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Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Leipzig Philadelphia

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus

leipzig-markt

» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.

The Leipzig experience

Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.

As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.

The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.

Leipzig S-Bahn

The tunnel saved people using the system lots of time—and now about 55,000 riders are using the link on a typical weekday. It’s well used.

During my time in Leipzig in May as part of the International Transport Forum’s Media Travel Programme, I spoke with Mayor Burkhard Jung about the value this project brought to his city.

Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.

Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.

That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.

Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.

The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.

Many other cities have invested similarly

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.

Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.

Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.

Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.

For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.

Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.

What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.

But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.

New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.

Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.

Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.

Categories
Commuter Rail Intercity Rail New Jersey New York

With no new rail tunnel on the horizon under the Hudson, New York faces a looming transport crisis

» Damage to the North River tunnels could cut off most rail service into the nation’s center unless a new link is built soon.

There are many cities where rail lines serve an important purpose: They help connect important destinations; they reduce congestion on particularly intensely used corridors; they concentrate development and produce agglomeration benefits. These benefits are useful in making those cities more livable, economically vibrant places.

But only in certain cities — the largest, most densely developed places, particularly those with geographical constraints on growth — are those rail lines essential to making the metropolitan economy work. In New York City, there is no question that this is true; the region’s subway and commuter rail lines carry the bulk of peak flow into the Manhattan business districts thanks to the ability of trains to handle upwards of 40,000 people per hour on each line. Without those lines, people simply wouldn’t be able to get to work.*

Given the city’s reliance on those rail lines, how much are we willing to pay to keep the trains moving? And, if we’re willing to pay tens of billions to do so, how can the political system be convinced of the need to do so?

New York’s dependence on its rail system is why Amtrak’s announcement last week that damage from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy would require the eventual renovation of the North River (Hudson River) tunnels, which connect New Jersey and New York, is such devastating news. The $700 million expected cost of the renovation, which includes improvements to tunnels under the East River, isn’t the problem, for once, as the price is expected to be covered by insurance. Rather, the problem is that Amtrak noted that the renovation of the North River tunnels would require shutting down one track at a time (there are two), reducing peak capacity from 24 trains an hour to just 6 (there are four tracks under the East River so there is far less of a concern there).**

It’s unclear how this problem will be handled. Passengers could switch to the already-crowded PATH subway into New York from Newark or Hoboken. Or one of the automobile tunnels could be converted to bus service, which isn’t likely to make many drivers happy. Amtrak through-service from Washington to Boston will be dealt a severe blow. Either way, there are no happy outcomes to a tunnel renovation program other than a safer infrastructure.

Amtrak head Joseph Boardman noted that, because of the storm damage, the 104-year-old tunnels likely only have 20 years left of life in them. The public rail company’s solution is to immediately begin construction of the Gateway Program, whose primary component is a new double-track rail tunnel under the Hudson. Once those new tunnels are ready for use, rehabilitation of the North River tunnels could commence by 2025 or so.

Amtrak’s report could be seen as little more than a thinly-veiled threat; give us money to build a new tunnel, the argument goes, or you’ll suffer from complete evisceration of your rail services. Indeed, the press release notes that “the report underscores the urgency to advance the Gateway Program,” including the new Hudson tunnels. Who knows whether to believe Mr. Boardman’s proclamation about the tunnel’s life expectancy.

Yet it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, even had the storm not happened, a new Hudson River rail tunnel would have been necessary. Traffic along the rail corridor is expanding. New York City is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades. And resiliency is always a good idea (had Sandy been bad enough to destroy the tunnels, what would have happened?).

New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority had a plan to solve this problem back in the mid-2000s, when they successfully assembled $8.7 billon for the Access to Region’s Core (ARC) project (it was the largest federally funded transit project ever), which would have added two new tunnels under the Hudson by 2018. In other words, it would have provided at least something of a solution to the problem Amtrak is now warning of.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who assumed office in January 2010, put the project on hold and then cancelled it in September and October 2010, citing the risk that the project’s cost would escalate, putting the state’s finances in trouble. In the process, he significantly delayed any investment in new cross-Hudson rail links.

It merits mentioning that ARC was far from a perfect project. The program’s construction costs had bloated to $12.4 billion by the time it was cancelled. It would have brought people to a deep-cavern station many stories below the basement of Macy’s, and it would not have connected to the existing tracks at Penn Station, meaning that the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak would be unlikely to be able to use it. And it failed to recognize the fact that improvements to regular service on New Jersey Transit could actually allow the system to carry far more people without having to invest in a new tunnel.

From several of these perspectives, the Gateway Program, which Amtrak revealed just months after ARC’s cancellation, would be more effective. The project would connect to existing tracks, allowing all operators to use the tunnel. And it would bring customers to a station far closer to the surface than ARC would have allowed. Gateway also integrates several positive investments that were elements of ARC, including the replacement of the Portal Bridge east of Newark, which is more than 100 years old and a significant cause of delays, and the construction of two new parallel tracks that will allow faster trains.

These improvements won’t come on the cheap; Amtrak estimates that Gateway will cost $13.5 billion, certainly no chump change. Amtrak has already attracted some funds for the project, including $185 million of Sandy-related federal relief money, to construct a “box” saving space for the future tunnel in the Hudson Yards redevelopment project in New York City (illustrated at the top of this article).

Yet there are reasons to believe that it will not be easy for Amtrak to find the rest of the funding to pay for its Gateway project. The State of New Jersey has invested much of the money it planned to spend on ARC on roads and bridges. The Port Authority, having given up on ARC, is directing $1.5 billion to the extension of the PATH rapid transit line from downtown Newark to Newark Airport, a project that would run just one mile and attract a few more than 6,000 riders daily. That would do nothing to improve the link under the river, and it constitutes a political choice to spend billions on a capital expansion rather than investing in improved operations on the New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines, which already run between downtown Newark and its airport on the exact same alignment.

Meanwhile, certain powerful interests in New York City are arguing for the extension of the 7 Subway line under the Hudson to Secaucus, an idea that was initially raised by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010, right after ARC was canned. That project could relieve some of the pressure on the North River tunnels, but it would require a huge percentage of New Jersey Transit riders to transfer, likely reducing ridership.

No matter what other ideas may be raised, Amtrak’s gambit is designed to force politicians at the local, state, and national levels to recognize that, in order for New York City and its region to continue to serve as the country’s economic center, investments must be made in its mainline rail infrastructure connecting it to New Jersey. It argues that the country must, then, find the resources to spend at least $13.5 billion on a new tunnel program.

It is a large cost to bear when New York City cannot find the funding for half of its billions of dollars of necessary public transportation expenditures over the next five years. It is a large cost to bear when the federal government has failed to increase revenues for transportation for more than two decades.

But the cost of losing the rail link under the Hudson may be larger. Amtrak’s leadership of this project is an acknowledgement of the national importance of this line (is it the nation’s most important transit project?), as it is the essential rail link not only between New York City and points south, but also between all of New England, Long Island, and much of Upstate New York with points south — totaling almost 10 percent of the U.S. population. The next rail connection over the Hudson is more than 140 miles north, just south of Albany. It is also the connection that makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans to work in Manhattan.

In other words, this is a definitively federal issue that seems ripe for Amtrak’s leadership. Yet New Jersey Transit, which would likely run just as many or more trains through the tunnels, will want to get involved, especially if it is to contribute part of the cost. The Port Authority, which contributed funds to the previous project, could do the same this time, though its ability to spend on new projects has shrunk due to the expense of the World Trade Center reconstruction. And the states of both New Jersey and New York depend on a cross-Hudson tunnel for their prosperity. In other words, what is clearly an essential national priority is likely to get bogged down in politics that cross state and agency jurisdiction, adding confusion and likely delaying construction. This is not going to be an easy process.

* In cities where rail exists but isn’t the primary travel mode, it still matters, just not to the same degree. In Los Angeles, for example, a transit strike increased the length of the rush hour on nearby highways by 200%.

** This 75% reduction is a result of the fact that Amtrak is suggesting allowing trains to run in both directions during the peak period; this significantly reduces capacity since a train can’t enter the tunnel in one direction until another train has completed its entire journey through the long tunnel in the other direction. One alternative that Amtrak did not mention would be running trains all in one direction for a half hour, for example, and then switching directions. This would likely produce much higher capacity, but still much less than is currently provided.

Image above: Hudson Yards, where a new tunnel under the Hudson would terminate, by MTA (cc).

Categories
Commuter Rail Toronto

Make the effort, and commuter rail can be as effective as rapid transit

» Thanks to political initiative and the need to serve a growing region, Toronto’s GO Transit is increasingly making its commuter rail services not so commuter-oriented.

In North America, “commuter rail” has come to mean something very specific: Large, heavy trains operating almost entirely at peak, providing services to downtown in the morning and away from it at night along corridors that extend into the suburbs. It’s a definition that makes sense for a world where regions are structured with one central business district whose workers live in the suburbs and work nine-to-five jobs on weekdays.

Of course, that’s not the world we live in. Of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, only two have a majority of their jobs located within three miles of their downtown, and most suburban workers don’t work in city centers. A sizable share of the population doesn’t work a “normal” workweek.

Yet most commuter rail providers continue to operate as if nothing has changed since the 1950s, and for their clientèle, it hasn’t, because the people who ride commuter trains are mostly the people who work “traditional” jobs at “normal” hours downtown. In the process, commuter agencies have ignored the progress made elsewhere to convert these traditional services into frequent, two-direction, all-day services similar to rapid transit. And they’ve lost out: While ridership on American heavy and light rail systems — which feature the service characteristics of rapid transit — has expanded by more than 90% overall since 1995, ridership on commuter rail systems has increased by only 35%.

In Ontario, GO Transit is piloting a new approach that could serve as a model for commuter rail agencies that need to be brought into modernity. GO has seven commuter lines that feed into Toronto’s Union Station along 280 miles of service, carrying about 200,000 daily train riders, and until recently it’s been primarily focused on the core, peak-hour, peak-direction commute shared with most agencies.

But thanks to the electoral pledge and eventual budget plans of former Premier Dalton McGuinty and current Premier Kathleen Wynne, combined with progressive thinking from agency leadership, the agency has shifted its priorities.

In the 2007 strategic plan, GO chairman Peter Smith emphasized that the agency needed to “grow into an even more comprehensive system that links multiple activity centres and communities,” spreading its mission beyond just serving peak travelers into central Toronto. The plan specified the goal of expanding service to every 15 minutes during the peak hours and every 30 minutes off-peak. In the post recent five-year strategy of GO’s overseeing agency (Metrolinx), the agency lays out its plan to transition to an “all-day regional transit service.” You can be assured that the largest U.S. commuter agencies have no such plans on their radar.

One year ago, GO took the most significant step yet in that direction, bringing all-day, half-hourly, two-directional service to the Lakeshore commuter lines, up from one-hour headways. The change has already increased ridership by 30% on those lines.

The benefits of thinking more broadly about potential riders are very significant. Commuter rail improvements create an opportunity to provide a far faster transit option that traverses the region at commuter rail speeds (which average above 30 mph) at arrival frequencies similar to rapid transit lines (which average 15 to 20 mph). These improvements open suburban markets to transit, giving people who live near stations the kind of service that people who live in denser, urban areas expect as a standard element of city life. They reduce the need for a car for commutes that require traversing large sections of a large region.

Perhaps most importantly, upgrading commuter rail can be done at a reasonable price, since improvements are made on existing corridors.

This year, the governing Liberals (led by Ms. Wynne) promised to bring a service improvement to the Kitchener line by 2016, and more lines will be converted. They also raised the possibility that more frequent service, potentially on electrified lines, could be coming within 10 years thanks to investments in smaller, lighter vehicles. Regional officials committed to transforming GO into “Regional Express Rail“* by providing electric service every 15 minutes (though there is still a need for additional traditional subway service, costs for the GO conversion are not yet clear, and this idea was brought up as far back as the 1980s). The idea was not just supported by the Liberals; Conservatives at the provincial level also indicated their support for the idea. Now the leader in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral election, John Tory, has said he’d like to convert two GO lines to rapid transit standards.

The sudden interest among Torontonians in the improvement of service along the city’s commuter services is partly a reflection of the fact that the region is growing quickly, adding about half a million people every five years, and partly a reflection of the fact that politicians are willing to support big transit projects because people vote for politicians who support using government funds to pay for them. But it is also a reflection of the fact that GO has spent a decade and a half preparing for this transition, notably by increasing its ownership of track miles on which its trains run from 6% in 1998 to almost 70% today. It is no longer at the mercy of freight rail operators in making decisions about how to operate services.

Other American commuter rail operators should closely examine Toronto’s work in improving its commuter rail operations. These transitions will help make the system far more useful for more people, and help adapt commuter rail as a mode to changes in commute and population patterns.

Fortunately, several other cities look like they might be headed in the right direction already. Caltrain, connecting San Francisco and San Jose, is planning a major modernization project that will bring electrified trains and more frequent service along its tracks. Boston’s MBTA and New York’s Long Island Railroad have proposed, though not yet funded, using lighter diesel multiple units on several corridors to increase service.

Many other agencies will continue to resist the change, playing on the argument that their core mission is to serve the peak-hour, peak-direction rider. But if the transportation network as a whole is to make a difference in giving people who live along commuter rail lines faster, more frequent access to transit, thinking about “non-traditional” users is essential.

* The name is clearly a reference to Paris’ RER, which is a network of rapid transit lines running through the city at very fast speeds and onto formerly commuter rail tracks in the suburbs.

Image at top from Flickr user Perry Quan (cc).

Categories
Commuter Rail Congress DOT Finance High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail President

The Administration Refreshes Its Push for a Major Infusion of Funds into the National Rail Program

» The Obama Administration hopes to invest almost $40 billion in new and improved passenger rail infrastructure over the next five years. Good luck getting that through Congress.

It’s an annual spectacle. The President releases his budget. The budget proposes a huge expansion in spending on surface transportation, particularly in high-speed rail. Administration figures testify on Capitol Hill, hoping to raise the specter of infrastructure failure if nothing is done. The Congress responds lackadaisically, with Democrats arguing that something should be done and Republicans doing everything they can to prevent a cent more from being spent, and ultimately no one agrees to much of anything other than a repetition of the past year’s mediocre investments.

Will things be different this year?

The question is particularly relevant because the U.S. Government’s rail investment program — its authorization for allocating funds to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will expire this year. Legislation supporting the FRA, as well as Amtrak, the national passenger rail corporation, and improvements to freight rail, is necessary to ensure continuity of funding. Previous bills have authorized funding over five-year increments. In effect, the bills set out how much Congress expects to expend over the next few years, and allows the House and Senate to avoid debating the issue for years at a time.

The Obama Administration has responded to situation by proposing a massive infusion of funds for passenger rail and the creation of a “National High-Performance Rail System.”

Total funding for rail activity, both for operating funds and capital projects, would increase from about $1.8 billion in 2013 to more than $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2014. Over the course of five years, about $40 billion would be devoted to rail improvement across the country, a massive expansion paid for with funds “saved” from ending military operations overseas. This would be headlined by a $5 billion “jump-start” stimulus for rail, part of a $50 billion infrastructure package the Administration is hoping Congress will pay attention to.

In many ways, the Administration’s bill is similar to past attempts at legislating major increases in funding for rail. In 2011, for instance, the government promoted a $53 billion plan to “win the future” with rail lines funded across the country. Yet Congresspeople reacted to the proposal with little interest — and members didn’t have to, because there was no authorization bill expiring. That’s what makes this year different.

The Administration’s proposal practically boils with ambition. Grants for new and improved rail lines would be heavily oriented (70 to 85%) towards “core express” alignments, which include only corridors where electric trains operating hourly at speeds of 125 mph and above run on their own, dedicated tracks. This says a lot about the Administration’s interest in focusing its energies on the “true” high-speed corridors, which at this time are only in development for California and the Northeast.

Grants in the proposal’s “rail service improvement program” would add up to $3.66 billion in the first year of activity but grow significantly over the course of five years, eventually reaching more than $6 billion a year. This would provide a substantial base of funds for serious rail projects.

But the initial allocations of funds would also ensure support for current rail lines. $2.7 billion in the first year of allocations would be dedicated to operating subsidies and projects that bring the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair by 2025. Operating funds for Amtrak’s long-distance trains would be maintained, but those for state-supported (short-corridor) train lines would be eliminated after five years, in line with the existing law, to be replaced by profitable operations or more state support (or elimination). Amtrak’s fleet, which is on average 27.7 years old, would be upgraded, particularly in the Northeast, by 2018.

Some funding would also be provided for expanding freight capacity, reducing congestion (such as in the Chicago area), implementing Positive Train Control (which theoretically prevents trains from running into one another), and expanding access for the disabled. Much of the support would be dedicated to corridors owned by private freight rail companies.

All of the funds the Administration has proposed for an expansion of passenger rail service would do wonders for the nation’s train network. Yet even $40 billion committed over the next five years would hardly make a dent in the cost of the California High-Speed Rail project ($70-100 billion) and a new, high-speed Northeast Corridor ($150-200 billion). If the government committed similar funds over the course of five-year increments into the future, it would take a minimum of 27.5 years to complete these projects alone, with no spending on anything else. That’s 2041 before there’s true high-speed service on both coasts — at the earliest!

It’s true, of course, that any investment in new rail service will require financial and planning aid from local stakeholders, and these projects could be completed far more quickly if they were infused with local and state funds (as is the case in California).

Between Boston and Washington, the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission) is tasked with developing a framework for allocating costs along the corridor. As part of that program, it has created a document that demonstrates the rail line’s critical needs and it will be looking to help Amtrak and the states better coordinate their contributions to the line.

If upgrades are going to be made to the line, it will be necessary to ensure that states along the corridor all benefit, and that they all contribute. Determining the best way for them to do that is an incredibly important task that has yet to be fully laid out. Should New Jersey, for instance, aid Amtrak in paying for a new line, if that clears capacity for New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail division? Should Delaware contribute to the cost of a new corridor if no fast trains stop in the state? How much should the states and cities along the line pay to run local trains down the intercity tracks? Before any serious aid is provided to the Northeast, there must be an agreed-upon system for Northeastern stakeholders to answer these questions.

If the FRA reauthorization provided increasing funds to a better managed railroad, assuming increasing funding from other sources (presumably including private players), there is reason to think that Obama’s program could provide substantial improvements to the nation’s foremost passenger rail corridor.

Ultimately, however, the question of whether the Administration’s proposal has any technical merit is irrelevant when there is no political backing for an increase in appropriations for rail service in the United States.

The White House’s claim that its reauthorization would be “paid for” is, quite frankly, a specious argument. To pay for infrastructure, the government wants to use money (“savings generated by capping Overseas Contingency Operations”) that it “would have spent” on foreign wars but that is no longer necessary because the country is pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet when the government is operating with a massive deficit, it’s hard to argue that that money is being shifted from one government use to another. It’s debt, pure and simple.

There are plenty of reasons to argue about the benefits of deficit spending, particularly in the midst of the continued recession, but let’s at least be honest about where the money is coming from.

There was an alternative — the Administration could have proposed a new source of revenue to pay for the program, such as an expansion in the fuel tax or the creation of a vehicle-miles travelled fee. That’s needed all sorts of transportation: The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the Transportation Trust Fund (sourced from fuel taxes) will have a more than $90 billion shortfall by 2023 (and be operating in a deficit by 2015), imperiling any new spending on highways or urban transit.

Yet the Obama White House has shown itself hostile to any tax increase program that would affect lower- and middle-class families, and the Congress has certainly not pushed back with its own proposals. Thus the use of money “that would have” been spent on the wars to pay for the new transportation proposals. With little interest in increasing deficit spending, unfortunately, that proposal, too, is likely to go nowhere. The status quo will be reinforced.

This is a particularly sad state of affairs because the need is there, particularly in the Northeast. The FRA is currently developing a rail investment plan for the Corridor through a public consultation process, and a preliminary alternatives report was released this month, indicating a series of at least possible improvements. Amtrak, too, is desperately pushing for funds, arguing in recent weeks that the Corridor is suffering from an “investment crisis.”

Moreover, many Republicans in Congress have argued repeatedly that they are interested in funding improved rail service on the Northeast Corridor. Former House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica (R-FL) said in 2011 that “We have to redirect our efforts to having at least one success in high-speed rail in the nation. And that high-speed rail success needs to be here in the Northeast Corridor.” Though he didn’t propose any specific way to pay for those improvements, his interest is indicative of the GOP’s willingness to compromise. (And indeed, current Committee Chair Bill Shuster also has been a supporter of Amtrak.)

Perhaps the Administration’s policies should recognize this? On the other hand, the government clearly has no interest in shutting out three-fourths of the nation from rail grants.

Anthony Foxx, who will be nominated as the government’s next Secretary of the Department of Transportation this week, has proven to be a strong supporter of rail transportation in his position as mayor of Charlotte. But his ability to promote the Administration’s rail reauthorization bill has yet to be proven. Current DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, formerly a Republican Congressman from rural Illinois, has failed to produce bipartisan consensus in favor of more transportation investment over the past four years. How can Mr. Foxx, a strong urban Democrat, do so? The House remains controlled by the GOP and the Senate may shift in that direction after next year’s midterms.

There’s a lot to be excited about the rail reauthorization bill the Administration has proposed, but there is more to be skeptical of. We have a long way to go before there is solid support in Washington for more spending on rail transportation.

Categories
Commuter Rail New York Social Justice

A Chance for Faster Commute Times in the Bronx

» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.

The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.

The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*

New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.

In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.

Penn Station Access proposal for Metro-North, from MTA.

There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.

Work destinations for residents of four proposed station areas
 Within 1/2 mile radius of proposed stationsWithin 1 mile radius of proposed stations
Total resident workers (within 50 top zip codes)36,226113,930
West Midtown3,81211,489
East Midtown2,5377,835
Downtown Manhattan3,52310,079
Downtown Brooklyn2,6127,939
Upper West Side1,1593,625
Long Island City4561,477
Elsewhere22,127 (61.1%)71,486 (62.7%)
Data: U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 2010

Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.

Commuting by mode and travel times in the Northeast Bronx
 Co-op CityNearby AreasThe Bronx
Working Population14,9375,952
Transit Mode Share to Work51.8%37.3%58.3%
< 30 min commute28.8%43.0%31.9%
30-39 min commute15.7%16.4%16.7%
40-59 min commute19.1%16.7%19.9%
60-89 min commute22.2%18.7%23.5%
> 90 min commute14.2%5.2%8.0%
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.

Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.

Alternatives for travel from the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan
RouteMinimum travel time to MidtownPeak Cost (with Monthly card and 40 trips)*Avg Weekday Frequencies (7-9 AM)Avg Weekday Frequencies (11 AM-3 PM)
BxM7 from Co-op City52 min (to 5 Av/51 St)$5.50 ($5.00)9/hour2/hour
Bx26 from Co-op City; (2) train74 min (to Penn Station)$2.25 ($2.60)7/hour5.25/hour
Metro-North from Fordham16-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)2/hour2/hour
Metro-North from Marble Hill19-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)3.5/hour1.25/hour
Proposed Metro-North from Co-op City27 min (to Penn Station)???
Data: MTA

Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.

It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.

We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?

Travel Mode Share for Bronx Neighborhoods
Census TractMetro-NorthSubwayCar %Subway %Metro-North %Other % (mostly bus)
399.01FordhamFordham Rd (B/D)12.941.42.243.5
309Marble HillMarble Hill-225 St (1)49.013.212.625.2
429.02Williams BridgeGun Hill Rd (2/5)20.842.80.036.4
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.

The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.

A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.

Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.

* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.

** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.

Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA