Last week, the MTA again floated proposals for connecting Metro-North to Penn Station once East Side Access comes online and frees track space currently used by the LIRR. The New Haven Line is to be connected to Penn Station via Northeast Corridor trackage that only Amtrak uses today, with four new stations in the Bronx. The new station locations include one near Co-op City, a dense middle-class housing project that is underserved by transit, and three more neighborhoods that are inconveniently between the 5 and 6 or on the wrong side of a freeway. In sum, it is a positive development.
However, since the New Haven Line already has a Manhattan terminal at Grand Central, this project involves splitting the line in two in its inner section. Thus, frequency will be cut in half, unless there is extra service added north of the merge point at New Rochelle. At the peak, this is not a very big problem, since the New Haven Line runs 20 trains into Grand Central between 8 and 9 am every weekday; although this is misleading since most stations are only served by a small subset of these trains, it is not difficult to have trains make a few more stops to restore the existing frequencies.
The problem is off-peak service. The current pattern is one train per hour serving stations north of Stamford and running nonstop between Stamford and Harlem-125th, and two Grand Central-Stamford locals per hour in the weekday off-peak and one on weekends. While poor by any international standards, the service afforded to the lower New Haven Line is tied for best in the US with just a handful of lines with half-hourly off-peak service. Splitting frequency in half would be a disaster for such service, to say nothing of not being useful to regional riders in the Bronx. Moreover, adding service just so that it can be split south of New Rochelle is counterproductive: the greatest need for frequency is close to the center rather than in the suburbs, because the shorter the trip time, the more pronounced the effect of a long wait time is.
I claim that the best way to compromise on frequency under the current service paradigm is to run short-turning trains terminating at New Rochelle, with timed connections. Since some passengers prefer a one-seat ride, half the local trains should serve Penn Station and half should serve Grand Central. In other words, frequency should be split among the two Manhattan destinations, but each branch should have a short-turning train connecting with the other branch’s trains. Express trains should make a station stop at New Rochelle with a reasonable connection from the local trains, but should otherwise only serve one destination. Then, Grand Central is the better destination for express trains, since it minimizes interference with intercity trains.
The alternative is to turn New Rochelle-Penn Station into a modernized regional rail line, run somewhat independently of the rest of Metro-North, with through-trains from the rest of the New Haven Line only at rush hour. Maybe select few off-peak trains, no more than 1 per hour, could extend to Stamford. This requires a change in paradigm; it cannot be done with the current staffing levels or turnaround times, but since it’s a service expansion, it’s plausible if unlikely that the union will accept reduced staffing, in line with best practices.
I envision the following scenario for modernized regional rail:
– Trains go from New Rochelle to Penn Station and beyond, to New Jersey. Through-service to the Hudson Line via the Empire Connection avoids agency turf battles but is less useful for passengers. They can hook into existing services and go all the way to Trenton and Long Branch, or provide new service and only go as far as Newark.
– Minimum off-peak frequency is one train every 15-20 minutes, or perhaps 30 late at night. 10 is aspirational, if the service proves popular.
– Fares are integrated with local transit. This means intra-city trips cost the same as subway or not much more, and in either case, transfers to the subway or the buses are free. If people can ride trains and a ferry from Tottenville to Wakefield on one fare, people should get to ride direct from Co-op City to Penn Station on one fare.
– Trains make stops that interface with other transit options. A Sunnyside stop meeting with the LIRR is a must. In addition, if the grades permit, there should be a stop in Astoria meeting the subway, and perhaps one in Port Morris, so that the trains can offer fast frequent service between Queens and the Bronx. Perhaps there should also be a restored station meeting buses from City Island.
The Sunnyside stop has value no matter what: for one, it allows trains to Penn Station to also work as Grand Central trains, making the transferring process easier to implement. The other extra stops are not really useful unless commuter rail is made an attractive option for local trips – in short, an S-Bahn or RER rather than a traditional American commuter service.
I hope to discuss compatibility with modernized intercity trains tomorrow. Although half-hourly service is so infrequent there is no real interference with intercity trains, more frequent service could pose problems. This is not an issue if Amtrak is not modernized: the speed limit south of New Rochelle is at most 160 km/h and even that is only between the Hutchinson River and Pelham Manor, with 100-110 km/h on the rest of the line. Thus the only speed difference between regional and intercity trains comes from making station stops, and a glance at existing schedules shows that when the top speed is 130-140 km/h trains lose about 1.5 minutes per stop. Of course high-powered noncompliant trains lose much less time, but for the purposes of running punctually on a shared line, the M8s are good enough. Losing 6 minutes from the four planned station stops is not a problem even with the proposed peak frequency, once one remembers that most peak trains are not going to stop in the Bronx at all.