» A proposal for New York regional rail improvements.
This is the second post in a two-part series by guest author Alon Levy. This part describes a proposed regional rail network. The first part explained the reasoning behind the proposal and the general principles underlying it.
In the first part of this proposal, I argued that in order to improve its regional rail system, New York should through-route train services and build new infrastructure with an eye toward making more through-routing possible rather than extending the service area. In this article, I will explain how such a system may be phased. The ultimate plan is presented in the following regional rail map:
This is a long-term plan, which I do not expect to be feasible to construct before 2030. It includes not only through-routing and extra connections through Manhattan, but also extensions of electrification and some new service.
The centerpiece of this plan is a set of new expensive tunnels in Manhattan, which would allow through-running of all services and considerably improve travel times to both Manhattan and the main secondary job centers. These include four major investments:
- A new pair of tunnels paralleling the North River Tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station.
- A link between Penn Station and Grand Central.
- A north-south tunnel linking Grand Central, Lower Manhattan, and Staten Island.
- An east-west tunnel between Hoboken and Flatbush Avenue through Lower Manhattan.
The new construction may be summarized in the following map:
Penn Station access is the most important part of the system, entailing four-tracking the North River Tunnels and linking Penn Station to Grand Central; this was Alternative G in the major investment study for the ARC project. It would be cheaper to do this than to build an entirely new deep-level station underneath Penn Station as is currently planned. Completing this option instead of the current ARC project would increase operational flexibility, as the deep-level station is blocked to the east by Water Tunnel 1 and will only be able to reach Grand Central after Water Tunnel 3 is completed around 2020; in either case, it will not be able to continue through the East River Tunnels to connect to LIRR service. Note that both the four-tracking and the Penn-Grand Central link are necessary. Penn Station currently suffers from two major bottlenecks, train capacity in the North River Tunnels and pedestrian flow in the station concourses.
Despite the Penn-Grand Central connection, some Metro-North New Haven Line trains should serve Penn Station directly through the East River Tunnels. This would relieve capacity in the tunnels north of Grand Central, as well as provide service to Queens and the eastern Bronx. In addition to stations at Coop City, Parkchester, and Hunts Point, there should be a major transfer point at Sunnyside, as well as new stations in Astoria and Port Morris flanking the Hell’s Gate Bridge between Queens and the Bronx. The stations in Astoria and Port Morris would not only provide regional rail service to those neighborhoods, but also allow transfers to the proposed Triboro Rx circumferential line.
Giving Lower Manhattan regional rail access is almost as important. The MTA is already building the Fulton Street Transit Center, which would sit atop twelve subway lines and PATH; it is only necessary to bring regional rail there.
There are recurrent plans to extend the LIRR from Flatbush Avenue to Lower Manhattan. However, in order to make full use of the Fulton Street station, Lower Manhattan should be connected not only east to Brooklyn, but also south to St. George on Staten Island, north to Grand Central, and west to Hoboken.
Direct regional rail service to Manhattan from Hoboken would instantly transform the Hoboken Division of New Jersey Transit, giving its riders a one-seat ride to Manhattan. Running under Greenwich or Hudson Street in Manhattan, it could also serve the West Village with an intermediate stop at Houston Street.
Staten Island suffers from inconvenient travel to Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, by any mode of transport. A tunnel diving under Lower New York Bay would be expensive but well-patronized, as it would take close to 100% of the Staten Island-to-Manhattan commuter market, which in 2000 had 53,000 daily users and has only grown since. Continuing this link further north to Grand Central would ease commutes to both Midtown and Lower Manhattan from both the Harlem Line and Staten Island, further increasing ridership. To serve the neighborhoods on the way, there should be intermediate stops at South Ferry, which most trains could skip, and 14th Street-Union Square, where all trains should stop.
Note that despite the through-routing, some regional lines may remain diesel-operated, in which case they should terminate at either the current Hoboken Terminal or Long Island City.
In addition to the major projects outlined above, Amtrak and the MTA should work to rebuild the Empire Connection along the West Side of Manhattan with third rail electrification and double-tracking, enabling electric Hudson Line trains to use Penn Station. Extra stops at 62nd, 125th, and Dyckman would also provide service to the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights/Manhattanville, and Inwood.
In addition to the lines already used for commuter service, in two cases abandoned passenger rail lines should be restored: the West Shore Line on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, and the North Shore Branch in Staten Island. The communities those lines run through have inconvenient commuter rail, but are likely to see much more demand once links to Fulton are constructed; they are also quite dense by suburban standards. Even now there are proposals to operate light rail service on both lines, to serve growing transit needs. This may be used as an incremental solution until direct service to Manhattan is offered.
Of the two lines, the North Shore Line would be easier to restore. The line sees minimal freight traffic at its western end, and is double-tracked. Stations along the corridor still exist, though as they are too closely spaced for commuter rail, some may need to be removed.
The West Shore Line is single-tracked with many grade crossings, and would require substantial rebuilding. Current plans call for diesel service to North Tenafly, about halfway from the Hudson/Bergen county line to the New York state line. For full commuter rail, the line would need both electrification and double-tracking, as well as a new junction from the line to the Hoboken access tracks. There are two branches, separating in northern Hudson County and joining just north of the state line; New Jersey proposes service only for the eastern branch, but the western one should be used as well, as it serves denser suburbs, with a similar number of people working in Manhattan. Those commuters currently drive over the George Washington Bridge, which is used by almost 300,000 cars every day, or take the Lincoln Tunnel buses; rail service to Manhattan would provide them with faster, congestion-free commutes.
There is also a substantial market of commuters to Manhattan far past North Tenafly, and the West Shore Line should be electrified and rebuilt for passenger service as far north as practical. On the map the northern terminus is given as Newburgh, but it may be built in stages. The greatest demand is south of the state line, but there is still substantial demand in Rockland County as far north as Stony Point.
The routes depicted on the map are not the only way to through-run service. Any LIRR line, most NJT lines, and with the new connections, all Metro-North lines, would be able to serve Penn Station. The new routing through Fulton would likewise permit most lines to serve Lower Manhattan. This may tempt regional planners to offer ad-hoc through-routing, so that trains from a given line on one side of Manhattan may be sent to multiple destinations on the other side. Such an option would provide more one-seat rides, but frequencies to each destination would be low, especially at the local stations. Consequently, routes should be fixed and predictable. The fixed route principle borrows from the RER, where not only is each line its own system, but also each line’s branches on one side are permanently matched to branches on the other side.
Based on this principle, the New Jersey Transit should allocate resources away from constructing new junctions to permit one-seat ride. The current ARC plans include a direct Penn link from the Erie lines—the Pascack Valley, Main, and Bergen County Lines. This connection should dropped in favor of transfers at Secaucus, unless the Hoboken-Fulton tunnel proves impossible to build.
The maps represent my best estimate of how to match demand. This is easiest to do on lines that have a high market share and are unlikely to see an explosion in demand. With lines that are likely to see much more service in the future, this requires more guesswork. In addition, I had some extra considerations, such as ensuring all three Manhattan destinations—Grand Central, Penn Station, and Fulton—would be accessible from Jamaica.
Trains on most lines would have to be capable of drawing power from both third rail, used on Metro-North and the LIRR, and overhead catenary, used in New Jersey and Connecticut. The New Haven Line trains are already dual-mode, so this would not be a significant obstacle to combining services.
The Complete System
The red line provides local through-service on the Northeast Corridor, complementing the intercity service provided by Amtrak. Its two ends are already the two busiest commuter lines in the country, each with about 110,000 weekday rides. Extra ridership would come only from new transit-oriented development in the suburbs. This system includes the North Jersey Coast Line and the New Canaan and Danbury Branches, but not the Waterbury Branch, which is unlikely to see much ridership. About half the trains should serve Grand Central, while the other half use the East River Tunnels.
The blue line, combining the Harlem Line with the Staten Island Railway, would see a quick rise in ridership: the Staten Island-Manhattan rail tunnel would likely cause a major modal shift, bringing daily rail ridership to 100,000 on that segment. The line’s northern end would be Southeast, with no further electrification due to low demand; there is already relatively little demand in northern Westchester County, so most trains would terminate at White Plains or North White Plains.
The purple line connects the Morris & Essex Lines and the Montclair-Boonton Line to the LIRR Main Line and some of its branches. There is more demand to the east than to the west, so some LIRR trains would use East Side Access and terminate at Grand Central. All trains serving stations beyond Great Neck and Ronkonkoma should be so diverted, as those segments are single-tracked; through-routing requires relatively symmetric service, which requires two tracks. The single-track section from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma could be double-tracked, but further east there is no demand; on the Port Washington Line, there is no room for double-tracking beyond Great Neck. The total weekday ridership on all lines in the system is currently 150,000, and would only increase with suburban TOD.
The green and brown lines form a system combining the Port Jefferson, Raritan Valley, and Hudson Lines; the Hudson Line, which is the busiest of the three, can enter Penn Station from both directions, helping match ridership. All lines should be fully electrified early as their diesel sections already see many commuters. Total ridership is currently 100,000, but would markedly increase with TOD in Yonkers and Tarrytown and electrification on the Raritan Valley Line.
The yellow, orange, and aqua lines run on the LIRR’s Montauk and Atlantic lines through Fulton and the NJT’s Erie lines, including the West Shore Line. The aqua line to West Hempstead would run exclusively to Grand Central. The Montauk Line would be matched with the West Shore and Pascack Valley Lines, the Long Beach Line with the Main Line, and the Far Rockaway Line with the Bergen County Line. I project relatively high West Shore traffic, as its cities have more Manhattan-bound commuters than the other Erie lines. Electrification on the Port Jervis Line is provided only as far as Harriman, as beyond that the line is slow and circuitous and cannot compete with cars. Total ridership is currently 90,000 on the LIRR side and 33,000 on the NJT side, but direct connections to Manhattan and West Shore Line service should raise and equalize the numbers.
The goal for the complete system should be a doubling of ridership. Currently, about 400,000 people use the three commuter rail systems every day. This compares with a total market of 750,000 people, consisting of traditional and reverse commuters, as well as people who live in the suburbs and work in an Outer Borough with good rail access or in a suburb on the other side of Manhattan. Although with TOD we could see a higher suburb-to-suburb modal share even without crossing Manhattan, most riders would still be traditional commuters, and much of the initial increase in ridership would come from the new connections to Staten Island and the Erie lines.
Fares and Fare Control
In order to speed up service and save labor costs, the regional rail system should mimic rapid transit and have fare gates instead of conductors who collect tickets. This is not unusual for mainline trains—even intercity trains sometimes have fare gates, for example on the Shinkansen. A rider would have to swipe at both entry and exit, as fares would remain distance-based.
The fare itself may be kept at its current levels. However, the fare systems would be unified, so that one could travel from one suburb to another on one ticket. As this would involve travel in both the peak and the off-peak directions, such a combined ticket should not cost more than a ticket from the further of the two suburbs to Manhattan. This would provide a discount to people making use of through-routing, who are essential to the system’s full success.
The fare gates may be placed either before or after station retail. At major stations such as Penn Station and Grand Central, the retail should be outside fare control, and through-tickets should allow one to swipe out and back in within a time limit without paying an extra fare. However, at transfer stations with little origin and destination traffic, such as Secaucus and Tonelle Junction, any retail may be placed within fare control.
What Can Be Done Now
Without new construction, it is already possible to through-route some services, increasing the range of the affected secondary job centers. The fully electrified New Haven Line and Northeast Corridor Line can be combined to form a single regional route, as can the Morristown Line and the LIRR Main Line, which are electrified deep into suburbia. Such a system would require moving dual-voltage trains from the New Haven Line to the Morristown-LIRR line and AC-only trains from the Morristown line to the combined Northeast Corridor line, but would not need new rolling stock.
Once the Empire Connection is electrified, Hudson Line trains may continue eastward onto the LIRR as well; as an added bonus, Amtrak could then operate electrified Empire Service trains as far north as Croton-Harmon, reducing fuel consumption and improving the run time. Note that if Amtrak electrifies the Hudson Line with catenary as part of a high-speed rail program, then it would make sense to add catenary to the portion of the Hudson Line between the junction with Amtrak and Grand Central, to enable trains to run from the Raritan Valley Line to the Hudson Line without requiring the use of third rail.
Finally, it is relatively cheap to build infill stations, and many, especially Tonelle Junction and Sunnyside, would provide a big bang for the buck.
The complete system would be lengthy and expensive to construct, which means it would have to be broken into phases. The following phasing would ensure the highest-priority items are built first.
- Four-tracking the North River Tunnels, ideally with the Grand Central connection. This would complete the Northeast Corridor, Hudson-Port Jefferson, and Morris and Essex-LIRR lines but for extending electrification.
- Tunneling from Staten Island to Grand Central; this would complete the Staten Island-Harlem line.
- Restoring service to the North Shore Branch and West Shore Line. This is a low-cost stage that can be done within the current stub-end framework of commuter rail; however, at this stage the West Shore Line should be electrified and connected to Hoboken.
- Electrifying the Erie lines, and building the Hoboken-Fulton-Flatbush tunnel. With a restored West Shore Line, the tunnel is a greater priority, but electrification would be necessary immediately afterward to make full use of the new connection. At this stage, electrification need only cover the nearest and densest suburbs—say, Ridgewood on the Main and Bergen County Lines, and Orangeburg on the West Shore Line, immediately north of where the two branches meet.
- Fully electrifying the Hudson-Port Jefferson-Raritan system. This phase can be done immediately after phase 1 if there is money for electrification but not tunneling.
- Electrifying the Danbury Branch and the full North Jersey Coast Line. Ocean County is among the fastest growing in the region, and this phase may need to come earlier if the overall construction schedule lags.
- Double-tracking the LIRR Main Line from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma.
- Extending service and electrification elsewhere; the greatest demand would likely be on the Montauk Line, which would eventually be electrified to Speonk, followed by the Montclair-Boonton Line, the West Shore Line as far as Stony Point, and perhaps the Pascack Valley Line. Remaining lines on the map are marginal, and lines not on the map would likely never have enough demand to justify electrification.