MTA Chairman Joe Lhota recently proposed to through-route commuter rail lines in the New York area, as was proposed in the past by the RPA, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, and more recently myself. Lhota proposed other, less flashy ideas for integration, including better track sharing at Penn Station and lengthening platforms to accommodate 10-car trains. Although a network that looks like my proposal should still be the goal for the next 20 years, there are several things that can be done in the very short run. None is do-it-tomorrow immediate, but neither does any require very difficult modification of equipment or organization or significant infrastructure investment. Most should not require extensive studies.
Note that this is not a wishlist of the most important commuter rail reorganization projects in the region. Many of those reorganizations do not have anything to do with interagency integration, and are therefore not included. Only projects that are very cheap and would come from or benefit integration are on this list.
1. Integrated ticket machines at Penn Station. This requires the physical tickets on New Jersey Transit to look like those on the LIRR and Metro-North (and thus some modifications to the fare barriers at Secaucus and Newark Airport), and some reprogramming of ticket machines, but no change otherwise. Ideally a ticket from (say) Hicksville to Newark should cost less than the sum of tickets from Hicksville to New York and New York to Newark, to encourage reverse-peak traffic, but strictly speaking the discount is not needed. Amtrak and commuter rail machines should also be integrated, though the physical tickets can still be different if switching over is too hard.
2. Integrated concourses at Penn Station. This means treating the upper and lower concourses as belonging to all three railroads. This requires Amtrak to give up its single-file queuing and accept that people already can walk around and get to its trains from other railroads’ turfs. Trains should be announced on all concourses, and all access points to a platform should be clearly signed with the next train’s type and schedule.
3. Timed transfers. Although a clean integrated timetable is impossible, because trains interline on some inner segments to increase capacity, a partial version is still possible. What this means is that, with hourly off-peak service on each branch, Morris and Essex trains should arrive at Penn Station just before the hour, as should one of the several hourly trains on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor, and then two or three branches going to the east (say, to New Haven and Port Washington, and on one additional LIRR line for service to Jamaica) should leave just after the hour, with the tightest connection done cross-platform. This would make trips from New Jersey to JFK and from Long Island to Newark easier, and the choice of services to participate in the system should be consistent with even spacing on interlined trunks.
4. Modification of rolling stock. Metro-North’s M8s can run under 60 Hz catenary and third rail, but unfortunately not 25 Hz catenary; as lower frequency requires a larger transformer, modifying the trains to run on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor may be too hard in the very short term (though not in the medium and long terms). However, NJT’s ALP-46 locomotives and Arrow EMUs can run on 12 kV 25 Hz and 25 kV 60 Hz catenary, and thus modifying them to run on Metro-North’s 12 kV 60 Hz catenary is easy, allowing them to run from the NJT network to the New Haven Line. Unfortunately, because locomotives accelerate more slowly than EMUs and the Arrows are quite old, they do not have very good performance for short-stop service, for which through-running is the most useful.
5. Voltage change on the Northeast Corridor’s New Jersey side to 25 kV 60 Hz. This voltage change was done to the Morris and Essex lines and much of the North Jersey Coast Line. It is somewhere on Amtrak’s wishlist of projects, but I do not know how high it is. This allows M8s to run through, ensuring the better rolling stock is available for the service that needs it the most. It may possibly be bundled with Amtrak’s installation of constant tension catenary south of New Brunswick to reduce costs. Since this eliminates the need for 25 Hz transformers in the future, this meas future NJT rolling stock would be lighter.
6. Depending on 4-5, rolling stock sharing along interlined services. In practice this means M8s on local Northeast Corridor services, which would also allow adding and serving infill stations in New Jersey (for example, more regular service to North Elizabeth, and perhaps a station at South Street in Newark), and Arrows and locomotives on express services from Penn Station and New Jersey to New Haven.
7. Platform raising on the North Jersey Coast Line and the Morris and Essex lines, if service using M8s rather than Arrows is desired. Because of the voltage, it’s actually easier for M8s to serve the Morristown Line other than their inability to serve low platforms: it would only require 8-21 km of reelectrification rather than 88-101. The Morris and Essex lines also have a more inner-suburban distribution of ridership than the Northeast Corridor Line, which gets most of its ridership from more distant stations, and this makes them in one sense better-suited for through-service. (In another sense, the Northeast Corridor is better, since it serves downtown Newark, a secondary CBD that draws some commuters from suburbs and boroughs east of Manhattan.)
It is my belief that all of the above, possibly except #5 and #7, are feasible within months or at worst a very small number of years, and would not require additional environmental work. Even #5 and #7, which are more expensive, are still close to two orders of magnitude cheaper than a full through-running plan with new tunnels serving Lower Manhattan.
The medium term is more expensive – perhaps an order of magnitude less than the full program rather than two – and would include further modernization, allowing full through-service on every line and more efficient equipment utilization. It can also assume friendlier regulations, which a snap integration cannot, and this in particular means better rolling stock in the future and higher speeds even with existing rolling stock. Clockface schedules and frequent off-peak service would allow planning infrastructure repairs and upgrades around specific schedules. For example, the current local Stamford-Grand Central schedule is 1:06, but an express train I recently took from New Haven came to Grand Central more than 10 minutes ahead of schedule, suggesting excessive padding; minor upgrades should allow an M8 to do Stamford-New York in an hour minus turnaround time making local stops, and more ambitiously New York-New Brunswick in 45 minutes minus turnaround time.
Lhota can’t do much in the long term, because this requires an enormous investment into concrete, a political decision and a longer-term one than Lhota’s term as MTA chair. However, he can both implement the above seven points within his term, and also set in motion various work rule reforms and small-scale capital project planning and apply for the requisite FRA waivers to permit the medium-term reforms to succeed.