Sunnyside Junction Proposal

The in-progress East Side Access (ESA) project linking the LIRR to Grand Central is scheduled to open in 2016, and Metro-North is already studying options to use space vacated by the LIRR to run its own trains to Penn Station along the Northeast Corridor. Thus the basic service pattern will look as in this map. Observe that alongside Sunnyside Yards, there’s a stretch of track between the split between the Northeast Corridor and the LIRR Main Line, and the split between the access tracks to Penn Station and the ESA tunnels.

This should be turned into a new junction station, Sunnyside Junction. At this junction, passengers could transfer cross-platform between trains to Grand Central and trains to Penn Station, just as they do at Jamaica between trains to Penn Station and trains to Brooklyn today. If Metro-North diverts half of its 20 peak New Haven Line trains per hour to Penn Station, and the LIRR diverts two thirds of its 36 peak tph from Penn Station to ESA, then the service to each Manhattan terminal will be about equal.

Since both Manhattan destinations are of high importance, no train should skip Sunnyside Junction, not even peak-of-peak LIRR express trains that skip Jamaica. (Trains should not skip Jamaica, either, but that’s another matter.) Thus off-peak frequency could be assured to be fairly high, comparable to that to Jamaica (about a train every 10 minutes), and peak frequency would be so high that the transfer penalty would be negligible.

An advantage of this setup is that even at the peak, one-seat rides to each destination would become unnecessary. Therefore the interlockings and switching moves could be simpler, and new grade separations should not be necessary. In the off-peak, the transfers should be timed, even across agencies; this should be the first step of good regional rail service. Note that I advocated something similar as part of a comprehensive regional rail plan for New York, but Sunnyside Junction could be built independently of it. Indeed the interlining that minimizes switching moves and conflicts is not the same as the through-running in my original plan, which is based on matching ridership at the New Jersey end to ridership at the Long Island or Connecticut end.

Because a stretch of straight track for this station already exists, all that is necessary is platforms. Because all trains should stop at this station, and the capacity limit lies elsewhere in the system (namely, in the ESA tunnels), it would suffice to have two island platforms and four tracks serving them, and two additional bypass tracks to allow Amtrak to skip the station even at peak hour. If the station became very busy then two additional stopping tracks could be required, and construction should leave space for them.

To ensure the station is well-patronized by transferring passengers, like Jamaica and unlike Secaucus, it should not feature fare barriers or other obstacles between the platforms. Transferring should involve walking a few meters from one track to another, on the same platform. This is perfectly compatible with the current regime of requiring conductors to check every ticket on the train, because Penn Station and Grand Central are both in the CBD and thus the fare to them should be the same. The rationale for the faregates at Secaucus is that fares to Hoboken and Penn Station are different, and conductors would not have time to check that everyone on a train from Secaucus to Penn has a valid ticket to Manhattan; this is irrelevant to Sunnyside.

In the future, the LIRR and Metro-North should consider lowering in-city fare and raising frequency, which could work with more modern operating rules (i.e. proof-of-payment instead of conductors checking all tickets). Seamless fare integration with the subway would open the door to direct Queens-Bronx service; Metro-North is already considering Bronx stops for its Penn Station service. It would also give Queens another access point to Manhattan, slightly decongesting the near-capacity Queens Boulevard subway; the reason I say slightly is that the worst problems are far east of Sunnyside. And frequent service to the rest of Queens and to Manhattan would provide another public transit option to the area.

Unfortunately, the LIRR seems to not make any plans for such a station. It had plans for a station west of the split, serving only Penn Station: see page 13 here. I do not know if such plans will ever materialize in light of ESA’s cost overruns; I cannot find a more recent official reference to them. A cross-platform connection seems to never have been on any official agenda. Fortunately, even now it should be possible to add one, at relatively low cost since this station would be entirely above ground, and with minimal disruption to service since the site is a wide railyard with 6-8 active through tracks.


  1. ant6n

    If Metro-North is looking at running trains along the North East corridor, it would be interesting if they could study the triboro rx proposal as well.

    • Alon Levy

      Triboro wouldn’t be too useful for them – they’re interested in serving Manhattan, not Middle Village or Bay Ridge. The Triboro route misses the major secondary centers; its advantage is that it connects to nearly all subway lines and so could be a good circumferential. If it’s possible for Metro-North to have stations at Astoria and Port Morris, flanking Hell Gate, and have cross-platform transfers (modulo remodeling the tracks and acquiring them from CSX…).

      • ant6n

        I guess this is the European speaking here, but this “not interested in serving this area” seems like a weird argument. My view is that if there is a ROW with an interesting proposal, and about 25% of that line is going to be used by Metro North, built to their standards for their trains, that that would be a good starting point to expand.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s part of agency turf – agencies don’t want to leave their comfort zones.

          On the other hand, there are some valid reasons to want Triboro RX to be more compatible with the subway than with Metro-North, in terms of rolling stock and fare collection. On the third hand, fare collection can be handled by having Paris-style POP on the subway, even with the faregates…

          The ideal situation is to take the CSX half of the bridge, restore the fourth track, and then dedicate two tracks to Triboro RX and have Amtrak and Metro-North share two other tracks. The few freight trains that use the line should use the Amtrak/Metro-North tracks in the off hours. If the fare collection is compatible enough, then commuter and Triboro trains would also share tracks at night to allow regular maintenance.

      • ant6n

        Fair enough. Your idea would also allow subway/commuter interchange across a platform – something that doesn’t exist in North America yet.

  2. BBnet3000

    How circuitous does that route into Penn feel when youre on the train? I guess if youre coming from New Haven it doesnt feel like that much extra (like a plane taxiing). For Metro North it might end up seeming like a bit of a run around though. I dont know personally because i havent ridden the NEC, and im only seeing this on the map.

    I had always assumed Penn Station Metro North trains would use the West Side Line.

    • Alon Levy

      The proposal involves Hudson Line trains using the West Side Line to get to Penn from the west, and New Haven Line trains using Hell Gate to get to Penn from the east. This is a good plan, not just because both Penn and Grand Central deserve service, but also because there are underserved urban neighborhoods that would get stations (Coop City) or could potentially get stations (Inwood, Bronx-Queens service).

      The route to Penn Station isn’t all that circuitous. The track map says the junction near New Rochelle is 16 miles from GCT and 18.8 from Penn. It’s longer, but only by a little.

    • jim

      New Haven through Hell Gate is likely to happen. There are some electrical incompatibilities to deal with and there will need to be some way Amtrak non-stops can overtake MetroNorth trains, but MetroNorth trains can replace LIRR trains one-for-one on East River Tunnels slots, on platform access and run-through into/out of the West Side Yards (again, electrical incompatibilities, but nothing major).

      Hudson through Empire Connection is harder. Unless someone’s willing to dig up part of the West Side Yards, there’s a mile long segment of single track with a 15 mph speed limit which drastically limits capacity. In Penn Station, the LIRR platforms aren’t reachable from the Empire Connection tunnel (and there wouldn’t be a one-for-one substitution anyway, even if they were, since the MetroNorth trains would be going the wrong way), so there would need to be cooperation and agreement between the two MTA agencies, NJT and Amtrak to make the platform access LIRR no longer needed available to someone else who’d then make platform access available to MetroNorth. LIRR has hitherto run its part of Penn Station semi-autonomously. That would break.

      Worse, from the platforms that can be reached from the Empire Connection tunnel, there’s only a single track path to the West Side Yards. In practice, at peak, that wouldn’t be used. So there’s a problem. Where do the MetroNorth trains that come into Penn Station but don’t go out go? The obvious answer is they run through to Jamaica — resolving the storage issue (LIRR has yards near Jamaica) and providing the Hudson Valley access to JFK — but that would require a level of intra-MTA integration that the Agency has never before exhibited.

  3. david vartanoff

    Brilliant idea. A good step toward having MN/CDot serve Jamaica so one can access JFK without entering Manhattan

    • Alon Levy

      You know… I didn’t think of it. Good point. I’m not sure how to time diagonal trips – i.e. trips from Metro-North to the LIRR. If the off-peak frequency at both ends is high, say 10 minutes, then you can just time westbound and eastbound trains (remember, they’d be timed so that westbound trains to Penn and GCT would arrive simultaneously, and the same is true of eastbound trains) to be offset 5 minutes from each other.

      The problem: the train from Jamaica may not connect to the Metro-North train that you need; fortunately, in the direction in which you’d be more stressed for time, any Metro-North train could connect to Jamaica relatively painlessly. It can also be solved with an easily memorable clockface schedule, but that would just move the potentially long wait from Sunnyside (or Manhattan!) to Jamaica.

      • david vartanoff

        I have for several years posted on other sites a desire for direct CDot service to Jamaica–string a little catenary and flip up the shoes. Direct service from Airtrain to say Stamford with restored stations in the Bronx South of New Rochelle. (I have dim memories of long disused platforms from a trip to Boston nearly 30 years ago.)

  4. Chris G

    I may be the only one here hoping Sunnyside happens for more than just a transfer point. I currently come from the NEC on MR into GCT, then walk to 53rd/3rd or 6 train to 51st to get another train to 36th Street on Northern Blvd. This new station would allow me a 1 train ride.

    I am sure I’m the exception, but mass transit is about connections and making travel easier.

    I like the ideas of timing LIRR and MNRR. Any time you can connect without coming into the city, someone wins.

    I do believe this system will not work well until we can sort out the different electrical connections and the agency turf issues. Of course I support more drastic hard and fast answers like dissolve LIRR and MNRR and then create a new one over night like NYMetroRR or something. Problem is everything is politics and the number one rule of politics is create enough problems that you have something to solve always. Never having progress.

    • Alon Levy

      The agency turf is brutal, yeah, and regardless of who runs the trains, there should be one agency for regional transit (including Jersey!). However, the electrical issues would not prevent timed transfers – trains could still interchange passengers across the same platform, just one train would be powered by third rail and the other by catenary.

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  6. Charlie

    Another purpose this might serve, although a very minor one, is as a backup option for riders who board the wrong train heading outbound. This often happens on Metro North, where under time pressure and in the confusion of Grand Central (and its unpredictable departure times) a person at the last minute boards an express while needing a local. In certain circumstances you will hear the conductor advise people needing local service to disembark at Harlem/125th to catch the following train. Of course Metro North (the NH line) also has its own odd jurisdictional rules regarding inbound boarding at Harlem/125, but that presumably wouldn’t be an issue for inbound trains at this new station.

  7. Jordan Hare

    We recently moved to Sunnyside and I agree that the lack of an effective land-use policy above the yards is startling. Transit oriented housing would be terrific, but you’d likely get a lot of NIMBY protest from Sunnyside Gardens, as the current setup means that there is very little truck and through-running auto traffic. I’d suggest that the streets be configured such that the existing transverse roads (39, 43, 48) would still be the only through-running streets.

    With respect to the ESA Sunnyside station: it was removed from plans some time ago. To be honest, it wasn’t particularly beneficial to Sunnyside as it was to be located quite near the 33rd st 7 train station. It reminded me of the Hunterspoint Avenue setup.

    With respect to the Sunnyside Junction station proposal, I doubt this would be feasible until the Harold Interlocking work (recently fed funded) gets underway. Is anyone aware of proper timelines on this project?

  8. anonymouse

    One problem I can see with this is that it introduces dwell time on the busiest shared section of the line, which may require more platforms to maintain capacity. Note how Secaucus on the NEC has four platforms, for this reason. But otherwise, this could be a useful new transfer, in all directions.

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  15. Jim Collins

    Some peak of peak trains should skip jamaica. One train in particular is the Penn-Woodside-Jamaica-Babylon train in the PM. Every damn time it has near crushload standees yet at Jamaica the entire circus clears out leaving a very underloaded train. If jamaica wasn’t made as a stop more Babylon riders could have been accommodated on the train.

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