When I went to an IRUM meeting nearly two years ago, the participants crowed about the possibility of restoring rail service on the Rockaway Cutoff. New York urban planner and technical activist David Krulewitch recently posted his proposal in a comment, showcasing multiple ways of reusing it for faster connections between Midtown and the Rockaway branches of the A, serving JFK and/or the Rockaways. Although the possibility has raised excitement among most local transit activists (some of whom have posted fantasy maps in the various subway forums including such an extension), I’m more skeptical.
First, the potential for JFK service is limited. The reason is that the Rockaway Cutoff only reaches Howard Beach, making it just a faster version of the A. The AirTrain is technologically incompatible with any other transit system in the region: it’s a vendor-locked Bombardier technology, of the same type used on the first two SkyTrain lines in Vancouver, in which the trains are driverless and propelled by linear induction motors placed between the tracks. This system allows trains to climb steeper than usual grades, and the maximum grade used on the AirTrain is 5.5%, considerably more than the usual for a normal subway or regional EMU (though less than the absolute maximum).
In addition, the needs of the mainline regional system and the subway are different from those of an airport people mover. A people mover needs very high frequency at all times, which is why such systems are normally driverless. In contrast, most subways are not driverless, and I do not know of a single mainline railroad that is driverless. Driverless operation requires some serious upgrades to electronics, and those upgrades are pointless if used only on a single line. If instead the JFK connection has a driver, then frequency will necessarily be very low, since there isn’t too much airport demand, and this will depress demand even further.
Although the current AirTrain system suffers from the lack of a one-seat ride to Manhattan, the situation is not too bad. Jamaica offers a very frequent LIRR connection to Manhattan at all hours, and Howard Beach offers a frequent if not fast connection to Brooklyn. This requires multiple transfers to reach most destinations, but this is not a major problem for locals who are traveling light. It’s a bigger problem for locals with luggage and even more so for tourists, but a one-seat ride to Penn Station, as proposed in LIRR connection proposals, is not too useful since most hotels are too far north. Even Grand Central is at the southern margin of Midtown proper.
For an honest estimate of how much demand there is, let us look at airports with very good transit connections. At Charles de Gaulle, 6 million passengers board at the RER station per year, 20% of airport traffic, and another 3 million use the TGV. At Frankfurt, 11% of passengers use the S-Bahn, and 15% use the ICE. Neither airport has a subway connection. Heathrow, which does have an Underground connection, has a total of 13 million Underground boardings and alightings, 20% of traffic (see data here); I do not know the ridership of the two mainline rail connections to Central London, but a thesis studying air-rail links puts the mode share as of 2004 at 9%. Assuming the train usage in Paris, New York could expect JFK to see 4.6 million boardings, or 9.2 million boardings and alightings; assuming that in London, New York could expect 13 million. The AirTrain’s current ridership is 5.3 million. Although the extra ridership would be useful at low cost, the higher cost of allowing mainline or subway trains to use the AirTrain tracks may be too high.
More importantly, 13 million passengers a year – an upper bound more than a median estimate in light of Frankfurt and Paris’s lower ridership – do not make for very high frequency by themselves, and therefore JFK could at best be an anchor rather than the primary ridership driver. Airport-only trains would be quite lonely; one of Krulewitch’s proposal’s most positive aspects is that it never even mentions premium express services such as Heathrow Express, which tend to underperform expectations as passengers prefer to ride cheaper local trains. Thus, not only would it be expensive to do an infrastructure and technology retrofit to permit direct Midtown-JFK service, but also the market for it would not be very large.
This brings us to the second possible market: the intermediate stops on the Rockaway Cutoff. They may seem useful, but in fact the development is elsewhere. Observe the land use maps of Queens Community Boards 6 and 9, which host most of the Cutoff: along the Cutoff’s right of way, the primary uses are single-family residential, with only a little commercial. Moreover, the commercial development is often very auto-oriented, for example at Metropolitan Avenue. Indeed, the only proposed station with significant dense development is Rego Park, which is on the LIRR Main Line and could be restored without restoring an entire line. Rezoning near the other stations is possible, but why not rezone near existing subway stations first?
In general, development in the US along linear corridors follows arterial roads, not railroads that haven’t seen passenger service in many decades. In the area in question, the primary north-south commercial artery is Woodhaven Boulevard; for service to the intermediate areas, the proposal should be evaluated against a light rail line on Woodhaven, providing local service from Queens Boulevard to Howard Beach and hitting multiple subway transfer points but not the airport.
The third market posited, fast service to the Rockaways, is the weakest. The stations in the Rockaways are some of the least busy in the subway system, with only a few hundreds of thousands of annual boardings each. They only support 15-minute service, with half of the A trains terminating at Ozone Park; since there are two Rockaway branches, the less busy only gets a shuttle except at rush hour, when there is enough demand for a few direct trains. Even with 15-minute service, it’s expensive to serve an area so far away with a flat fare; until a series of fare unifications, the subway charged a higher fare to stations in the Rockaways.
The problem with the Rockaways is that stations are too far from Manhattan and too lightly populated for it to be otherwise. Moreover, service along the LIRR to Penn Station using the Cutoff is about 18 km long measured from the intersection of the Cutoff with the A at Liberty, and service along the R is 16 km to Lexington and 19.5 to Times Square; service along the A is about 21.5 km long to Penn Station and 22 km long to Times Square, longer but not very much so. The main advantage of the R is that it hits Midtown proper better, rather than skirting it on 8th Avenue, but there’s practically no speed advantage – about 6 kilometers of travel distance and 2 station stops, translating to perhaps ten minutes.
As appealing as sending a single local subway service from the Queens Boulevard Line along the Cutoff to serve the Rockaways and give direct service to every branch, there would be a large demand mismatch; moreover, service to Forest Hills, which has nearly twice as many riders as all Rockaway stations combined, would be degraded.
LIRR service to the Rockaways could be better, but only if it’s modernized. The way it’s run today – infrequently, not very quickly, and expensively – it has no appeal. Far Rockaway has 4,500 weekday boardings on the subway (with a travel time of 1:06-1:14 to Times Square), and 158 average of boardings and alightings on the LIRR (with a travel time of 0:50-1:00 to Penn Station). Cutting another ten minutes from the LIRR travel time to Far Rockaway isn’t going to change anything as long as operating patterns remain as they are.
But if operating patterns are modernized, is there a point in service along the Cutoff? It saves very little distance measured to Far Rockaway: 21 vs. 24.5 km. It’s more useful farther west in the Rockaways, but those are less useful areas to serve – those are the areas with the lowest subway ridership, whereas Far Rockaway’s ridership is merely below average. Although the ridership would not be as pitiful if LIRR charged subway fares for in-city service and provided reasonably high speed and frequency, and it could be studied further as a case of an in-city S-Bahn line, there are more worthwhile S-Bahn destinations on the LIRR, for examples southeastern Queens, Hempstead, Bayside, and Great Neck. The main problem is that the Rockaway Beach branch would still have too little ridership to justify high frequency, and the round-robin proposal would have the same frequency-splitting effect on the stations except Far Rockaway and its immediate vicinity as running two separate branches; each station may have frequent service, but half the trains would take too long.
Finally, the three above-described markets – JFK, neighborhoods between Rego Park and Howard Beach, and the Rockaways – cannot all be served at the same time. The intermediate neighborhoods are free, but it’s impossible to serve both JFK and the Rockaways without an additional branching, reducing frequency even further. This means that the two markets can’t be combined to create more powerful demand. It’s one or the other – either the 13 million boardings and alightings one could optimistically expect of JFK, or the 4.5 million boardings times an appropriate growth factor one could expect of the Rockaways. Neither is high by S-Bahn standards; measured in ridership per terminus excluding short-turns, the least busy RER line, the RER C, has 20 million riders per terminus.
Because of the low potential ridership of the Rockaway Cutoff, I suggest New York transit advocates look elsewhere first. Service to JFK could be beefed up with sending surplus Amtrak trains to Jamaica for an interchange, and service to the Rockaways first with modernizing regional rail and second with having it take over the Far Rockaway branch of the A if there’s demand. If there’s higher than expected growth in demand, then the Cutoff could be activated, at as a low a cost in 15 years as today. But for now, the low cost of activating the Rockaway Cutoff comes hand in hand with low benefits.