Envisioning a Regional Rail System That Serves City Residents

Transit researcher Alon Levy outlines his prescription for aligning New York's commuter rail services with global regional rail best practices.

Solid circles represent existing rail stations, gray circles represent planned stations, and white circles represent stations Levy recommends adding to New York's regional rail system. Image: Alon Levy/Pedestrian Observations
Solid circles represent existing rail stations, gray circles represent planned stations, and white circles represent stations Levy recommends adding to New York's regional rail system. Image: Alon Levy/Pedestrian Observations

Cities like Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo have something New York does not: frequent regional rail service connecting suburbs to the city center.

Unlike American-style commuter rail, these services function as useful, all-day rapid transit. Instead of disgorging every passenger at a stub-end terminal, Asian and European regional rail runs through center cities, making stops along the way and connecting to the urban transit system at several points.

In the New York region, the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, and NJ Transit run much more limited types of service focused specifically on bringing suburban office commuters in and out of the city.

Speaking yesterday at NYU, transit researcher Alon Levy outlined his prescription for aligning New York’s commuter rail services with global regional rail best practices. His presentation touched on everything from fare policy and scheduling to major tunneling projects.

The overall thrust of his recommendations is that regional rail should function more like the subway, with frequent service that also serves reverse-peak travel, stop spacing that appeals to city residents, and affordable fares. (Levy touched on several of these concepts in a May Streetsblog post on LIRR operations.)

Of particular interest (and a good fit for a blog post) are Levy’s recommended sites for infill commuter rail stations, which he says will optimize stop spacing within New York City.

In Paris, regional rail stops are between one and two miles apart, and trains make all stops in the city. In NYC, that tends to be the case beyond the reach of the subway, but closer in it’s a different story, as you can see in this table comparing station distances from the central city on the LIRR Port Washington Branch and one of Paris’s RER lines.

Commuter rail stop distributions in NYC versus Paris. Image: Alon Levy
Commuter rail stop distances from the central city on LIRR’s Port Washington Line versus the RER in Paris. Table: Alon Levy

Making matters worse is that even the few local commuter rail stops within city limits get infrequent service. That’s a recipe for low ridership.

“You want to make sure the infill stops you do have actually get used,” Levy said. “Off-peak, most of the trains skip [stations in the city]. Melrose and Tremont get a train per hour, where you have six trains — two on the Harlem Line and four on the New Haven line — that skip them.”

Levy recommends adding several infill commuter rail stops, which should connect directly to subways or buses. That’s what fuels the success of the Woodside LIRR stop, which is served by the 7 train and multiple bus routes.

He proposed adding the following infill stations within city limits:

  • As part of East Side Access, one station in Astoria to connect to the N and W trains and another at Pelham Parkway in the Bronx to connect to buses on Fordham Road.
  • New Metro-North stations on the West Side of Manhattan as part of the proposed Empire Connection project.
  • Corona, Elmhurst, and Queens Boulevard on the Port Washington Branch
  • Cypress Hills, Woodhaven, and Richmond Hill on the LIRR Atlantic Branch.

You can get Levy’s whole presentation, which extends far beyond infill stations, on his website.

  • Joe R.

    Not sure what the benefit of increasing property values is except to real estate developers or speculators. It might be better if some areas have less transit access if it means keeping property affordable. I don’t understand why some here think increasing property values is such a wonderful thing. It’s not. It often forces long-time residents out, and limits the dream of home ownership to those who are upper middle class or richer.

  • Grimson

    Probably the Roosevelt Island subway tunnel. It was called the subway to nowhere and had to dive deep to avoid East River sea traffic. Any tunnel has to run very deep to avoid conflict with NY-NJ sea traffic. Say for example the proposed Staten-Manhattan rail link was a causeway. New Jersey’s billions in harbor traffic would draw down to a trickle, bankrupting the state. If the Staten Island-Manhattan link was a deep tunnel, it would bankrupt New York. And anything in between, say a shallow tunnel, would reduce Jersey’s harbor traffic by billions and would cost NYC/NYS billions, a double whammy of disaster. When it comes to underground infrastructure, the sketches are so vague who knows what the elevation is, but the author likely slams into or disrupts the Battery/478, multiple foundations, and misc transport infrastructure. In summation, the author has no clue. I thought NYU had better standards, unless this is a Mom & Pop mill.

  • Alon Levy

    Deep-undersea tunnels are a solved problem, and aren’t especially expensive. See, for example, the Bømlafjord tunnel. I also know you looked at the presentation and not just the maps, because the map with the Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel didn’t make it to this post, so you must have seen the technique used in Barcelona for deep urban construction to avoid disturbing building foundations.

    All of this comes with an ultimate cost – deep construction requires deep stations, and those get expensive. This means the Lower Manhattan station would be expensive, even with the large-diameter tunnels used in Barcelona, but the tunnels connecting to it wouldn’t be.

    And yeah, they didn’t build a tunnel to Staten Island in the 1920s, when the island’s population was 130,000, mostly concentrated on the North Shore (which the tunnel from Brooklyn wouldn’t hit), and the rest of the city had ample undeveloped land. Today the island is approaching 500,000 people, nothing else in the city is as developable, and advances in tunneling technology that Americans haven’t heard of allow building the tunnel for less cost relative to income than it would have been possible in the 1920s.

  • kevd

    Thank you. Quite informative.
    Minus the SI tunnel, some of the ideas here do make a great deal of sense. Even if the specifics are just lines sketched on a map.

  • Jared R

    There are clearly other motivations behind these posts.

  • Jared R

    You cause unaffordability by adding rail but not allowing density increases.

  • Jared R

    But they bend to their Governor overlord. No governor has invested the capital in making this work. They can’t envision it, because they are “car guys.”

  • Bernard Finucane

    I didn’t actually say it was a wonderful thing. I just said I don’t understand why the governor of NJ doesn’t think it is a wonderful thing.

    Generally speaking, valuable things are good. It’s a bit odd to pretend to disagree. Cities need to pay for infrastructure, and the more valuable the land in a city per acre, the more revenues the city is viable to have per acre to provide that land with adequate infrastructure.

    As to you argument about keeping thing affordable, it’s deeply flawed because it ignores the fact that multistory buildings can provide affordable housing etc on valuable land.

    The stuff about dreams of of home ownership are simply nonsense. Nobody is being forced to live in an apartment building.

  • kevd

    I’m all for density increases in on busy corridors like the bergenline.
    Its quite dense already, denser than most of Brooklyn and nearly all of Queens though.
    Where density REALLY need to be allowed to be increased is in the suburbs beyond.

  • dve

    Yeah. Reality

  • dve

    Yeah, because the Staten Island tunnel concept was too crazy for even Streetsblog. Think of the NYC stay as a gift. I’m sure NYU will allow you to search their job postings. Your parents will be so proud when you get your first NYC job and have a regular commute. Even if it means serving coffee, cleaning rooms, or being a temp during the Christmas rush: all of them are way more productive than pushing out transportation fantasies all day, every day. I wish you good luck. This may be the start of a great new chapter.

  • Alon Levy

    So brave of you, oh anonymous commenter. “You parents will be so proud,” lol. What expertise do you have in transportation that you talk to me like that?

  • Andrew

    It’s quite common in the U.S. for transit systems to be divided on jurisdictional lines. That’s simply how funding streams work here.

    PATH and the subway share a fare medium (MetroCard) and share multiple station complexes, so I’m not even sure why you insist there’s “no integration.”

  • Robert Hale

    The problem is differing frequencies. M8 60 Hz transformers cannot handle 25 Hz AC, which is supplied from Sunnyside west. 25 Hz transformers, OTOH, can use 60 Hz AC. NJT’s EMU procurement specifies both 25 Hz and 60 Hz capability, and conversion of the entire NEC to 60 Hz is a stated goal.

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