure future city center construction serves major non-CBD destinations such as 14th Street. It should also avoid skipping important transfer stops such as Jamaica, Harlem-125th Street, and Secaucus Junction.

Not all through-routed systems have worked so smoothly as the RER, and none is as large. The Berlin and Munich S-Bahn are successful; if they have lower ridership, it’s because they serve smaller metro areas than Paris. However, in Philadelphia, through-running on the SEPTA did not lead to higher ridership; the problem was that shortly after the new through-routed system opened in 1982, the rail workers went on strike for seven months, causing ridership to halve. Notably, despite the SEPTA’s failure, other American cities are trying to engage in similar construction: Boston would like to connect North Station and South Station, San Francisco is planning rail service to Transbay Terminal in a way that will enable a future extension across the Bay into Oakland, and Los Angeles is planning to reconfigure Union Station to have run-through rather than stub-end tracks.

Future Connections and Development

The current market for cross-Manhattan travel is small, due to the difficult transportation. Initially, running trains through Penn Station will serve more to simplify operations and reduce costs. It will increase ridership because currently Penn Station is not configured well for transfers—New Jersey Transit and LIRR don’t even share the same waiting concourses—but the increase will not be large immediately. A greater increase in riders will come from new connections, and eventually more development.

First, connections: the Metro-North New Haven Line could already run trains to Penn Station, if only the station had more track capacity. Through-running will create this capacity: for instance, the NJT and Metro-North could agree that every Northeast Corridor Line train will continue to the east as a New Haven Line train. New Jersey Transit is planning to provide direct access between the New Haven Line and Secaucus starting this summer for Jets and Giants games in the Meadowlands.

Simultaneously, the MTA should build new stations along the Hell’s Gate approach to Penn Station from the east; current plans call for a few stations in the Bronx, and there should also be stations in Queens as far as the grade permits. Such work would make it easy to get not only from the New Haven Line to Penn Station, but also from Newark to Queens, the Bronx, and Westchester, and vice versa.

As the system expands, more connections would be created, both across Manhattan and into new neighborhoods. Such expansions, especially an extension from Atlantic Terminal to Lower Manhattan and tunnels from Lower Manhattan to Grand Central and New Jersey, will do a lot to shorten Outer Borough commutes, which are the longest in the nation. The authorities may have to build a few more stations than its plans currently call for, especially in Sunnyside and Inwood.

Second, in the long-term, transit should encourage more transit-oriented development. Plans for neighborhood improvement should be articulated for new stations, such as those included in the aforementioned plans to bring New Haven and Hudson Line service to Penn Station; at inner-suburban stations, which will suddenly be accessible from a far larger section of the region, making them more attractive for office and retail space; and around stops in existing edge cities, which will be rail-accessible for more people, potentially spurring more TOD.

The extra development near new stations is the easiest to pursue. Most of those stations will be in areas that are already dense and walkable. Those proposed for Hudson Line service into Manhattan—125th Street and 62nd Street—are already undergoing gentrification. The Bronx stations proposed for the New Haven Line are not so gentrified, but Hunts Point is located next to a run-down industrial zone. An extra stop at Sunnyside could come with air rights over the adjacent Sunnyside Yards, which one hopes the MTA would sell more competently than it has Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.

More difficult is upzoning near other stations, in anticipation of greater traffic from new connections; inner-suburban stations would gain the most from these links. It would be straightforward to create a high-density transit-oriented residential district around Secaucus Junction. But it’s less straightforward to gauge accurately whether there is demand for a mixed-use district with intensive retail and office space. We can assume that increased regional rail ridership will require more commercial development in Newark and Jamaica, but elsewhere it involves guesswork. Would Yonkers suddenly attract commuters from lines in Long Island that are joined to the Hudson Line? Would Secaucus Junction become a hot destination in itself? If Hoboken were connected to Lower Manhattan by commuter rail, how much extra ridership would there be on the Hoboken Division?

A libertarian would suggest that the government should leave this analysis to the market. However, in practice the market begs for zoning regulation, and if the government doesn’t provide it, as in Houston, then it will resort to restrictive covenants, which are far harder to change. In fact, Jane Jacobs argues that developers build what they’re used to, which is single-use auto-oriented development—hence, Houston’s urban form. To ensure this doesn’t happen, local governments will have to upzone rather than dezone.

Transforming existing edge cities to TOD is the most difficult form of development here. It can be done: Tysons Corner, a Northern Virginia edge city so auto-oriented that it has a secondary rush hour during lunchtime, is planning to convert itself into a series of walkable neighborhoods in anticipation of future Metro service. It plans to punch through-streets through subdivisions to create a grid and build sidewalks for new mixed-use development.

However, to exploit the regional rail system’s full potential, more is necessary. White Plains is walkable by edge city standards, as are New Brunswick and Mineola. The greatest problems are in edge cities without walkable cores, such as Stamford, the Edison-Woodbridge-Metropark cluster, Princeton-Princeton Junction, and the string of cities on the Hudson centered around Tarrytown. Metropark is a gigantic park and ride located next to I-95, with plenty of office parks a short drive but a long walk away. Stamford is somewhat more urban, but its street layout is barely more pedestrian-friendly than Tysons’; employers there have to run shuttles from the train station to their buildings. Such cities will have to engage in Tysons-style street grid conversion and replace parking with TOD; both actions will be contentious among suburbanites.


New York should follow the example of Paris and reconstruct its commuter rail system along the lines of rapid transit, which include through-routing first and service to multiple urban neighborhoods second. It should exploit the fact that Penn Station already has a run-through configuration, enabling through-routing without new construction, and at the same time engage in additional construction to create a similar station in Lower Manhattan.

The obstacles to implementing the above program are more political than technical. But even politics is less intractable than it seems, given the right impetus. After all, a year ago it seemed inconceivable that the US would ever entertain a $50 billion high-speed rail bill; now the debate is whether to introduce it now or in 2011. The same may be true for expanding regional rail, which, despite its lack of glamour, carries far more people than HSR.

The best time to construct such a system was 50 years ago, when the region was just beginning to suburbanize. However, as more and more suburbs try to adopt a traditional urban layout, the next decade could be a reasonable second best.

Read the second part of this post.

18 replies on “Regional Rail for New York City – Part I”

PRT has no transfers, nonstop service for every passenger and every trip, 24/7 service with no wasted capacity, low wait times during rush hour and little-to-no wait for off-peak travel, cheaper and smaller elevated track (which can avoid objections by localities who don’t want stopped or passing trains blocking traffic in the middle of town), more efficient energy use, shorter trip times, and overall lower cost than passenger rail. PRT’s grade-separate guideways are cheaper than subway tunnels and cheaper, smaller and more visually acceptable than elevated train tracks. PRT’s power requirements are low enough to allow it to be run entirely off renewable energy. PRT’s short computer-controlled headways allow it to run at similar capacities to light rail at much less expense and with better quality service. Finally, PRT can operate at a profit, eliminating the need for localities to subsidize the system constantly, and hence reducing the chance that the system’s functionality will be harmed by political and budgetary decisions.

Conventional rail transit is great, but there are inherent limitations to the technology that prevents it from being the fast, convenient and desirable mode of transit we would like it to be for local and commuter travel. PRT attempts to overcome these limitations, and it is something we should look into, along with the improvements we make to conventional transit modes to make them more efficient and desirable.

Great ideas, but I think you leave out one important thing that needs to be done: establishing some kind of fare union between the MTA and NJT commuter systems. One of the great things about the Paris RER is that it uses the same tickets as the Metro, within the city center zone; if you’re just travelling within that zone, you can literally just treat it like another subway line. Same with the Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn — in fact, any rail transit within the zone of Berlin’s transit agency uses the same ticketing system. (When I lived there I used to take intercity trains as a short cut from Zoo to Alexanderplatz using just by subway pass.)

Unfortunately, I fear this would be the hardest part of a system like this, as it gets to the heart of money collected by the differen agencies and would force them to figure out how to share it. Integrating it with the Subway fare system would also require fare cuts which probably is financially untenable.

It wasn’t so much that the SEPTA commuter tunnel was a failure, but what happened after that. The through-running under Center City was a major success for SEPTA Regional Rail, allowing trains from the Western suburns go through and continue to the Northern Suburbs.

The failure was that after the 1983 strike, SEPTA which had massive budget cuts, discontinued all service to it’s outer suburbs beyond the electrified portion of the line in 1986. This cut off areas of West Chester, Parkesburg, New Hope and Newtown from Philadelphia. That and longterm underfunding is what hurt its ridership.

Well, if you can’t fully integrate fare structures, perhaps you can settle for integrating fare payment. Here in DC, they announced that Baltimore will soon be using the same RFID card as DC’s Metro. Which is great. Except that the one system that links the two cities (MARC) won’t take it.

If there were just farecard vending machines at stations where I could tap my SmarTrip card and get a MARC paper ticket, that would be an improvement.

Oh, and DC could also benefit tremendously from integrating MARC and VRE into one system and operating through-trains. Both agencies want this, as a matter of fact – but getting it done is the tricky part.

Unfortunately, there is a bigger problem. All three commuter railroads run on different systems of electrification. The LIRR uses 750 volt top contact third rail, Metro-North uses 700 volt bottom contact third rail, and NJ Transit uses catenary.

Adam, there are dual-mode trains in operation – the New Haven Line needs them in order to run on the third rail network leading to Grand Central and the overhead catenary network in Connecticut.

Metro North NH Line use overhead Catenary 12.5 kV 60Hz, according to Wiki….though Hudson and Harlem Lines are Third-Rail only, 750V DC. MNR trains also use 750 VDC third rail running into the GCT tunnel.

The author focused on Stamford as not having enough transit share….part of the issue at Stamford is that the large MNR yard precludes some of the density needed to entice people to take the train… the commercial downtown is in my opinion too far to be walkable by many residents and office works. Luckily, Stamford is looking at a tram/trolley system to loop its downtown and connect the station to the

My wife and i live 5 stations from Stamford and she works there, but the train is not realistic even though traffic is horrendous because her office is almost 2 miles from the train…not really walkable. Her office would be on the proposed trolley line though. This same issue is repeated all over the MNR towns, as the surface transportation grid doesn’t truly support the train.

It depends on the city, really. White Plains has a largish downtown grid. Stamford and Tarrytown don’t, which means they need new street plans, on the model of Tysons Corner. The tram/trolley system can help, but it needs to have short headways, and come together with walkable streets. I’d also propose scrapping regulations that mandate minimum parking.

Great post Alon Levy. You articulated my views perfectly.

Better linkage and integration of the three commuter rail agencies in the Greater New York Region is a must. Connecting Hoboken Terminal with Atlantic Station via Lower Manhattan is a great idea and far overdue. Also, connecting Grand Central with Atlantic Station and NJ Transit is key as well. A spur line connecting Grand Central with the Hoboken Terminal-Atlantic Station line would do the trick.

It is a shame that the answers to having a much better transit system in this country are out there and in practice in other cities but have just not been implemented in this country!

I know about the M2s and M4s (and the upcoming M8s) used on the New Haven Line. However, the problem with them is they can’t go through the phase gap in New Rochelle that would allow them to access Penn Station and continue into NJ. And even if they did, they’d be restricted to the NEC because they can’t go through the phase gaps on the other lines. Only electric locos can make the phase gaps, and having electric locos on the New Haven isn’t very smart because of the Cos Cob bridge, which is not electrified. I don’t know if they can go through phase gaps with a Third Rail between New Rochelle and Penn Station, and if they can, I’d support it. But there’s still the issue of the phase gaps in Kearney and somewhere on the NJC line.

And this still doesn’t solve the issue of the LIRR, which is probably more important than MN. There are no dual mode MUs there, and third rail locos are a really bad idea in my opinion.

“It takes more than a good idea to make a great public improvement. The fact is that such things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years.” – Robert Moses

The run to Giants stadium is just such a limited objective. We’ll be glad if it goes well but still the political economic forces are simply not aligned to rearrange things along these lines in any reasonable time frame.

Adam, the entire NEC south of New Haven has the same 11 kV 25 Hz electrification, and I believe that so do the electrified lines of the NJT. North of New Haven the electrification is 25 kV 60 Hz, so Amtrak has to run dual-voltage locomotives on the line, but this is of no concern to New York area regional rail.

You’re right that the LIRR has a greater problem, but it shouldn’t be too hard to get the M2s and M4s to accept current from a top-contact third rail. The Metro-North and LIRR voltages are probably close enough not to require dual voltage trains.

Adam, the Silverliner IVs and Arrow IIIs now in service with SEPTA and NJT are capable of performing the same power supply change you say only electric locomotives are capable of making. The frequency change (11.5 to 12-13kv doesn’t make for a particuarly big voltage change, but 25hz to 60hz will cause a transformer to overheat) is actually located north of GATE interlocking on the Hell Gate bridge approach in Queens. Both the Arrow and Silverliners could operate to New Haven without incident. The M2s may have retained some 25hz capability, since they originally operated on it before Metro North reelectrified. But IIRC while the larger transformer core remains the firing logic has been changed and they are strictly 60hz-only. However, an M2 with its 25hz capability restored would be capable of operating to South Amboy, an important local train turnback point, in addition to serving the NEC.

Some of the Silverliner IVs were actually delivered in the 1970s with the capability to perform the sort of power supply changes NJT uses its electric locomotives to do. Unfortunately those systems were removed in the 1990s when the cars had the PCB laden transformers replaced. The Arrow III EMUs are just a simple motor and logic control board away from full mulitvoltage capability.

An M8 with 25hz capability would have been a nearly universal EMU, capable of operating under the wire or on third rail anywhere in the Northeast provided the third rail shoes were removed or retractable. Unfortunately Metro North and ConnDOT saw fit only to shave a few sprung tons off their 70 ton monster. The M8 will have a 25kv capability, which would allow it to operate through to Boston if the need ever arose. If Amtrak ever gets around to updating the NEC’s power supply (at least between ELMORA at Elizabeth or UNION at Rahway and GATE) to 12kv 60hz the New Haven EMUs could roll into NYP without any problems. They could also operate through all phase gaps on the west side of the river, including the Kearny connector (a 12kv 25hz to 25kv 60hz gap) to serve the Midtown Direct. As it is the closest we’ll have to a universal EMU will be the Silverliner V, which will be capable of using all combinations of high voltage AC voltages and frequencies in the Northeast. Even then the Silverliner V will only be “25kv capable”, with an option to add taps for 25kv operation after delivery.

Finally, locomotive operation across the New Haven line’s unpowered bridges is done on a daily basis by Amtrak. There is no impediment to doing the same thing with commuter trains because the New Haven Railroad operated accelerated local trains behind locomotives for decades without incident.

All this having been said, I’d just as soon avoid these technical problems and the political problems which are likely even more intractable by creating a system which provides the benefits of through-operation without requiring the integration of the various commuter railroads.

Great post but I would disagree about the walkability re:MNR communities in Westchester. White Plains has a density that should make it nominally walkable, but in practice it is hellish to navigate on foot due to the high speed one-way avenues and very wide road widths in the core. Tarrytown and the other river towns are dense and quite walkable – the main impediment with these communities is the extreme grade between the waterfront train stations and the downtown cores. Any beef-up of rail to these communities is going to require some kind some kind of regular shuttle bus service to connect the waterfront, downtown, and residential neighborhoods, a la the Hudson RailLink in Riverdale, Bronx.

One thing I have not heard mentioned yet is electrification of the Hudson Line up to Poughkeepsie – it is something that needs to happen sooner or later so that MNR can eventually transition away from the dual mode locomotives into a pure multiple unit-based fleet. I doubt the locomotives are a significant source of particulates as compared to auto traffic, but they are still a source nonetheless.

Actually, Alon, NJT’s M&E and Montclair electrification is 25 kV 60 Hz. The Coast Line electrification also varies: it goes from 12 kV 25 HZ to 25 kV 60 Hz. That’s why MUs can’t run west of Matawan.

Wdobner: while the MUs can change frequency, they cannot do so ON THE FLY. That requires new technology. I’m not even sure the Silverliner V will have that capability.

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