Park and Rides, and Good Planning

Some people with experience in American bus planning have come strongly for park-and-rides, as a convenient means of concentrating all people boarding buses at one spot in order to improve frequency. The charge is led by Joel Azumah of Transport Azumah, who, responding to my question of whether it’s worth it to have strongly peaked buses, says,

Instead of running a separate park & ride and regional service, you can broaden the span of park & ride service. That would allow you to use some buses more than once or to add the early & late buses for flexibility. Park & riders that use services with a narrow span will drive in if they think their schedule is going to change. The extra buses will reduce that tendency.

In this view, the primary purpose of off-peak service is to provide peak riders with extra flexibility, making it a loss leader. This is indeed one of the main purposes of an all-day clockface schedule, as opposed to the essentially peak-only service provided by nearly all North American commuter lines. And yet, one part of Joel’s response bothered me. Observe that he contrasts his view with “running a separate park-and-ride and regional service.” In other words, a bus that serves a park-and-ride can’t serve walkable residential and commercial suburban strips. While this is a plausible constraint for an express bus, it is not a real issue for commuter rail, as long as the commuter rail is done right: trains make multiple stops, and those can include both walkable towns and some regional park-and-rides.

Of course, American commuter rail is without exception done wrong. This manifests itself in three different problems, all of which make park-and-rides look much more important than they actually are.

First, the rolling stock used, except on the LIRR, SEPTA, and Metro-North, is substandard. In particular, trains hauled by adapted freight locomotives take a long time to accelerate to even medium speed: the MBTA’s current trains lose 70 seconds just accelerating from 0 to 60 mph, and the FRA-compliant improvement, using Colorado Railcar DMUs, only cuts this to 42, as established in Table 3.1 of the Fairmount Line study. For comparison, modern EMUs, even of the FRA-compliant variety, lose about 13 seconds. The result is that trains can’t make frequent stops while maintaining acceptable average speed. Thus the service pattern already includes widely separated stops, forcing people to drive to stations, and moreover involves complex patterns with express trains.

Second, nearly all agencies, assume because of tradition that they can only serve peak riders to the CBD. Occasionally there’s some reverse-peak service, but its usage as a percentage of employment in the suburbs served is trivial. Even Metro-North, perhaps the most forward-thinking agency for reverse commuting, is uncompetitive for suburban employment. Stamford has a ridership of about 4,000 employees, in addition to about 3,000 residents working in New York; the total number of transit users working in Stamford is 8,600, itself only 11% of the city’s employment. This pattern in which nearly all ridership is inbound peak reinforces itself, and agencies do not usually try to provide adequate off-peak and reverse-peak service. The MBTA provides two-hour service off-peak on most lines. The LIRR runs trains one-way on the Main Line during peak hour, to allow the peak frequency of 20 trains per hour to run express trains rather than just locals.

And third, invariably, the suburban stations are all park-and-rides themselves. Some are explicitly configured as such, such as Metropark and Route 128. Those are good and need to be there. The problem is that pretty much all stations are friendlier to cars than to pedestrians. Sometimes they’re located outside the towns they purport to serve – for particularly bad examples, look at satellite photos of Plymouth and Westborough. Plymouth’s station is to the north of the old train station and town center, robbing the station of pedestrian traffic, and because Plymouth’s ridership has to come from drivers, the MBTA prefers to have most trains skip Plymouth entirely and just serve Kingston-Route 3, a standard park-and-ride. In a similar manner, Hicksville has a fair amount of development near the station, but so much parking that it’s poorly connected to the station for the pedestrian. Even Providence, Worcester, and New Haven get stations without much pedestrian-oriented development nearby; Providence, the best of the bunch, has development, but it’s sterile residential plus a mall flanked by pedestrian-hostile arterials.

The result of all this is that there isn’t a single example in the US of a commuter line, rail or bus, where most people walk to the station. Thus, issues including off-peak ridership and development near the stations look unsolvable. Those park-and-ride users grumble about difficult parking and do not take trains except to the city during rush hour. Who will drive to take a train that comes every two hours when it’s possible to just drive to the city?

Commuter rail done right does not have this problem, because it runs good (high-performance, low-energy consumption) trains with only one or two staff on board, and so it can run with long span and high frequency while serving many stations. This is roughly how many modern light rail lines in North America operate: there are a few park-and-rides, and a lot of stations located in between that are accessible to pedestrians and interface with feeder buses.

But for mainline rail, one has to look for examples outside the US. In Japan, new transit construction outside the dense city cores is accompanied by intense development near stations: see, for a recent example, the Tsukuba Express. Shopping centers and dense residential areas will generate ridership all day and in both directions; park-and-rides exist, but do not occupy center stage as they do in the US. Likewise, in Germany, one of the practices that evolved in the recent transit revival is closely spaced stations, located everywhere a railroad intersects a walkable place; speed is maintained via trains with good acceleration and level boarding, resulting in average speeds that match those of American commuter lines despite the shorter interstations.

The political infrastructure that exists in Germany and Japan and allows this and is absent in the US is coordinated planning. There is no way a single entrepreneur can create all the required development and local transit coordination. Transportation isn’t web entrepreneurship; it has no Mark Zuckerbergs or Larry Pages, who can almost singlehandedly create all the agglomeration required to support the new technology. Most of the time, this is done by cooperative government planning. The rest of the time it’s done by established conglomerates, usually combining real estate and transportation, including the Hong Kong MTR and the private railroads in Japan.

There is also some component of technology there. Small-scale entrepreneurs can run express buses, which can’t adequately serve many stations while maintaining competitive speed, much more easily than they can run trains, which can. They cannot run trains at all in the closed-access paradigm that rules American (and Japanese) railroading; they have an easier time in open-access Europe, and yet even then most private players are again big conglomerates, such as Veolia and Virgin.

Although transit must make room for the private sector, a transit revival that relies on uncoordinated private players will necessarily fail. Britain, the most privatized of the countries with a revival (high-income East Asia has no revival, as in the big metro areas transit never declined in the first place), needed to revert to public infrastructure planning with Network Rail, and maintains some of the key features of cooperative planning, including integrated tickets and fares. The rest of Europe contracts out services, but still strives to improve intermodal and interagency transfers; in Switzerland, transfers are timed even when multiple operators are involved. The role of people like Joel and the other private-sector players is to bid for operating routes that fit into a combined system, and add service (still within a fare union!) on thick routes where timetable coordination is less important.

What this means is that a transit revival must include more competent government planning. If there had been no Interstates, and certainly if there had been no expressways built by the states from the 1930s on, some of the railroads would’ve survived to do planning entirely in the private sector, as is the case in Japan. But given that there’s nothing like Japan’s private railroads in the US to plan integrated transportation using market principles, the government needs to do it, and it needs to do it well. It can’t privatize everything; the operators will just loot it for subsidies and neglect any components of development that don’t lead to immediate profit. And it needs to learn from some of the practices of express bus operators, but recognize when it can do better than just copy them.


  1. Alon Levy

    I want to add that, in addition to a few strategically located park-and-rides at major highway intersections, commuter lines should have some parking at stations. There’s a big difference between having 200 parking spaces occupy one of four corners flanking a station for a thousand commuters and have the entire station moved out of the urban area and fitted with a parking spot per commuter. The LIRR would be a lot more effective if the immediate vicinity of the station in Hicksville looked like that in Floral Park.

    • ardecila

      Metra attracts substantial numbers of pedestrians at many stations. On the North Shore, the UP-North line runs through a lot of wealthy, walkable suburbs that have refused to allow expansion of arterial roads (so they are poor choices for park-and-rides). For people not within walking distance of a station, it’s easier to drive to the MD-North line 5 miles to the west, which includes several large park and ride facilities.

      • Nathanael

        Metra’s an interesting case. Metra Electric has loads of no-parking in-city stations, but for historical reasons of bias, they treat them like crap; many are physically unsafe, with deteriorating concrete. Meanwhile, they put money into the far suburban stations with the parking lots.

        I think Metra gets some things right through no fault of its own management. If they could be convinced to build on what they’re already getting right, they’d find they already have a leg up, but they have been resistant to doing so.

        • Alon Levy

          For what it’s worth, my personal experience of Metra Electric is that it’s pedestrian-friendly (the station I used is on an urban residential street in Hyde Park), just incredibly sketchy, to say nothing of infrequent. Better than the Green Line across the park, but that’s a low bar to clear.

  2. Shlomo

    Effective reverse commuting depends on having a high residential density in the city center. This is not really the case in most American cities, although the situation is gradually improving.

    • Alon Levy

      There’s already adequate density at the bedroom-community stations – if there are enough people in Bridgeport to fill trains to New York, there are enough to fill trains to Stamford. The problems are with workplace geography, not residential geography: Stamford has job sprawl (i.e. jobs not close to the train station), more auto-accessible jobs than New York, and a network of bedroom communities that doesn’t generally follow the railroads (the New Canaan and Danbury Lines could help a lot, though).

      • ineffablewombat

        Likewise, in the Boston area, there are probably enough residents of Cambridge and Somerville who work in, say, Waltham, to fill a reverse-commuter train or two on the Fitchburg line… if only those office buildings were clustered around the rail stations instead of sitting in a sea of parking along RT 128 and its offshoot arterials! In this case, it’s not the station design/location that the problem. If I recall correctly, the Waltham commuter rail station is very pleasant and walkable, with shopping and residences nearby (perfect for trip-chaining on the way home from work). It’s the auto-oriented nature of the office parks that makes reverse-commuting by train infeasible, not auto-oriented stations (they aren’t, at least not badly) or few residents in the city (Somerville is very dense and mostly residential).

        • Matthew

          A lot of those office parks were built when the very idea of commuter rail reverse peak service wasn’t even on the radar. Things are changing, albeit slowly.

          New Balance just threw in their support for an Allston/Brighton station on the Worcester/Framingham line. That would be inside the city boundaries, but depending on the exact site, in a fairly walkable place. There’s been a lot of development in the area surrounding the old depot, as well, new condos and businesses springing up around the Green Line and 57, 64, 66 buses.

  3. DingDong

    New Haven is working on building more transit-oriented development around Union Station. One obstacle is the perpetual moaning from commuters (many of them suburban) who feel entitled to parking spots at the train station. The State is responsive to these voters, so would prefer to fund new garages rather than residences and business that will take away precious train station parking. For example, the latest plans include adding more parking before anyone thinks about building residences or business near the station. (Copied and pasted below).

    Solutions: (1) Run more Metro-North trains to State Street Station, which actually is in a very walkable neighborhood. (2) Build a suburban station for the surbubanites in the suburbs. I don’t know how much more it would cost to electrify the line and extend Metro North trains up into North Haven but that town already is a sea of parking. If the suburbs want to put their cars somewhere and ride the train, they shouldn’t waste valuable downtown real estate to do so (at subsidized rates). Or build a park-and-ride station in East Haven–the line is already electrified.

    Union Station Redevelopment Plans.

    Phase I – New South Garage and the re-merchandising and renovation of Union station. This garage would add 667 new spaces. Bond financing for design has been allocated by the State.

    Phase 2 – New North Garage and the build-out of new retail on the ground floor of the existing garage. This garage would add 530 new spaces providing sufficient supply to meet the projected demand in ridership and new restaurants.

    Phase 3 – Includes the build-out of the new development parcel as described above. There could be sub-phases within Phase 3, as market conditions require. This opportunity becomes more attractive to developers as Union station has become a destination, Union Avenue has pedestrian activity and there are amenities and services on site.

    • Walter

      My problem with the Union Station redevelopment is that there’s been no discussion of what’s across the street from the station: ugly, low-rise public housing, literally surrounded by a high wall. I generally like the efforts to place more ground level retail in both the current garage and whatever new ones they build, but the projects, along with the hideous police station a block away and the hulk of Route 34 farther down the street, are a huge drag on the neighborhood. I haven’t seen a thing from the city to address that side of the street.

      If only Cass Gilbert’s plan for the station and Church street had been implemented in the 1920s.

  4. Steve

    I think, Alon, you’re dead right in the main, but I don’t think you’re quite right in your blanket claim that there is no commuter rail station in the U.S. where most people walk to the station. While this is correct as a generality, I would suggest that if you looked with a finer-grain lens, you’d likely find a station or two, at least, in any given system where the ridership mostly walks, rather than drives, to the stations. This is especially true where (a) the station has not moved from its historic location in or near the center of town and (b) (at best) limited parking spaces are to be found near it.

    Manayunk, in Philadelphia, would be the perfect example of such a station. Overbrook is also a good example: it has over 1000 daily boardings, yet has parking space for only about 200 cars. How do the other riders reach it? The same is also true for stations such as Ardmore, Lansdowne, North Wales, etc. This is on the SEPTA network alone.

    • Walter

      What Alon really said was that there’s no commuter rail line in the country where most of the commuters walk to the stations. Just about every commuter on Metro-North in the Bronx walks/ takes transit to the stations, but once you’re out of the city driving to the station becomes the norm, so that the majority of people on the Harlem Line (especially north of White Plains), for instance, drive to the stations rather than walk.

      Metro-North does have a good amount of walkable stations, not only in the Bronx (Fordham Road being the best), but in places as varied as Mount Vernon and Scarsdale. Stations that could and should be filled with development, like Fairfield, instead devote huge areas to parking that given land values should be turned over to private development. I’ve always thought a large luxury apartment/condo complex, similar to those large 1920s blocks in similarly ritzy Scarsdale and Bronxville, over the Fairfield station parking lot would work very well.

    • Alon Levy

      While there are probably a fair number of stations accessed primarily by walking, I doubt that it’s true for any line or branch. Part of the problem (and here SEPTA is doing better than other agencies, especially Metra) is that city station spacing is usually wider than inner-suburban station spacing. Another part of the problem is that urban stations tend to get very poor frequency, except for city-center stations, because agencies are trigger-happy about station skipping: for example, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens are served by hourly off-peak trains, and many trains skip Ruggles and/or Hyde Park.

      • Adirondacker12800

        You are standing at the bottom of the stairs to the LIRR platforms in Forest Hills or Kew Gardens with an LIRR in your sweaty little hand. You want to go to Rockefeller Center. You also have a unlimited MetroCard. Do you walk two blocks to the F train or do you take the LIRR to Penn Station, fight the crowds and walk a block to Sixth Avenue to get the F train. Which is faster?
        Or you have an unlimited MetroCard. You don’t have an LIRR ticket. The subway is a block and half closer than the LIRR station….. They don’t serve Kew Gardens or Forest Hills frequently because they aren’t heavily used. For most trips the subway is faster. For all trips the subway is cheaper.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, that’s why agencies that care about making the user experience good more than about treating commuter rail workers like special snowflakes do integrated ticketing. The cost of an S-Bahn ticket is exactly the same as that of a U-Bahn ticket in the same area. And even when it’s not like this because of corporate competition, as in Japan, the costs are comparable, rather than much higher for a train that happens to also (for a much higher price) take you to the suburbs.

          • Adirondacker12800

            LIRR, compared to the subway, is a premium service. Why shouldn’t people pay premium prices for it? Why should someone destined for Mineola have to stand between Penn Station and Kew Gardens so that someone destined for Kew Gardens can sit? Or why should they run empty seats between Mineola and Kew Gardens so they can both sit?

          • Alon Levy

            It’s really stupid to brand services this way. The RER is not a premium service compared to the Métro; they charge different fares only at La Défense and perhaps a few other distant stations where the RER came first and was zoned for an out-of-city fare zone, and only then was the one-zone Métro extended. Thus it’s useful for express in-city service. The same is true of any useful regional rail service. This sort of integration then creates demand for service to the inner suburbs, since they’re suitable for transit and would then have an easier time accessing city neighborhoods other than the immediate train station area. Providing everyone a seat is less important. People take the subway to get to completely suburban neighborhoods in the city, like Bay Ridge and Wakefield, even though they might have to stand on most of the outbound trip (on the inbound trip, they sit and the Upper East Sides and Brownstone Brooklynites stand). There’s a reason commuter rail ridership in New York underperforms pretty much every city in Europe, regardless of size of subway network (Paris overperforms New York there, London underperforms).

          • David Alexander

            The cost of an S-Bahn ticket is exactly the same as that of a U-Bahn ticket in the same area.

            FWIW, I wonder what the operating costs are for the S-Bahn compared to the U-Bahn and NYCTA, LIRR, and Metro-North. I suspect it’s far easier to subsidize the operations of the S-Bahn (and Regio) when you don’t have FRA regs, a maintenance facility that’s rumoured to be awful, and work regime that turns the railway into a bit of a workers paradise.

          • Adirondacker12800

            New York City has in-city express service, you may have noticed, on almost all the subway lines, the trains that skip stations. They even, hold your hat, I’m sure this will be stunningly clever, call them express trains. And even more amazing, they call the trains that make all the stops local trains!

            If you are going someplace other than Penn Station, the subway is faster

            Click to access ForestHillsKewGardBranch.pdf

            Click to access tecur.pdf

            Click to access tfcur.pdf

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, so don’t add stops between Grand Central and 125th on Metro-North, or between Woodside and Forest Hills on the LIRR. There’s still no excuse for hourly off-peak service; either shut it down or provide real service there. Given that Forest Hills is practically Queens’ fourth downtown – the other three being LIC, Flushing, and Jamaica – the latter option is better.

          • David Alexander

            What’s the compelling destination in Forest Hills that makes someone in Laurelton want to jump on the LIRR and go to Forest HIlls?

            Demographic Joke: Old people in need of home care attendants. 🙂

          • Adirondacker12800

            I don’t know, what’s the compelling destination that makes subway riders go there so much?

            Their bed?

  5. Jef Nickerson

    Co-workers of mine in New York had train station cars. Families did not *need* two cars, but the person who commuted to the city needed a car to get to the train. So a barely running beater of a car was used to make the daily run between home and the train station and back.

    When I lived in Waltham, I worked in Watertown, so I bused to work (no train connection between the two). However I would frequently use the Commuter Rail for non-commute travel into Cambridge and Boston for shopping and social activities. The Waltham Station and especially the connection to the red line at Porter Square make for a very good transit line. The timings could be more frequent, but the trip time would beat the local bus through Watertown and Cambridgeport or the MassPike bus through Newton Corner every time.

    • EngineerScotty

      Co-workers of mine in New York had train station cars. Families did not *need* two cars, but the person who commuted to the city needed a car to get to the train. So a barely running beater of a car was used to make the daily run between home and the train station and back.

      Hence the etymology of the term “station wagon”–a vehicle a wife could use to drop her husband off at the station, run errands and shuttle children in, and pick him up in the evening. (At the time the vehicle type was introduced, the gender roles as given were still firmly entrenched in society).

      • Adirondacker12800

        There were station wagons before there were cars. When the hotel modified a Tin Lizzie to carry guests and their luggage between the station and the hotel they continued to call the beast a station wagon….. As opposed to the wagon they used to haul away the garbage, the used bedding from the stable, wood from the wood lot…

        • Alon Levy

          “Station wagon in the automobile sense is first recorded 1929, from earlier use for a horse-drawn conveyance that took passengers to and from railroad stations (1894).” From Etymonline.

          • Adirondacker12800

            ..yes the resorts around here have pictures of the horse drawn vehicles at the station, picking up guests. Or off to frolic in the woods. I’m sure similar wagons were around before there were trains too. The people at the dock on the Hudson used something to get to the springs in Saratoga…. to get off in the weeds, carriages and coaches tend to have springs to make the ride more comfortable, wagons don’t… carts have two wheels wagons have four or more…. We call the passenger vehicles on railroads coaches or carriages because way way back when what they did was mount stagecoach bodies on railroad axles…

          • Nathanael

            I’ve been telling people that I’m buying a station wagon — the nearest train station is *60 miles away* so I have to have a car in order to get there. I’m getting an electric car and this determines the necessary range. Anyway….

  6. Steven Harrell

    Aren’t park-and-rides effectively land banks though? Although not originally intended to be converted into dense, walkable communities, a large parking lot surrounding a station on an established (albiet underutilized) rail line is just TOD waiting for the right conditions (upzoning and regular off-peak real service, etc) to ripen.

    I understand Alon’s point RE peak/off-peak rail service, and wish that that land had been well-planned from the beginning, but I’m still grateful that our cities are ringed with acres of asphalt *almost* primed for TOD. If that land hadn’t been preserved for park-and-rides, it certainly would have been lost to single-family homes.

    • Matthew

      But how will you pry those subsidized parking spaces away from the commuters? They will fight desperately to retain them. And the if the area won’t upzone until there’s more service, and there won’t be more service until the area upzones, then aren’t you stuck in a trap?

      • Alon Levy

        One relatively easy way is to upzone for residential. If there are condos for Boston-bound commuters vaguely near Providence Station, there can be mixed-use development right next to Hicksville Station for New York-bound commuters.

        Another way is to use reverse-peak service to upzone for commercial. The main fight for the LIRR Main Line is then to go back to two-way operation and make all rush-hour trains local (there are 5 local stations east of Floral Park and west of Hicksville, no big deal for EMUs). Elsewhere the issue is purely one of operating costs; under any normal operating patterns, it’s cheaper to have reverse-peak service than to park trains in an expensive CBD, or have them deadhead to a yard. That’s why the morning peak frequency to Ashmont and Braintree or to Van Cortlandt Park and Wakefield is high. In fact, as Jarrett explains, it’s ideal to have intense commercial development at ends of transit lines to make use of the fact that reverse-peak service is essentially free to provide.

        A second-and-a-half way is to promote another kind of ridership that costs nothing, namely ridership that doesn’t go all the way into the city. This means starting with secondary job centers and upzoning them accordingly (more office and retail development, fewer parking lots), and then moving outward. That’s Jamaica and Flushing in New York, and Quincy and Waltham near Boston. I’ve never been to Waltham proper, but I visited Brandeis and it’s not that pedestrian-friendly, because of both the steep hill and the lack of development at the station itself.

        • Matthew

          But will they takeover the parking lot with development or just build adjacent to it? Like with the plans for Salem station, where the T plans to build a garage to replace a surface lot, even though there are condos and the city itself nearby.

          Trouble with Waltham is that most of the jobs are by the highway. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I do recall there was a walkable downtown area and even some company offices (which I visited). However I did not take the commuter rail there; I used the 70 bus. Not even sure if the CR is worth a damn for getting there on anything resembling a non-traditional schedule.

          Braintree and Alewife are both massive park-n-rides with little else (well, Alewife might be improving, maybe). It’s ingrained into institutional culture. So to redevelop a parking lot, you’ve got to fight that institutional culture in addition to the users of the park-n-ride (and apparently Alewife gets quite full). Davis and Quincy Center are better off at least.

          If you want to see a horrible horrible example of a park-n-ride and traffic sewer close to Boston, just take a look at Sullivan “Square” sometime. I happened to be around there today again on my way from Somerville to Charlestown. Truly disgusting what’s happened there, especially considering that it is a massive hub for buses as well as the Orange Line connection. And remember they’re going to build a whole new infill station just for Assembly Square up the line a little.

        • Nathanael

          LIRR was planning a third track on the Main Line (and the portion west of that is already four-tracked). They ought to then have local two-way service on two tracks and peak express service on a center track; it’s a very respectable way to operate.

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, that would work. The problem is that the third track project was canceled due to a) rising costs, b) less importance than other big-ticket items, and c) NIMBYism in Floral Park. Meanwhile, on two tracks the LIRR would rather run one-way with express trains than run two-way with only locals.

  7. EngineerScotty

    While I wouldn’t count it as a good example of a commuter rail line, WES in Portland has only one stop (Wilsonville Station) with significant dedicated parking in the immediate vicinity (about 200 stalls). The other four stops (Tualatin, Tigard TC, Hall/Nimbus, and Beaverton) all have limited parking.
    Unfortunately, none of stations’ surrounding consist of High Density Walkable Urbansim, and most WES riders are likely travelling to Beaverton (in the morning) and connecting with MAX. (Though not necessarily heading downtown–the westside MAX Blue Line sees a significant reverse commute to Washington County’s jobs centers, which is in the opposite direction from downtown Portland when one is at Beaverton TC).

  8. jim

    You can’t run EMUs on unelectrified track :). Few commuter rail agencies could afford to electrify the tracks they run on, even if the freights that own them were to agree. VRE, for example, could benefit from running EMUs (it has four destination stations in the urban core within a ten mile stretch), but it would cost on the order of half a billion to electrify the tracks it’s using now (more for the expansions it would like). VRE simply doesn’t have that sort of money, nor is it likely it could get it from the FTA.

    MARC, say, could run M-8s on the Penn Line between Baltimore and Washington, though not on the Camden or Brunswick. But that’s the only case I can think of.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Be easier to run SIlverliners or Arrows, Silverliners and Arrows are already approved to run to Washington DC and do on rare occasions.

    • Alex B.

      However, if Amtrak were to extend NEC electrification south to Richmond, then VRE might be interested in some EMUs at least for their Fredricksburg line.

    • anonymouse

      How many miles of track does VRE use? In the UK, they’re estimating costs of under $1 million per track mile for electrification, given a large enough total build. Electrification is partly so expensive here because nobody does it, and nobody does it because it’s so expensive, especially relative to the cost of diesel fuel, at least until recently.
      Also, MARC can’t run M-8s, because M-8s can’t run on the 25 Hz current used on the ex-PRR (and ex-Reading) lines. Transformers that could use low-frequency current are heavier, and would have added at least a ton to the weight of the already FRA-bloated cars.

      • Alex B.

        VRE’s Fredricksburg line is ~55 miles long via CSX tracks with continuing Amtrak service to Richmond, Newport News, etc. The Manassas line is ~35 miles via Norfolk Southern tracks, with continuing Amtrak service to Lynchburg. The first ~10 miles is shared between the two.

        Any idea if the upgrades to the old Pennsy wire between DC and Philadelphia would involve upgrading to 25kv AC? Combine that with any southward electrification, and you could easily adapt EMUs. Even if not, you could still adapt VRE’s coaches to be hauled by electric locomotives as an interim solution, assuming that new wires south of DC would be 25kv and north of DC still the old PRR electrification.

        VRE would also need to substantially upgrade stations, but they should do that anyway.

    • Alon Levy

      To add to what Anonymouse said, recent French electrification projects have come in at €1 million per kilometer; my source is unclear on whether this is track-km or route-km, and the single project I’m familiar with is single-track, but my understanding is that most of the cost of electrification is the substations rather than the wires, and so double-track costs far less than two times single-track.

      Also, MARC can run Silverliners.

      • EngineerScotty

        Also, one pole can frequently carry the wires for both directions of track on a dual-track line, particularly if there is enough space between the two lines to mount the poles in between.

      • jim

        Two points from this subthread:

        1. Electrification costs are a function of three variables: the number of substations and transformers needed goes as route-miles; the size of substations and transformers goes as maximum instantaneous power draw, which in turn is a function of traffic, speed, weight and probably a few more things; actually stringing the catenary (which is more labour intensive than you’d think — all those guys in yellow vests standing around, during unsocial hours, too) goes as track-miles. So comparisons between electrification projects are fraught. European costs ought to be lower: lighter trains require lower power draw. HSR costs ought to be higher: high speed requires higher power draw, more traffic increases the risk that multiple trains will try to draw from the same substation simultaneously.

        2. Not only can’t you run EMUs on non-electrified track; you can’t necessarily run a particular EMU on a particular electrified track! I didn’t realize that M-8s couldn’t run on the most common NEC electrification. Does that mean they can’t run east of New Haven?

        • anonymouse

          That’s why I specifically mentioned ex-PRR. Only the older electrification, done in the 1930s and earlier uses 25 Hz. Everything newer, which is mostly Amtrak east of New Haven, uses standard 60 Hz current, and Metro North converted the New Haven Line to 60 Hz in the 1980s when they shut down the line’s dedicated power plant. The Silverliner Vs, meanwhile, can run on 25 Hz power and 60 Hz as well, but I believe they don’t have the switches installed to use 25 kV, rather than the 12 kV power supply used by the electrification system they run on. And the Arrow IIIs can run on both 25 Hz and 60 Hz, and can switch between 12 kV and 25 kV, but switching voltage requires a trip to the shop. I don’t think there’s an EMU capable of running the whole length of the NEC right now, though there’s finally one capable of going from NYC to Boston.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If it could go from Penn Station to South Station it could go from Penn Station to Union Station. The change from 25Hz to 60Hz is roughly at the Hell’s Gate Bridge, between Queens and the Bronx.
            Nominally 12kV/25Hz from Washington DC to the Hell’s Gate Bridge, 12kV/60Hz from Hell’s Gate Bridge to New Haven, 25kV/60Hz from New Haven to Boston.


          • Alon Levy

            Multi-voltage adaptation is a lot easier than you think. If Amtrak requests an EMU capable of using all the voltages, it’ll get one. The PRR system is unusual, but there are enough multi-voltage and multi-frequency trains to deal with Europe’s different national standards that it shouldn’t be a big deal. The transformers would be heavier because of the lower voltage in PRR territory, but I believe there’s no difference in weight between a 25 Hz train and a train that’s capable of both 25 and 60 Hz.

          • anonymouse

            @Adirondacker12800 That’s why I said “NYC” and not “NYP” or Penn Station. Anyway, there’s a plan to extend third rail about a mile to meet the 60Hz electrification and allow M-8s to run to Penn.

            @Alon I believe the weight difference is on the order of 1 ton. It’s not huge in the grand scheme of things, but worth saving that weight if you don’t need it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There isn’t a whole lot of demand to go from Boston to the Bronx. Even less for Ward’s Island. And there aren’t any stations in the Bronx where there’s catenary.

          • anonymouse

            What about Grand Central, which is in fact where the M-8s were designed to go to? I imagine that, given the nice train station and better location, there might even be slight more demand there than at Penn.

          • Nathanael

            “Anyway, there’s a plan to extend third rail about a mile to meet the 60Hz electrification and allow M-8s to run to Penn.”

            Seriously? That would be stupid. All Amtrak locos run both 25Hz and 60Hz, while all the new NJT locos do too, because NJT has multiple 60 Hz lines. The replacement for the Arrow is scheduled to be able to change frequency on the fly as well.

            Given the situation, *Penn Station should be re-electrified at 60 Hz*. This was planned decades ago.

          • Alon Levy

            To be fair, the M-8s are objectively better trains than anything NJT runs. Reelectrifying the station approaches would be better, but that would require Amtrak (or NJT) to care. From the narrow perspective of Metro-North, it’s better to add third rail than to rely on second-rate equipment.

    • David Alexander

      80 dollars a year to park at one of the LIRR stations.

      IIRC, the only reason that garage was replaced due to the previous garage being structurally unsound*. Regardless, the fee for those who live in unincorporated areas (which makes up the bulk of the town) is $10 per year, so unless the fees are to back the original bonds, I suspect that the $10 fee is simply designed justify the permit regime which has the bonus of keeping out Town of Hempstead residents that live in nearby Levittown. In effect, the towns are subsidizing the parking for commuters, and the residents feel entitled to cheap or free parking. The LIRR couldn’t be bothered because they’re wedded to their operational model, the county has no say over zoning because it’s run at town level, and I suspect that the LIRR and county couldn’t be bothered to run bus service.

      While one could argue that the town would get far better use from having the parking lots be TOD, as I’ve written before, there’s little political desire to change the status quo. I’ve jokingly said that residents would rather have their kids move away due to high housing costs & taxes and have abandoned shopping plazas than to have apartments and condos even in auto-friendly designs.

      *The best part of the three-year closure and replacement was the Hicksville refugees that ended up in free and unrestricted parking lots at my home station on the South Shore. Outside of weekends or super early morning trips to meet Amtrak, I’ve given up on parking at my home station, and I pay for parking at Mineola. It’s slightly more expensive, but somehow nearly as fast, and FWIW, the garage comes across as safer at night than the unlit extremes of the parking lot at my home station, or the town approved car meets for the classic car owners…

      • Adirondacker12800

        Assuming I did my arithmetic correctly 46,000 dollars amortized over 30 years at 4 percent interest is 220 dollars a month give or take. The security and new fangled “point to the open parking spaces” system cost money to run. I’m sure the parking garage doesn’t pay property taxes like a private development would.

        Maplewood New Jersey is running jitney service for less than 700 a year per passenger. In other words it’d be cheaper to run buses. And they don’t have an enoromous garage hovering over downtown or traffic. Lots of kiss-n-ride going on too – it’s a zoo in the evening if the trains are running late.

        Case study at (which gets mangled trying to cut and paste here)
        Working out so well other towns are replicating it. Springfield has one where the jitney serves a park-n-ride, so commuters are driving to the park-n-ride, getting on a jitney and then taking the train at Millburn.

        • Rob Durchola

          While Maplewood is truly a success, many of the other attempts have either failed (eg. Chatham Twp. to Chatham Borough RR Station) or died before even beginning (eg. Verona to a station in Montclair – lack of interest).

          • Adirondacker12800

            On the other hand South Orange seems to be doing well and last I heard Springfield’s is a success. Verona has decent bus service to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station in Newark, why schlep to Montclair and get on a train that’s slower?

  9. Rob Durchola

    On a variety of related points: There are many commuter bus routes in New Jersey that primarily serve walk-ons; both short distance routes such as the 126 between Hoboken and New York and much longer routes such as the 114 between Bridgewater and New York.

    There are many commuter bus routes in New Jersey that either top off at a park-ride after serving a local market (eg., #320), serve local stops after predominantly filling (in peak) at a park-ride (eg. #191/192), or serve a string of park-rides with intermediate stops accommodating walk-ons (eg., US Route 9 between Lakewood and Old Bridge). This last corridor. has extremely frequent peak service to multiple destinations, including NJ Transit #139 to midtown Manhattan, Academy Lines to Lower Manhattan, NJ Transit #64 to Jersey City/Hoboken, and NJ Transit #67 (less frequently) to Newark.

    Most of the routes cited above have excellent reverse peak and off-peak service, including 7-day span.

    On the rail side, NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor line between New York and Trenton offers reverse peak and midday service on weekdays, usually at a 30 minute frequency.

    • David Alexander

      There are many commuter bus routes in New Jersey that primarily serve walk-ons; both short distance routes such as the 126 between Hoboken and New York

      Admittedly that takes me back, but the 126 ultimately didn’t feel that different from riding a bus in Queens. The New York bound buses basically served as the main way for Hoboken residents to reach uptown, especially in the northern half of the city, while the Hoboken bound bus served as a shuttle for workers at Lincoln Harbour*, or a Hoboken shuttle to PATH.

      Mind you, one of the problems that I have with the HBLR extension beyond Tonnelle Avenue is that it really doesn’t compete well with similar buses in Northern Hudson and Lower Bergen Counties. As a friend who resides in that area noted, why should he drive over to the light rail station and take the PATH or the ferry when he could walk down to the corner and take a direct bus to Midtown? One could argue something similar with Staten Island and their express bus network versus using SIR for those headed to Midtown.

      *That was in the post-9/11 temporary relocation of some firms from Battery Park City to Hudson County office space.

      • Matthew

        I agree that the HBLR extension won’t compete with buses to midtown. From the area around that right-of-way, you can take express buses to the Port Authority that arrive in about 25-30 minutes. And they run pretty often for most of the day.

        The HBLR northern branch extension will, however, offer much better travel times to the Weehawken Ferry, Hoboken, PATH, and therefore, Lower Manhattan. For example, the documents claim travel times to the Ferry from the northern branch in the vicinity of 10-15 minutes. That is much faster than driving; due to the geography of the region, it generally takes about 25-35 minutes to drive down there.

        • David Alexander

          Weehawken Ferry

          I still cannot understand why anybody would ride the ferry only to be dumped at some terminal on the West Side blocks away from the subway, and thus forced to use to some shuttle bus to get to somewhere useful.

          FWIW though, if they were to move the ferry terminal to 34th Street, with a climate controlled passageway, we could see some marginal use for ferry riders looking to go to crosstown via the 7 train.

          • Adirondacker12800

            You avoid getting on a bus that’s filled with people who don’t want to pay 13 bucks to ride the ferry? And once in Manhattan you avoid riding the subway?

      • Rob Durchola

        I believe the HBLR extension is to provide a link to jobs in the Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City area (for which there is no decent bus service) and to provide ferry and PATH connections to lower Manhattan (also where there is no direct bus service).

  10. Pingback: Commuter Rail Stop Distribution | Pedestrian Observations
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