How Long Will It Take to Modernize New York’s Commuter Rail System?

meadowlands_transit
Metro-North runs trains from New Jersey through Penn Station — but only for football games. Map: MTA

The New York region’s commuter rail network is failing to keep up with current travel patterns, said panelists at Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly. MTA chair Tom Prendergast agrees, but he doesn’t expect that to change much anytime soon — there are too many other priorities that need to be taken care of first, he said.

For generations, New York’s commuter rail system — Metro-North, the LIRR, and NJ Transit — has been run to serve one primary purpose: carrying suburban commuters into the central business district in the morning and back home in the evening. But riders are increasingly using it for other purposes — trips between boroughs, between suburbs, and at off-peak times.

RPA has some big ideas to re-orient commuter rail to meet the growing need for connectivity between places outside the Manhattan central business district. Among the proposals RPA is considering for its fourth regional plan, set to be released next year: one-seat rides between New Jersey, Long Island, and the areas served by Metro-North; an integrated regional fare system; increasing service within New York City; and third tracking the New Haven Line to allow for more local service between Connecticut towns.

RPA Vice President for Transportation Richard Barone said the MTA and NJ Transit have to change things up to meet new travel demands.

Running trains through Penn Station, for example, would open up the possibility of new service patterns. “When you hit Penn Station, you’re at a dead end,” Barone said. “It operates like a terminal even though, quite frankly, it’s a station: you should be thinking of running service through it.” (The commuter railroads already do this — but only on very rare occasions, like Giants or Jets games.)

Within New York City, there are 36 commuter rail stations — many in transit-starved parts of town — but high fares and low service frequency discourage residents of surrounding neighborhoods from making intra-city trips. Re-orienting commuter rail service to be more appealing to city residents could ease the capacity crunch on some subway lines while cutting outer borough commute times significantly, Barone said.

Prendergast, whose agency encompasses the LIRR and Metro-North, responded positively to RPA’s ideas, but did not see them happening in the near future.

Expansion projects often “take years that are measured in decades,” he said. Several years passed before the politics of third-tracking the Long Island Railroad main line, for instance, reached the point where building the project seemed feasible. Now the MTA is playing catch-up. “We’re behind the curve in the sense that the demand is occurring before we have capacity,” Prendergast said said.

As for a regional fare system, first the MTA has to replace the Metrocard. Last month, the MTA put out a request for proposals for a new fare collection system. Prendergast said it’s imperative for the new system to have no “technological impediments” to fare integration between rail operators.

The thorniest question is regional coordination between agencies — Prendergast said he has more pressing priorities to deal with than getting the MTA and NJ Transit to take on the challenge of running a unified system. “I’m definitely on board with the discussion on governance,” he said, “but simultaneous with that, we’ve got to do what we can within our own structures, within our own planning, within our own frameworks, to be able to do what needs to be done to make the investments for state of good repair.”

The MTA itself has had a hard time handling rivalries between its different divisions. “It is probably the most minefield-ridden area to deal with,” said Prendergast. “We have a governance structure that has existed since 1978. It’s fairly successful, but it’s got its own challenges within our own family. And I know how difficult it is to change governance within our own families, so when we transition out of our agencies, and other agencies, across state lines, it gets very very difficult.”

  • bolwerk

    They’re clearly binding themselves to what might be an 80+-year-old operating habit, whether the excuse has changed or not. CDOT may actually have perfectly good reasons to do that (e.g., if the NYS operation doesn’t want to share ticket revenue with CDOT-subsidized services).

    Regardless, it’s still possibly the most extraordinary example of institutional intransigence in MTA territory, and that’s saying something.

  • Andrew

    It’s not an uncommon arrangement. You also can’t board a northbound Staten Island express bus in Manhattan, for instance.

  • bolwerk

    I can understand it under the right circumstances. But at Fordham, where inbound trains from CT are probably not anymore crowded than inbound trains from Wassaic that do accept passengers and the time to GCT is, what, 20 minutes? And frequency between trains can be low enough to be annoying to passengers? Concern about crowding is a kind of flimsy excuse if they allow crowding to be added in the other direction at peak times. If a train is really packed, AFAIK there is nothing stopping them from refusing further passengers at any station.

    At least an MTA express bus has egress issues, infrequent scheduling (? maybe wanting to discourage sidewalk crowds?), and probably no tariff structure for accepting fares within Manhattan. And I’d even call that last reason kind of lazy.

  • Andrew

    The signal systems are also completely distinct and utterly incompatible.

  • Andrew

    I’m not making a judgment call – just pointing out that it’s a very common arrangement that many transit agencies make for a variety of reasons.

  • Vooch

    Munich runs 3rd rail and cantensry and Diesel trainsets on same Tracks from at least 4 different Systems

  • Vooch

    a One stop ride Into the City stopping at LIRR & Metro North stations similar to the S-Bahn system Is compelling

  • Vooch

    or simply contiued ESA Tunnel Past 42cd onto 33rd, 23rd, 14th, Houston, and Canal for a One seat ride for a few hundred thousand commuters reducing overcrowding on a half diozen subway lines.

  • bolwerk

    I know there are reasons to do it. But this really reeks of a case where they’re just looking for an excuse to continue a long-standing and annoying practice for the sake of continuing it.

  • neroden

    No, it would actually roughly double capacity. I don’t think you understand how capacity actually WORKS.

    Here’s a clue.

    right now, from Penn Station to Sunnyside, we have:
    — LIRR trains with people in them
    — NJT trains with no people in them
    This would be changed to:
    — LIRR trains with people in them
    — NJT trains with people in them

    Capacity here, under the East River, doubles instantly.

    Similarly, west of Penn Station, we have:
    — LIRR trains with no people in them
    — NJT trains with people in them
    This would be changed to:
    — LIRR trains with people in them
    — NJT trains with people in them

    This is a bit more difficult because the LIRR trains are currently not actually going through the tunnels under the Hudson, and the tunnels under the Hudson limit capacity.

    But capacity under the East River DOES double.

  • neroden

    Philadelphia does run the trains through. You now have to either know the schedule or watch the sign change at Center City to figure out *where* they’re running through to, but the trains mostly run through.

    There are a few more trains on the “Pennsy side” than on the “Reading side”, so the extras don’t run through.

  • neroden

    Well, this is one of a long list of reasons why the MTA should switch to overhead catenary, but in the meantime, getting dual-mode vehicles is cheap.

  • neroden

    Catenary already runs partway into Long Island, for Amtrak.

    Perhaps the easiest run-through is from the Metro-North New Haven Line to NJT — Amtrak already does this.

  • neroden

    The LIRR is run by the most hidebound conservative “change nothing ever” types you have ever seen. They’d be running steam if they could get away with it, and the work rules are STILL based on the assumption of steam engines.

    The unions are also massively, massively corrupt in ways which are hard to even describe — some maintenance workers have been documented billing for 10-hour days and working for about 1 hour, while going off and having drinks for the other 9, and they’ve gotten away with it. LIRR needs a serious shakeup, and probably mass firings.

  • neroden

    25 Hz overhead should be replaced with 60 Hz overhead anyway. This is a relatively cheap change to make and lowers overhead costs. Nearly all the existing equipment either runs on both, or only handles 60 Hz.

    I believe NJT Arrow IIIs are the only exception, the only ones which are dependent on the 25Hz system, and they’re ancient, obsolete, and due for replacement.

    There has been a plan to replace 25 Hz overhead with 60 Hz overhead since the *1980s* but Amtrak keeps not bothering to implement it, because of general incompetence at Amtrak.

  • neroden

    Bluntly, the LIRR unions are extremely corrupt and very sick. It’s probably best to lock them out completely and fire everyone.

    The Metro-North unions have actually been pretty cooperative with proposed changes, so far.

  • neroden

    It’s basically true, though stories vary on whether Metro-North is at fault or whether the LIRR is at fault for *demanding* its own space.

    They definitely couldn’t cooperate.

  • I understand how capacity actually WORKS, but you don’t seem to get how the actual terminal district works…the capacity constraint is not the East River Tunnels, those operate below capacity, but instead the station itself.

    Right now, in NY-Penn Station, we have:
    — LIRR trains with people in them
    — NJT trains with people in them
    This would be changed to:
    — LIRR trains with people in them
    — NJT trains with people in them

    Capacity here, in the station, and therefore through the whole terminal district, increases only very marginally, like I said.

    You can double, triple, or quadruple capacity under the East River, but that doesn’t matter one bit. If the station, which is the primary capacity constraint, is kept the same size, the number of trains that can be moved through the area as a whole is the same. Even through-running trains would not save much time at platforms, if any. You would still need the same amount of time to unload passengers and then the same amount of time to load passengers, and, no, you can not do both at once (if you have ever seen a rush hour train arrive and discharge passengers at NYK, it takes several minutes for everyone to get off the train and file up the staircase). All you would save is about 15-30 seconds while one train pulls out and the other pulls in behind, and 15-30 seconds per train added up over the course of a rush hour does not add up to enough time to add a single train on that track.

    All through-running does is increase reverse-peak capacity slightly, and since neither reverse-peak trains are not at loading capacity nor can many parts of the systems on LI or in NJ support additional reverse-peak service, there is little benefit for the substantial cost it would take to meaningfully implement through-running.

    Even if what you said is true, capacity would definitely NOT double. The LIRR runs almost six times as many trains through the East River Tunnel as NJTransit does, so even if all NJT trains carried passengers (and they don’t need to), capacity would not come close to being doubled.

  • bolwerk

    Munich doesn’t have the FRA.

    But also, it may not be too hard to rapid transit-ize the LIRR, but I doubt much more than fare integration would be possible or even desirable. At least not on any existing line.

  • Vooch

    I agree with you

    but kinda sad when the stretch goal is basic revenue integration

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