Commuter Rail New York

New York Regional Rail: A Coda

» This guest post by Alon Levy is the third in a three-part series on a potential New York Regional Rail Network. Check out the First and Second Pieces.

In a two-part series on The Transport Politic, I previously argued that to improve Greater New York’s commuter rail service, the agencies controlling it should orient their capital plan to emphasize good service on existing lines instead of spending on outbound extensions, with a special focus on through-routing. Such a system would remodel New York’s commuter rail along the lines of the Paris RER or a German S-Bahn.

In the six months since my articles were published, I have continued to refine some of the points in the proposal. Some of those refinements come from tweaks proposed in the comment threads; others come from reading more about good commuter rail operations in France and Germany, as well as about the state of tracks in New York, for which Rich Green’s maps are an invaluable resource.

The basic premise of the plan remains the same, and almost the entire map of the proposal and most of the details I gave in the previous posts could stay the same. I believe a few of the route choices should be tweaked, but beyond this, most of the changes would be in station layout and in operations and scheduling.

All proposed improvements here have a unified theme, which is that New York regional rail should look more like the RER or an S-Bahn. The previous two posts emphasized through-routing and service to city neighborhoods; this coda will stress seamless operations, highlighting transferring and schedule convenience.


The best transfer is one that is timed and cross-platform. Timing reduces waiting time, and cross-platform configurations simplify walking from one train to another. The transit planning literature recognizes this fact: ridership projections for future New York City subway lines assign a time penalty to transfers, recognizing the fact that walking from one platform to another is inconvenient for commuters beyond the extra time cost; those projections, however, do not assign any transfer penalty to cross-platform transfers beyond the waiting time for the connecting train, which transfer timing reduces to zero.

The proposed Fulton Street station, where Yellow, Orange, and Blue lines will meet, should be converted to cross-platform operation. In the  initial proposal, the tracks are laid in a cross shape. The north-south tracks (Blue Line) could stay the same, but the east-west tracks (Yellow and Orange Lines) could be tweaked: the tunnel from Flatbush to Manhattan would be moved further south to give the tracks time to curve north, and then the tracks would curve west to the Village as in the first plan.

In addition, if possible, the underground Hoboken station for trains to Fulton should be at the same level as PATH, with cross-platform transfers. This is little different from the practice in Paris, which configured the central transfer station, Châtelet-Les Halles, to allow cross-platform transfers from the north-south RER B to the east-west RER A.

The other transfers in the proposal—Secaucus, Tonelle, Jamaica, and Sunnyside—either are already cross-platform or cannot be converted. Those that are cross-platform should always be configured with two platforms, four station tracks, and possibly two bypass tracks; as much as possible, each route should stop reliably at the same platform, and schedules should be coordinated for timed transfers. This would allow cross-platform transfers between the LIRR-Morristown and Northeast Corridor trains at Sunnyside and Secaucus, relieving Penn Station.

At Secaucus and Tonnelle, the cruciform two-level transfers between the trains to Penn Station and those to Hoboken cannot be converted to cross-platform, but can simplified by tearing down or not building faregates. But they could still be timed if trains wait for one another for a minute at each station, a process that can be performed off-peak without straining capacity; this is done on the Berlin U-Bahn for wrong-way transfers between the U6 and U7 at Mehringdamm.

Finally, three additional infill stops should be considered, two in New Jersey and one in Brooklyn. The West Shore Line (part of the Orange Line) should have a new stop at 51st Street, near the Tonnelle Avenue stop of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The Morristown Line  (Purple Line) should have an infill stop at Orange Street in Newark, intersecting the original Newark subway, which has no direct connection to Newark Broad Street Station. And the new Flatbush-Fulton tunnel (Yellow and Orange Lines) would pass under the Jay Street and Court Street-Borough Hall subway stops, permitting a new Borough Hall station to be constructed; this stop would offer transfers to both Court Street and Jay Street stations.

Route Changes

The above-described change in the Fulton Street station layout suggests a second route for the Hoboken-Fulton segment (Yellow and Orange Lines) through Manhattan. Instead of going north under Hudson or Greenwich Street and stopping at Houston Street, it could go north on the same route as the Staten Island-Harlem connection (Blue Line), on separate tracks, and curve west north of Houston, stopping below the existing West 4th Street subway stop.

This option reduces the amount of necessary construction in Lower Manhattan, as well as the total route-length of tunnel to be built, which correspondingly lowers costs. It also serves the Village in a more central location. Unfortunately, West 4th is a three-level station, so crossing under it would require diving deep underground, substantially increasing costs. In Tokyo, one of the reasons for substantial subway cost escalation in recent years is that to cross existing lines, new lines have to burrow deep underground, as this new tunnel would have to. I believe this option would be worth it if the cost were the same or lower than that of the route proposed in the original plan.

At the same time, I am no longer convinced by some of the outbound extensions I had previously proposed. It may not be cost-effective to run improved regional trains on their respective commuter lines’ full length. The original plan already cut out some low-ridership branches and line segments; however, there may be room for more cuts, for examples west of Raritan on the Raritan Valley Line, east of Ronkonkoma and Babylon on the LIRR, and west of Dover on the Morristown Line.

On the other hand, there should be more double-tracking of single-track bottlenecks, such as the single-track bridge over the Hackensack over the Erie Main Line, which is otherwise fully double-tracked.

At least according to the comments on my posts, the most controversial idea I suggested was the tunnel from Staten Island to Manhattan. This tunnel would be expensive, at $7.4 billion, using the estimated costs for a Brooklyn-Jersey City freight tunnel as a baseline. The main benefit of the Staten Island tunnel is not cost per rider, but commute shortening. Residents of Staten Island are in a near-tie with those of Queens for the longest average commutes in the United States. However, Staten Island’s situation is worse: unlike in Queens, where neighborhood retail is often within walking distance, on Staten Island most people need a car to run errands, so shopping trips take much longer.

In either case, it might be useful if expensive to extend the proposed Staten Island lines west to meet New Jersey Transit. The existing Staten Island Railway would have to be extensively modified, complete with a new railway bridge, an elevated line in Perth Amboy, and a raised Tottenville station on the bridge’s approach; this would connect the line with the Perth Amboy commuter rail station, where there could be a cross-platform transfer. At a much lower cost, the North Shore Line could be extended west on an existing freight rail bridge, follow the Morristown and Erie and Conrail lines to cross the Northeast Corridor at an infill station north of Linden and then join the Raritan Valley Line at Cranford.

Penn Station Pedestrian Flow

While through-routing is enough to eliminate the capacity problems resulting from Penn Station’s limited track space, there remains the serious issue of pedestrian capacity. One of the arguments I have heard proponents of the under construction Access to the Region’s Core project use is that the platforms at Penn are narrow and have narrow stairways to the concourses, so a new station is necessary (and will be built according to current plans for the ARC tunnel).

There are multiple solutions to the circulation of pedestrians at Penn Station besides the new connections and stations proposed in my plan. First, Penn Station does not use its existing tracks as efficiently as it could. The LIRR recently remodeled its platforms and the lower concourse so that each of its platforms has four or five staircases leading up to waiting areas. NJT has done no such thing, and each of its platforms only has two such staircases. Remodeling the NJT tracks would be expensive, as it was for the LIRR, but building a new station would be much more pricey.

In addition, today’s station has 11 island platforms, each flanked by two tracks, with only one track adjacent to two platforms. Paving over half the tracks so that each track is adjacent to two platforms would not only widen the platforms and allow the installation of wider staircases and elevators, but also double the number of usable doors on the train. This would leave Penn with 11 or 12 tracks, of which only nine would connect to both the North River Tunnels under the Hudson and East River tunnels.

For reference, with four tracks to the east and six to the west (four to New Jersey, two through an upgraded Empire Connection), Penn would not need more than six to eight through-tracks; it would run out of access tunnel capacity before it would run out of station track capacity. This solution would be more radical than remodeling existing platforms but might be cheaper for a given capacity.

Finally, the concourses should be stripped of back offices immediately, and space-consuming concessions should be eliminated as traffic increases. George Haikalis of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility notes that only 54% of the lower concourse is used for passenger circulation purposes; the rest is consumed by Amtrak back offices and concessions. This goes against standard practice worldwide. As train stations get too busy, sometimes even existing retail gets kicked out, as was necessary at Shanghai Metro’s busiest station, People’s Square.


Compare the following two off-peak train schedules for Monday, January 4th. Both schedules only list departure times.

Metro-North, New York-White Plains
1:25 pm local
1:48 pm express
1:55 pm semi-express
2:25 pm local
2:48 pm express
2:51 pm express
2:55 pm semi-express
3:17 pm express
3:20 pm semi-express
3:23 pm local
TER, Monaco-Nice
1:43 pm local
2:13 pm local
2:43 pm local
3:13 pm local
3:43 pm local
3:51 pm express
3:58 pm express
4:13 pm local
4:27 pm express
4:43 pm local

I selected these two schedules at random, based on trips I had taken recently. The TER schedule is clockface: trains leave at regular intervals, at the same time every hour. It is easy to remember. The Metro-North schedule has some clockface patterns as well, but they are less regular and break down on the shoulders of rush hour.

By making timetables easier to remember, clockface scheduling makes travel easier for passengers, increasing ridership. While the clockface example above is of half-hourly service, there is no lower limit to frequency: in New York, some buses already run clockface, even if they operate every five minutes.

Best industry practice is in Germany, where the S-Bahn not only maintains clockface scheduling, but also rationalizes the additional rush hour service. The regularity is such that in Stuttgart, there is no need for a  comprehensive timetable; instead, a system map indicates at how many minutes after the hour each line arrives at each station. Each line has two departure times, spaced exactly half an hour apart, with additional peak hour trains at the quarter-hour marks. Berlin, whose services are more complex, does have a timetable, but each of its lines maintains clockface scheduling with intervals of five, ten, or twenty minutes; further, the schedule shows that on the Stadtbahn, the S3 and S5 arrive at the shared stops simultaneously, allowing cross-platform transfers.

Even today, New York has the track capacity to maintain clockface schedules with regular intervals on each line. The local/express train alternation is not a problem for two-track railroads with passing sidings, let alone four-track railroads such as the Northeast Corridor and the inner portions of the LIRR and Harlem Line mainlines. Once a new pair of tracks under the Hudson River is in place, clockface scheduling will become even easier.

Service Patterns

On New York’s commuter rail systems, as on the RER, not all trains stop at all stations. This does not worsen service as long as express trains are run on a limited-stop basis like express subway trains and if schedules are regular. As on the subway, regional rail express trains should enable people to make diagonal travel, going from suburb to suburb without passing through Manhattan, switching instead at an outlying transfer point such as Jamaica. While transit’s greatest advantage over cars is over straight trips that end in or pass through Manhattan, it can also serve useful purpose for a substantial number of diagonal trips. The current train service pattern squanders this opportunity: for example, the New Haven Line trains skip all stations in the Bronx, making it difficult to travel to stations on the Harlem Line.

A better way of treating diagonal trips would be to require all or most trains to stop at stations located such before splits, as far as track arrangement permits. The LIRR does this at Hicksville; other important junction stations include Woodlawn, Floral Park, Rahway, Valley Stream, Summit, and Newark Broad. At those stations, as far as possible the schedule should time outbound and inbound trains to facilitate diagonal transfers: where platform arrangements permit cross-platform transfers, for example at Valley Stream, the trains should arrive at the same time, and where they do not, for example at Woodlawn, the outbound train should arrive one minute after the inbound train.

No system mainline should have less than two trains per hour at any hour of operation; ideally, the minimum frequency should be three trains per hour. Branches and low-ridership outlying segments should have no less than one train per hour. When there is too much branching to run hourly trains to all branches without running them empty on the common trunk lines, the branches could be served with shuttles with timed transfers off-peak.

In the urban areas, frequency should be higher, starting at six trains per hour. This could cause problems on the Northeast Corridor, the LIRR lines feeding into East Side Access, and the lines feeding into the Hudson Line, which begin to branch out in inner-urban neighborhoods. On the lines feeding into East Side Access, timed transfers at Sunnyside could be enough. But on the Hudson Line’s two branches and the Northeast Corridor, off-peak service should include short-turning trains serving just those branches: for example, the Northeast Corridor could be served by local trains running from New Rochelle to Newark or Penn Station.

None of this applies to peak hour, when there is enough demand to permit one-seat rides to Manhattan from every branch. The system should still avoid mixing lines, for example running Montauk Branch trains to Penn Station instead of Fulton, but on the Northeast Corridor, Hudson Line, and LIRR Main Line, direct trains should serve both inner-urban branches from all outlying corridors.

Fare Collection

My original proposal called for faregates, on the models of Paris and Japan. However, it may be better to use a  German- and Swiss-style proof of payment system, in which stations would be barrier-free and passengers would have to present tickets at fare inspections to be conducted at random. Such a system could even extend to bus service, and would go a long way to reducing operating costs. The MTA’s recent Making Every Dollar Count report says that out of every dollar the agency obtains in revenue, it needs to spend fifteen cents on fare collection.

The tradeoff between faregates and proof of payment is an issue of ridership. At the passenger density of the RER or Tokyo’s commuter rail system, or for that matter the New York City Subway, fare inspections are infeasible. But at lower passenger density, fare inspectors cost less than station agents. The busiest lines in New York straddle the boundary between RER and S-Bahn ridership. But either faregates or proof of payment would cost much less than having multiple conductors per train collecting tickets.

Commuter Rail New York

Regional Rail for New York City – Part II

» 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.

New Connections

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:

  1. A new pair of tunnels paralleling the North River Tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station.
  2. A link between Penn Station and Grand Central.
  3. A north-south tunnel linking Grand Central, Lower Manhattan, and Staten Island.
  4. 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.

New Lines

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.

Fixed Routes

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.

Construction Priorities

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Tunneling from Staten Island to Grand Central; this would complete the Staten Island-Harlem line.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Double-tracking the LIRR Main Line from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma.
  8. 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.
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.