New York’s expensive, slow, infrequent, and crowded commuter trains are in dire need of massive changes. While the Gateway Tunnel is a positive step forward, it’s not a panacea for what ails the regional rail system. Several independent groups have proposed their own changes to be made once new tunnels open across the Hudson. The most tantalizing is a plan from ReThinkNYC, which recently hosted a conference with heavyweights from academia, the Regional Plan Association, and the New York Times.
But is this plan any good? Judging by industry best practices, the answer is mixed. The fundamental concept from ReThinkNYC, called Plan 2050, is sound, but the details show there is lots of room for improvement.
ReThink draws inspiration from London’s Crossrail and Paris’s RER. Both cities took commuter rail lines that had stub-ended at legacy train stations and connected them using new tunnels through the city center. The RER now has five lines, while Crossrail will be the second such route in London, after Thameslink, once it opens in 2019. ReThink has a similar vision for New York, echoing concepts from Penn Design and the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, with commuter trains running through Penn Station rather than terminating there.
ReThink would use the new cross-Hudson tunnel to create a four-track Northeast Corridor trunk line from Secaucus to Port Morris in the Bronx, with intermediate stations at Penn Station and Sunnyside, Queens. Track modifications at Penn Station would expand capacity while costing less than Gateway’s unnecessary $7 billion Penn Station South project. ReThink also envisions a massive expansion of LaGuardia Airport, with a rail shuttle across the East River to Port Morris.
Most modern commuter rail systems, including Crossrail and the RER, have stations closely spaced on trunk lines, about every one or one-and-a-half miles. ReThink’s stop spacing is sparser. It would be a better plan if it added stations in Astoria, connecting to the N and W subway lines, and in the new tunnel beneath the Palisades at Bergenline Avenue, connecting to high-frequency buses in Union City. Both of these places could make good sites for transit-oriented development, but both are already dense enough and have good enough transit connections to be successful even without additional growth.
While it is missing a couple stations, the ReThink plan does, however, include extensive redevelopment in Sunnyside. There are already plans to deck over the railyard there, but ReThink goes further by removing the yard entirely, making it easier to build new development.
Rail facilities currently housed in Sunnyside would be moved to new yards at Port Morris and Secaucus. The Port Morris complex, including the station and yard, is projected to cost $1.7 billion. The high intensity of planned service would transform Port Morris and Secaucus, the latter of which already has a modicum of transit-oriented development, into very desirable locations. But there’s a catch: by making it difficult to build residential or commercial projects, the planned railyards limit the ability to develop around Port Morris and Secaucus; yet without lots of transit-oriented development, neither station is strong enough to generate much local ridership.
A better plan would avoid building unnecessary yards at Secaucus and Port Morris in the first place. Under the ReThink plan, about half of the peak-hour trains from Long Island and Metro-North would only run as far as Secaucus, terminating there before laying over at the yard. Similarly, about half of the peak-hour trains from New Jersey would only run as far as Port Morris. Off-peak, all trains would run end-to-end, instead of laying over in Secaucus or Port Morris.
In other words, on the commuter rail branches beyond Port Morris and Secaucus, there would be twice as much peak as reverse-peak service, requiring large yards in or near Manhattan. Quite frankly, this is an unusual and inefficient way to run a modern railroad.
On urban subway systems, including New York’s, the peak-to-reverse-peak ratio is almost always exactly 1:1. But even among regional rail systems, ReThink’s operations plan would be unthinkable among the European models it cites as inspiration. London’s Crossrail will run the same peak service in both directions, and Paris’s RER runs the same frequency in both directions at the peak, except on one line, the east-west RER A, which has 24 eastbound trains per hour in the morning peak and 30 westbound trains — a very small difference.
The stated goal of ReThink is to convert the region’s peak-focused commuter rail service into a network useful for all origin-destination pairs, at all times of day. And yet, it fails to internalize the fundamental lessons of Crossrail and the RER.
Instead of spending capital dollars to build yards that allow the railroads to run less frequent reverse-peak service, New York should follow the lead of Paris and London — especially since the cost of running additional reverse-peak service is almost zero. Under the typical American commuter rail scenario, train operators have to loiter in the city for a few hours doing nothing. Here in New York, the LIRR employs deadheading, while Boston’s MBTA has split shifts that leave drivers stressed under poor working conditions.
Running more service means paying drivers to operate relatively empty trains, which is better than the current situation of paying drivers not to operate trains at all.
In many ways, the ReThink plan is both too timid and too ambitious. It ambitiously wants to shoehorn the entire commuter rail network into the proposed trunk, redevelop Sunnyside into a CBD extension, and expand LaGuardia. But it timidly only plans on a single trunk, which makes the system less resilient and less useful. Strangely, ReThink does not even include the Empire Connection, which would allow Metro-North Hudson Line trains to enter Penn Station from the west.
Most importantly, ReThink does not propose full service integration between Metro-North, LIRR, and New Jersey Transit, because that would require knocking too many agency heads together. The three agencies have incompatible electrification systems, but there are multi-voltage trains capable of running under New Jersey Transit’s catenary as well as LIRR’s third rail. In addition, Metro-North’s M8 can run under the catenary of the Morris and Essex Lines as well as that of Metro-North, but not Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor catenary — a short gap that will be closed through the Bronx and Queens as part of Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project. Closing this gap and procuring more multi-voltage trains for through-running, however, are not in ReThink’s plan.
Beyond electrification, the biggest hurdle is administrative. The three agencies are territorial. When the MTA planned to merge Metro-North and the LIRR in 2002, there was resistance from both sides, and the plan was abandoned. There is even less cooperation between the New York agencies and New Jersey Transit. ReThink’s plan is intended to be friendly to these turf lines: the agencies would share the trunk, but would otherwise retain their fiefdoms without joint scheduling, equipment procurement, or fares.
ReThink is right on the big picture: Penn Station should be a through-station, and there should be high-frequency commuter rail service in the city and its inner suburbs. But with the exception of the Sunnyside plans, most of the details fall short. It isn’t absorbing the lessons it should be learning from Paris and London about service integration, stop spacing, or scheduling. To be more useful, it would need extensive modifications.