Who Regional Rail is For

A few rail proposals have happened in the last few months that begin with the concept of improving transit access in the suburbs, and end in a bad direction. These center on airport-oriented rail extension, which in the case of New York means building transit to Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia, as a high priority; consider Chris Christie’s proposal for a PATH link to Newark Airport, and proposals on PDF-pp. 17-18 of Next New York for airport service. Instead of this, let me expound a bit on what the most promising travel markets for regional rail are:

1. The through-running aspect is useful for people whose commute requires them to cross the CBD or go around it. In New York, this means people who live in New Jersey and work in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Long Island, or vice versa; and people who live in Westchester and points north, including Connecticut, and work in Brooklyn, Staten Island, possibly Queens or Long Island, or Newark and points south, and again vice versa. None of these travel markets is by itself very large, but some, especially those involving people working in Brooklyn and Queens, are of moderate size and together they’re about 150,000 commuters, about as many as use each of New York’s three commuter rail system at two trips per person. (All numbers are as of 2000 and come from the census.)

2. Additional lines allow travel even on markets that are not really through-running. A Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel is likely to be used primarily by people from Staten Island working in Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn rather than by suburb-to-suburb commuters. Staten Island itself produces about 80,000 commuters bound toward Manhattan and Brooklyn, and electrification of the Erie Lines and a connection to Lower Manhattan opens up rail service to about 70,000 Manhattan-bound commuters from Bergen and Passaic Counties.

3. As a continuation of point 2, lines laid out in a way that serves secondary CBDs on the way from the suburbs to the primary CBD can produce additional ridership. For example, the LIRR already has some Brooklyn-bound commuters, and New Jersey Transit some Newark-bound ones; the Erie Lines could produce Jersey City-bound commuters, and one of the reasons to build the Lower Manhattan tunnel via Pavonia or Exchange Place rather than Hoboken is to serve the larger secondary CBDs there. Hudson County has about 30,000 workers commuting in from Bergen and Passaic Counties and 50,000 from Essex County and points west and south.

4. High all-day frequency of local trains together with fare integration with local transit allows people living and working within each inner-suburban region to use regional rail to get to work. The urban analog is that Brooklynites who work in Brooklyn often use the subway, and drive mainly if their commute is orthogonal to the Manhattan-bound orientation of the subway lines. Residents of Newark, Yonkers, Elizabeth, Paterson, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and Hempstead drive at higher rates than residents of the Outer Boroughs even when the poverty rates are comparable: a transit trip from Elizabeth to Newark today is either a bus that gets stuck in traffic or an expensive train that comes twice every hour off-peak and only stops at Downtown Elizabeth, the airport, and Downtown Newark. In 2000, only 26% of people working in Downtown Newark got there on public transit (see PDF-p. 13 of this report).

Airports are not very significant traffic generators. The AirTrain JFK has 5.5 million annual riders; the average ratio of annual to weekday ridership on the subway is 300 (on commuter rail, which has a more pronounced peak, it’s about 270), so that’s equivalent to about 18,000 weekday riders. The Newark version has 2 million annual riders. Regional rail is a way to build low-cost rapid transit in areas where there already are mainline railroads that can be used for local and regional service. Deviations need very high ridership to be justified. The tunnels through the CBD, such as the central RER and S-Bahn tunnels or the tunnels under Manhattan that I propose, bring in commuters from many suburbs into the primary CBD and also connect multiple secondary CBDs. Greenfield lines used for some airport extensions, such as in Zurich, are justified by their short length, connections to trains from all over Switzerland, and very high traffic (with nearly 50% mode share) coming from the use of the airport’s landside concessions as a shopping destination.

In contrast, an examination of the four above main travel markets suggests specific ways regional rail must be built and operated to maximize its usefulness. Brooklyn is the largest destination in the region outside Manhattan, and this means that tunnels serving it from more directions than just that of Long Island should be a higher priority. Queens is the second largest destination, and this means that commuter trains using the Northeast Corridor should stop there, with easy transfers to Jamaica, Flushing, and Long Island City for trains not serving those destinations; Sunnyside Junction would especially useful for this.

Moreover, travel market #4 is the most underrated. The potential traffic volume dwarfs all others. Newark has about 4,000 workers who live in areas who would be served by through-running, such as Brooklyn and the Bronx. It has 36,000 workers who live in the city itself, 30,000 who live in the rest of Essex County, 17,000 who live in Union County, and another 17,000 who live in points farther south. The Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, and Morris and Essex Lines already exist, but provide expensive, infrequent service, with stations spaced too far apart for walking to the station. Christie’s PATH extension tellingly does not include a stop at South Street, but instead goes nonstop from Newark Penn Station to the Newark Airport train station. It’s of paramount importance to raise the transit mode share on these internal inner-suburban travel markets.

Tokyo’s CBD has about 2 million workers, the same as Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. The reason Tokyo has so much more rail ridership than New York is not a bigger downtown, or better airport service, but better rail service to secondary job centers, which themselves grow around train stations more closely than in New York. But Downtown Brooklyn, parts of Queens, and Downtown Newark at least already have the transit access, both by subway/PATH and by commuter rail. Present-day commuter rail just doesn’t provide good enough service to compete with parking rates and traffic jams outside Manhattan.


  1. Ryan

    The premise that extensions to regional airports come at the direct expense of through running or fare integration is a false one – let’s be perfectly clear on that from the outset. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that setting up the false choice of “we should focus on solving these operational problems instead of proposing service to airports” is actively detrimental to those goals. In the case of Newark and JFK Airports, EWR Station and Jamaica Station both provide one-transfer access to the airports via their respective AirTrains and so the airport can become a compelling argument for facilitating through-running and reducing a two- or three- transfer trip down to a single transfer trip. Even without adding airport access to the list of very good reasons to through-run service, however, airport access can still be the platform to test full fare integration – Metro-North will happily sell you package tickets for the bus between Midtown Manhattan and EWR, and there’s no reason why flipping that package deal over to become a package deal for NJT tickets couldn’t be the trial balloon by which we work out whatever technical issues exist with regards to cross-ticketing. Airport access is far from the only reason why we should do these things, of course, but it makes no sense to me at least why we should say “that’s the wrong reason to do this, so let’s not use it as one of many reasons to do this.”

    To the extent that there’s any sort of either/or choice-making that needs to happen here, it’s picking between which capital projects actually see investment. Even then, several airports already abut lucrative rail corridors and the argument for building Airport infill stations can have just as much merit as the argument for building an infill station anywhere else – especially if it can be paid for in whole or in part through airline revenue, or used to help mitigate the negative impact of an airport upon its host community.

    This is speculation and personal opinion on my part, but I feel very strongly that there’s another compelling case for linking airports to cities via rail – airport transit makes for very good gateway transit. People who wouldn’t normally consider using mass transit in their everyday lives are probably more likely to use it if doing so is cheaper than driving to the airport directly – and, once safely on the ground at wherever it is they were going, they’re probably more likely to use public transportation if it whisks them directly into the city from the word “go,” and gets them where they need/want to be. Once they feel the need to hire a taxi/towncar or rent a car outright, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop them from using it for the entirety of their trip even when it doesn’t make sense for them to do so. We’re setting ourselves up for failure if right off the bat we require a car or taxi just to get out of the airport. And perhaps this is just a little bit too optimistic of me, but I’m willing to bet on people who try transit on business trips or vacations and find that it works really well for them coming home and being more willing to try transit at home.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with overemphasizing airport access is that it gets you bad transit. Part of it is funding priorities (if PA has a billion dollars to burn on rail, it should build one third to one half of a tunnel to Lower Manhattan), but it’s also how the line is run. For example, in Jersey, the plan calls for sending PATH to the airport, without a stop at South Street. Jamaica is a good transit hub (and is also quite far from JFK), but the EWR station is not; the hub is Newark Penn.

      Infill stations are a very good idea. So are short deviations. I have no objections to Washington’s service to National, or to existing commuter rail service to EWR. The projects I’m specifically criticizing in this post include a PATH extension, and a regional rail system in which the airports are treated as the outer anchors. In Providence it’s fine to make T. F. Green the southern anchor of local rail because it’s just south of Cranston and the old downtown of Warwick is far from the mainline, but New York has way too much inner-suburban development past the airports that people just ignore. Another bad project, which thankfully nobody cares much for at this stage, is Port Authority’s plan to run rail into Stewart, which is far from a) a rail mainline, and b) almost every conceivable destination in the region.

      Re gateway transit, is that actually true? The cities with the highest transit mode share generally have retained old transit mode shares from before mass air travel. Some have had transit revivals with only limited airport transit options. Paris took decades from the opening of the RER to the opening of service to Charles de Gaulle, and still has no direct line to Orly. Washington (a major transit revival city in the US) only has service to National. Vancouver only opened service to the airport after its transit revival was well underway, and the growth in ridership from the opening of the Canada Line looks much more like “people immediately switched because it connected Richmond and Downtown better than the 98-B” than “people slowly switched as they trickled in and out of YVR.” Calgary has no C-Train service to the airport.

      • Ryan

        The problem with overemphasizing airport access is that it gets you bad transit. Part of it is funding priorities (if PA has a billion dollars to burn on rail, it should build one third to one half of a tunnel to Lower Manhattan), but it’s also how the line is run. For example, in Jersey, the plan calls for sending PATH to the airport, without a stop at South Street. Jamaica is a good transit hub (and is also quite far from JFK), but the EWR station is not; the hub is Newark Penn.

        My understanding of the PATH extension plan is that it hasn’t progressed very far past PR statements and what I like to call “napkin math.” If the complaint is that the plan right now doesn’t include a station at South Street, instead of blasting the extension as a bad idea we should be focusing on making sure that South Street Station is added to the plan (which it very well could be.)

        Building “one third to one half of a tunnel” helps exactly nobody, and the money that PANYNJ finds to pursue a PATH extension isn’t necessarily going to be there for any other capital project. (I’m willing to bet that United is far more willing to provide financial support to this than it would be to the Manhattan tunnel, because this directly benefits them and that does not.)

        I’m with you if it’s “throw $1 billion into PATH OR $1 billion into a tunnel into lower Manhattan” – I’m not with you if it’s “throw $1 billion into PATH OR do nothing and hope the rest of the money for a tunnel materializes before the $1 billion we’re sitting on evaporates.” A PATH extension shouldn’t be (and, at this point, most certainly isn’t) Transit Spending Priority #1, but it also isn’t so abhorrent that I think we shouldn’t go for it if the money is there. Is the money there? I think it’s too early to say.

        Infill stations are a very good idea. So are short deviations. I have no objections to Washington’s service to National, or to existing commuter rail service to EWR. The projects I’m specifically criticizing in this post include a PATH extension, and a regional rail system in which the airports are treated as the outer anchors. In Providence it’s fine to make T. F. Green the southern anchor of local rail because it’s just south of Cranston and the old downtown of Warwick is far from the mainline, but New York has way too much inner-suburban development past the airports that people just ignore.

        Airports usually end up on the edge of metro areas and, in fact, make for strong outer anchors in places like Providence or Atlanta or Chicago (or, if it actually had rail transit, New Orleans). New York has way too much development past the airports, but New York is pretty unusual in that respect.

        Re gateway transit, is that actually true? The cities with the highest transit mode share generally have retained old transit mode shares from before mass air travel. Some have had transit revivals with only limited airport transit options. Paris took decades from the opening of the RER to the opening of service to Charles de Gaulle, and still has no direct line to Orly. Washington (a major transit revival city in the US) only has service to National. Vancouver only opened service to the airport after its transit revival was well underway, and the growth in ridership from the opening of the Canada Line looks much more like “people immediately switched because it connected Richmond and Downtown better than the 98-B” than “people slowly switched as they trickled in and out of YVR.” Calgary has no C-Train service to the airport.

        I am not concerned about the cities with the highest transit mode share. I am, in fact, concerned about the cities with the lowest transit mode share – places where functional transit is stymied or underutilized because of a culture that stigmatizes it or just doesn’t even consider it as a real choice – places like Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, or anywhere else where the mass transportation mode share can be measured in single digits. And there are far, far, far, far, FAR more US cities where the mode share is <10% (nevermind the ones where it's less than <20%) than there are cities where the mode share is at the level of DC, Vancouver, or Paris.

        • Alon Levy

          I bring up Washington, Vancouver, and Calgary because they’re all transit revival cities. In 1985, Vancouver was not what we today think of as Vancouver – it had a smaller and lower-rise downtown, and Metrotown was just starting construction. Calgary was an auto-oriented city (and still is, just with a high transit mode share for commutes to the growing downtown).

          Washington was never like Calgary as far as I understand, but has still gained mode share recently because Metro is better than comparable options in other US cities of comparable size. Its socioeconomic and political geography until recently was like Atlanta’s – poor, Democratic black city, surrounded by Republican white suburbs that hate the city with one wedge of Democratic middle-class black suburbs in the ill-favored quarter that also hates the city but for different reasons. In terms of TOD, it’s done far better than any other US city, and in Canada only Vancouver is better, since Calgary built a high-rise downtown but its residential areas are still low-density. So it’s plausible that if Metro had been as bad as MARTA it would have had mode share as bad as MARTA’s. The main obstacle to long-term Metro growth is that unlike Vancouver and Calgary, Washington can’t grow a high-rise downtown, even though there’s clear demand for it, because it has height limits.

          Paris of course isn’t a transit revival city, but its commuter rail was meh on the eve of the opening of the RER.

          Airports sometimes are on the edge of metro areas and sometimes aren’t. My analysis of various US airports and transit options:

          Chicago: O’Hare is at the edge of the inner-suburban area in one direction, and should be one of many outer termini, as it already is on the L. Express Blue Line options are occasionally proposed and are stupid due to the special underground Loop termini (what’s wrong with running limited-stop to the Loop and then making local stops?).

          Atlanta: Hartfield is an outer terminus, and MARTA underperforms, partly because of bad layout, partly because it never got to the TOD part, and partly because the state hates the city and chokes mass transit funding (if the state raises taxes to pay for mass transit, rural Georgians won’t have enough disposable income to buy Confederate flags). Bbut because the airport is such a major transfer point as well as close to legacy mainline railroads, it’s justifiable and advisable to make it part of any regional and intercity rail network built to Atlanta; it wouldn’t be a terminus but an intermediate station, and the setup strongly reminds me of Zurich.

          San Francisco: SFO is not at the edge of the build-up area, which stretches in a ribbon south to San Jose. The way it should’ve been built would’ve been to build a people mover to Millbrae, not extend BART there, and spend the money that was in reality spent on BART on modernizing Caltrain instead. The OAC is a joke, and Oakland Airport itself may well be put out of its misery when HSR opens.

          Los Angeles: LAX is also at the edge because it’s on the water, and the Harbor Subdivision passes through underserved inner-urban areas, so an airport line connecting to Union Station with local trains and overtakes by express and intercity trains would be a very good idea, which is unfortunately not pursued. To keep with my theme of impugning the motives of people who propose airport extensions, I suspect that this is because an express-only option is off the table because the South Central and Inglewood NIMBYs would be justifiably pissed at the prospect of elevated rail passing through just to serve airport riders, while local trains are off the table partially because LA doesn’t care enough about improving transit to low-income areas at the expense of airport-downtown travel time (and partially because of NIMBYs, again, although there are some viaducts in the Crenshaw proposal and it’s still locally popular). The lack of a mixed local/express option I attribute to something different, namely that regular timed overtakes are unfamiliar to most US transit planners, especially at the requisite headways. The secondary airports are overrated, and the idea of building HSR to Burbank Airport is especially bad since so much of Burbank Airport’s already limited traffic directly competes with HSR, so the feeder effect would not exist.

          Boston: Logan is at an inconvenient location – not really at an edge nor on the way unless you count the Blue Line.

          Philadelphia: the airport isn’t at the edge since there are many reasonable-density suburbs beyond it. The Airport Line itself only goes to it because the areas immediately beyond the airport on the railroad are industrial. But the industrial track ROW could make a good bypass of the inner Wilmington Line for HSR and is straighter, in which case HSR should totally serve the airport. Not in-terminal, though – that would require an awkward-looking detour – but at Eastwick, with Regional Rail beyond that point replaced with a people mover.

          Dallas: not at the edge, but right between Dallas and Fort Worth, awkwardly off the mainline railroad between the two cities’ downtowns. A loop or a Y could be useful. Any DART line that’s long enough to reach the airport is a bad idea regardless of where it goes, and DART’s ridership is painfully low relative to system length (700 weekday riders per route-km, vs. 3,000 in Houston).

          Houston: if anything, beyond the edge, and also a few km from the mainline. Might be worth it if HSR is built in that direction, but otherwise probably not.

          • Zmapper

            For Chicago, would you consider it preferable for HSR to stop on the east side of the airport where the existing NCS station is, with an ATS extension, or should HSR stop at the future West Terminal, inside the new building?

          • Alon Levy

            First, is West Terminal even happening? A quick Googling reveals years-old articles, questioning the project’s future.

            Second, probably the people mover/NCS option is better for HSR if it goes that way, since HSR would still need to continue north toward Milwaukee. Regional rail can have a branch entering airport grounds, although if it doesn’t provide too much benefit over the Blue Line, then it can connect to the people mover too.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Milwaukee, like Chicago, is on the shores of Lake Michigan. To the north. O’Hare is west of the conventional routes to Milwaukee…. the “high speed” route the Milwaukee Road built is the one today’s trains take. The lines that passes O’Hare doesn’t go to Milwaukee. I suppose they could dig tunnels across very expensive Chicago suburbs but I don’t see that happening so a hand full of people can take the train from Milwaukee to O’Hare. Both of them can change trains in Union Station.

      • David Alexander

        is Port Authority’s plan to run rail into Stewart

        I’ve jokingly said that rail to Stewart is really a proxy for Newburgh Park and Ride. Of course, I suspect for most people, it may still be easier to park at Beacon and ride directly into the core from there.

        • Adirondacker12800

          depends on how you define “core”. getting from Orange County to Wall Street via Grand CentraL sucks. Not that getting to Wall Street from Hoboken is great but it sucks less than going to Grand Central.

    • Adirondacker12800

      reducing a two- or three- transfer trip down to a single transfer trip.

      I lived in New Jersey most of my life. I flew fairly often after fares became affordable in the 70s. I flew out of JFK twice and LaGuardia once. And only because there was a low fare carrier almost giving away passage because they started a new route.
      What compelling destinations are served at JFK that would make a New Jerseyan take the train to Jamaica? or entice a Long Islander to Newark?
      Of course that’s assuming that the train at you local station goes to the airport station.

      • Ryan

        JFK is a hub for JetBlue, American and Delta; EWR is a hub for United. There aren’t going to be very many compelling destinations that aren’t served by one or both of them – so the question becomes one of convenience and cost.

        If I’m John New Jersey and I’m flying out to the family reunion in Vegas, the odds are I’m going to be looking for the cheapest tickets I can get. If it’s going to cost me $500 to fly out of EWR but only $400 to fly out of JFK – well, I’m probably still flying out of EWR because getting to JFK is a gigantic pain in the ass for me.

        But if I had a train I could take to Jamaica for $15 and only had to worry about one transfer to the Airtrain? $85 is a non-trivial amount of money… I might just decide to make the trek over to JFK.

        Not to discount the fact that it works both ways, of course. If I’m Jimmy Miami and I want to fly up to the ol’ homestead in Nassau, having two-seat access to two of the three airports doubles my options for avoiding renting a car or hiring a taxi and gives me more room to pick the lowest fare instead of the lowest fare to the only airport which doesn’t require me to change trains at least two times and maybe take a bus too.

        • Adirondacker12800

          it’s not worth a two hour schlep to save 40 bucks on each leg. And the train isn’t free so it’s more like 30-35 bucks on each leg.

        • Tsuyoshi

          I don’t have a list of destinations in front of me, but JFK goes to a lot of Asian cities and EWR doesn’t seem to go to any. I’m living in Philadelphia, and it’s sometimes worth taking the train all the way to JFK from here because of the substantially lower fares to Asia.

          I assume there’s a similar situation for Latin America, Africa, and possibly Europe. Probably not worth it for any domestic flights, though.

          • Adirondacker12800

            In the period ending July 2013 49,627,271 passengers used JFK in the previous 12 month period. 2,750,799 of them were trans Pacific. They can change to the LIRR or if they are watching their pennies, the E.

      • David Alexander

        or entice a Long Islander to Newark?
        I’ll admit to taking the LIRR to NJT for a United flight out of Newark. Mind you, I flew for free, so I didn’t mind dealing with that issue, and I suspect the same may be true for FF point junkies.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    The through-running aspect is useful for people

    Both of them.

    Through running is a great big yawn for most people. Lets just say they match up all the lines like SEPTA did in Philadelphia. New Haven expresses with Trenton expresses lets say, which is what they do with Train-to-the-Game trains. And Stamford locals with Matawan locals. And Ronkonkoma expresses with Montclair-Boonton line trains to Dover. and on and on.

    So you are in Rye and want to get to Metropark. Metropark isn’t on the branch to Matawan. You have to change trains. Or you are in New Brunswick and you want to go to Bayside. The train going through New Brunswick doesn’t go to Bayside. You have to change trains. Or you are in East Orange and you want to go to Yonkers. You have to change trains.

    So an astoundingly small fraction of the miniscule percentage of people who want to go through Manhattan get a one seat ride. Everybody else gets twice as many delays twice as often. Sounds like a great idea!

    together they’re about 150,000 commuters

    And how many of those jobs are close enough to railroad stations that those commuters would even think about getting on a train, even if it was a one seat ride? Which they have a low chance of getting.

    fare integration with local transit

    A monthly NJTransit railroad pass is good on the bus for an equal number of zones. So if you have a ticket for New Brunswick to Newark it’s good on the local buses in Newark far out into the suburbs. YMMV depending on the line. ( Bus zones in Essex County are weird, it all has to do with trolley cars and jitneys back in the 1920s )

    bus that gets stuck in traffic

    Broad Street is delightfully free of congestion compared to Route 21. The frequent bus between Newark and Elizabeth runs on Broad. … Broad Street because it’s remarkable um um broad…

    Click to access route24.pdf

    only stops at Downtown Elizabeth

    That’s one of the delights of the 24. It serves many destinations.

    connect multiple secondary CBDs.

    Wall Street isn’t a secondary CBD. It is compared to Midtown but the list of CBDs bigger than Wall Street is the Loop in Chicago. Anything else in the US is smaller. That downtown Brooklyn and Newark are along the way is a happy coincidence that should be exploited if they ever build a tunnel from Jersey City to Brooklyn.

    with easy transfers to Jamaica, Flushing

    They already have that. You can change trains at Penn Station. And no being able to do that in Woodside isn’t going to be attractive because the chances of there being a quick cross platform transfer to the train you want are low. Changing in Penn Station means you are doing it someplace with services while you kill 15 minutes for your connection. Or you can board your train when it’s announced and lounge in your seat for 10 minutes. Or listen to the announcement that the train to Port Washington is delayed because of police activity in Millburn. Ah yes the joys of twice as many delays twice as often.

    Long Island City

    Isn’t near the LIRR tunnels. So there would still be a transfer. Normal people don’t care that it’s a foamer’s wet dream to change in Sunnyside to the Flushing Line, they care how long it takes to get somewhere. Changing in Sunnyside won’t buy them much.

    with stations spaced too far apart for walking to the station

    How does through running solve that problem? Having the train to Gladstone originate in Port Washington doesn’t move anyone’s house closer to the station in South Orange. If it’s a problem. Compare the average daily ridership numbers to the number of parking spaces.

    does not include a stop at South Street

    The people around where a South Street station would be get on the bus. The got on the trolley car before there were buses.


    Moreover, travel market #4 is the most underrated. The potential traffic volume dwarfs all others… Newark

    and how many of those jobs are in Downtown? Newark’s biggest job center is at the airport. It’s a PITA to get from the station to most jobs in the airport. Which is why people don’t take the train or the bus to get to work in the airport.

    • Fbfree

      Through running allows trains to make connections at multiple locations. All the trains in the region cannot physically terminate at one location in order to provide a one-transfer ride for everyone. Through running doesn’t eliminate transfers, but it eliminates 2 and 3 transfer journeys.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Almost all the suburban trains in metro New York terminate in Manhattan.

    • Nathanael

      What through-running really does is operational. Currently an off-peak NJT train must cross the traffic in the opposing direction, and then either occupy a platform for a while with no passengers, or occupy a slot in the East River Tunnels.

      Instead, suppose you segregate Penn Station into “eastbound” and “westbound” platforms, and run every NJ train through, NJ to Long Island, replacing LIRR trains.

      What’s the result? Same service, fewer paths through the tunnels needed, fewer platform blockages, and *no* interference with opposing traffic.

      The operational benefits are massive — more service over the same infrastructure — which is why everyone is doing it except NY. It doesn’t matter whether anyone actually rides the train through.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Thats important in a subway with an island platform and two tracks in the tunnels. It’s much less important in a station with 21 platforms and four tracks in the tunnels. The capacity constraint is the tunnels not the platforms or the complex interlockings.

        • letsgola

          The capacity constraint is not the tunnels, it’s having to send trains back across the interlocking in the face of oncoming traffic.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s not a subway station with one island platform and two tracks,

            The the number usually cited for the existing tunnels is 23 trains an hour. That’s quite respectable for a commuter agency. Mostly because there aren’t many places in the world with the demand to wedge 23 trains an hour onto a track. When the economy is good and the state has some extra money to burn on running “shoppers specials”, in December, rail fans who have the patience to compare schedules for all the different lines serving the station claim that there is as 60 minute period, when there are 26 trains an hour. It would be very difficult to get more trains into the tunnels and still maintain the speeds they run at.

          • Joey

            It’s not as constraining at a station with many platforms but reverse moves are still going to block the station throat to an extent. New tunnels are going to be needed anyway, but if through running could push 23tph to 30tph in the next five years might it be worth it?

          • Adirondacker12800

            How much do the trains have to slow down in the tunnel to reduce the headways from 150 seconds to 120 secoinds? And I’m sure people heading to Trenton will really appreciate it when their train can’t get to Penn Station because signal problems have shut down Jamaica. Or when power fails in Secaucus people on the Island can’t get a train because it’s still in Newark. Once or twice a year the system has a bad hair day on one side. If you have through running instead of Long Islanders having a bad commute everybody has bad commute. Or New Jerseyans having a bad commute everybody has a bad commute. And no they aren’t going to be able to have the magic extra train sets rematerialize themselves in Sunnyside or the West Side yards so that they can suddenly rearrange everything and spread joy on one side while the other side still has a bad commute.

          • Alon Levy

            How come the Chuo and Yokosuka Lines don’t get shut down because of signal failures at Funabashi? Or the eastern half of the RER A because of signal failures at La Defense? Could it be that when the systems are maintained properly they don’t have a bad hair day twice a year?

          • Adirondacker12800

            I dunno how do trains get from Nanterre-Préfecture to Charles de Gaulle – Étoile if nothing is moving through La Defense? The last time Jamaica went PooOof it was because they had just replaced all the signals and there was a mistake in the grounding connections in one of the many places they rewired grounds. Which failed when the lightning struck. How often does lighting strike at La Defense. How often does lightning strike in Paris?

          • letsgola

            They won’t have to slow down much considering how short the signal blocks are on the eastbound approach. Sending one train out across the plant requires you to reverse traffic so you can clear a signal in the other direction, which takes time. And signal systems everywhere get hit by lightning, that’s why they have surge arresters. The problem was that LIRR installed a piece of equipment creating a pathway around the surge protection. http://mtaig.state.ny.us/assets/pdf/12-01.pdf

          • Adirondacker12800

            “Much” is so quantifiable. I used to commute between New York and Newark. Back when the speed limit on Portal Bridge was 90. Back when the Arrows had full cabs in every other car. With the speedometer and air pressure gauges visible even though the rest of the cab was closed down and locked away. We exit the tunnel at 60 and be at 90 by the time we were crossing Portal Bridge. And the cowboy on the 5:11 to Trenton consistently hit 105 before we started to slow down for Newark. 13 minutes from the time the doors closed in Manhattan and the time they opened in Newark. All the trains were scheduled for 15. But then Portal Bridge’s speed limit was lowered to 60 and the trains slow down through Secaucus or stop off peak. It’s scheduled for 20. Is that how much? How slow do they go between Harrison and Portal Bridge if they are only able to go 45 through the tunnel instead of 60? How much time gets eaten up because if it slows down in Harrison it starts to slow down in Elizabeth? Used to take 24 minutes to get from Elizabeth to Manhattan and now it takes 32. How much is much?

  3. mrsman

    A few other points to consider:

    Through-running will allow more trains to go through Penn Station.

    Even though through-running won’t guarantee one seat rides for everyone, it would make it a lot easier for many. Let’s say Raritan Valley – Huntington and NJ Coast Line – Ronkonkoma are through-routed. It’s true that someone from Bay Head would have to transfer to get to Huntington, but there would be much more frequency for Newark – Jamaica trips.

    • mrsman

      Also, with regards to Philadelphia, in the old days with the advent of the commuter rail tunnel a lot of commutes have become so much easier. While it’s true that you could always get to Center City from almost every corner of the region, the commuter tunnel allowed Reading line commuters to easily reach University City and the main line and allowed Penn line commuters to reach Temple University.

      So the focus should not be on suburb to suburb, but on suburb to first set of stops beyond the CBD. New Jersey suburbs to Forest Hills, Jamaica, New Rochelle. Long Island suburbs to Secaucus, Newark, Columbia University.

      • Joey

        Terminating trains at Penn necessarily eats a bit of tunnel capacity since it necessarily creates conflicts in the flat station throat. You could solve this problem by deadheading all trains to Sunnyside and looping them around, but at that point , why not just through-route?

  4. Ted K.

    Here’s the question to ask :
    Is the airport station vanity transit or a network enhancement ?

    I’m most familiar with the San Francisco Bay area. Our examples are BART to SFO (in service) and BART’s Oakland Airport Connector (aka OAC, under construction). Both score as vanity projects due to their being sub-optimal solutions.

    The SFO station is an expensive, awkward branching that has NOT lived up to ridership projections. Extending the airport’s people mover to the Millbrae Station would have been a lot cheaper and could have opened up the airport to the surrounding community.

    The OAC is a point-to-point joke. Had a light rail line been put in it could have linked the OAK’s bayside to the Oakland Zoo with stops at / near the hangars, the terminals, an industrial zone, BART, a residential area, and a park in between. BART demonstrated considerable arrogance by ignoring an initial defunding for the OAC and cobbling together a ridiculous patchwork of funding sources for this expensive turkey.

    • Nathanael

      By making OAC a cable car, BART also prevented it from being expanded later to add stops or branches or to link with, well, anything. The Bay Area seems to love stupid, misdesigned joke transit.

  5. Andrew in Ezo

    My closest and most frequent experience with airport rail access is right here in Sapporo- the JR Hokkaido airport rapid service from Sapporo to Shin-Chitose AP is considered to be an example of a successful link- over 50% share of the market, and the only profit-making rail service of JR Hokkaido, which otherwise bleeds red ink. I think it’s helped by a number of factors:
    1. the 45km distance from Sapporo, coupled with 6 month long snowy winters, makes road based transport less attractive
    2. location of airport near an existing rail line, which merely required a short branch to connect the two.
    3. Airport trains that also serve selected intermediate points, as well as points beyond Sapporo- most trains extend their runs all the way to Otaru (Sapporo Station is a through station) in a cross-city fashion- thus the airport trains serve regular commuters as well as those that use the airport.
    4. Some airport trains are extended ltd. express runs to/from Asahikawa (the Super Kamui service)- though the train is premium fare from Asahikawa to Sapporo, from Sapporo (where it reverses direction) to the airport it runs as a regular fare rapid service.

    Perhaps the closest comparison would be to Zurich Airport- Shin-Chitose airport also has shopping and restaurants that attract non-air travelers, though likely not as many as those that go to Zurich Airport.

  6. Neil

    Would shorter trains help? The LIRR uses 8+ car length trains off-peak. If it ran shorter (4, maybe even shorter) off-peak more often, it could have better off-peak service. The hourly weekend frequency of the Port Washington Branch is atricious considering how close most of the line is to the city and the population living nearby.

    • Joey

      All other things being equal, it’s of course better to run shorter trains more frequently. As I recall though, the additional staffing needs become a significant cost, particularly where unions are mandating crazy staffing levels.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Trains don’t couple and uncouple themselves for free. Someone somewhere in the bowels of the MTA has cost figures and has decided that it’s cheaper to run 8 car trains with half the cars closed off than it is to couple and uncouple them.

      • Joey

        Well, on newer systems, trains do uncouple themselves. But you’re probably right in the context of the NYC subway. Decades to a century old equipment and infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to the kind of operating flexibility we have on new automated systems today. Maybe in 50 years…

        • Adirondacker12800

          The NYC subway decided decades ago the individual cars weren’t worth the effort and went to married pairs and today 4 or 5 car sets, coupled together depending on the line.

          • Joey

            Well yes, and that decision was the correct one. How does that preclude an 8-10 car train being split in half?

          • Adirondacker12800

            It costs money to couple and uncouple cars. And wear and tear on the couplers. Someone somewhere has the figures and has it’s been decided that it’s cheaper to leave them coupled up.

  7. johndmuller

    Regarding the concept of improving transit access in the suburbs, as much as I would like to propose interesting new heavy rail projects, like a short tunnel connecting Mt. Vernon on MNRR’s New Haven line to Yonkers on the Hudson line, I fear that the place to really start is much more local, i.e., the bus schedule from my neighborhood to the local MNRR station, and the fare system that doesn’t unify them.

    In ancient times, there was a streetcar started 2 blocks from where my house is and ran down to the local village (2 blocks from the New York Central RR station), and continued on through downtown Yonkers and on to the end of the IRT subway at 242nd St. in the Bronx. It probably cost 5 cents plus or minus and took at least an hour or more to get downtown, but it was there, and one could get off in the village and take the NYCRR to go faster, at least in the peak hours. In the other direction, 5 or 6 blocks away, was a station on the Central’s Putnam division, which wound a slightly less direct way down to the city.

    Of course, the streetcar is gone now, bustituted, and the vaunted flexibility of buses has allowed the route to be chopped up, adjusted, consolidated, extended, made more efficient, etc., so that now the 2 blocks away bus stop is on a seldom used spur of some greater through route getting only about a half dozen trips per day, at a not at all regular schedule (in other words, pretty useless).

    Driving to the train station has even become iffy unless you (want and are able to) buy a commuter pass, as the otherwise available spaces at the station are mostly taken early and the adjacent areas are increasingly the domain of short term parking meters.

    It has always been possible to walk to the village and take a boat, a train, a stagecoach, trolley, whatever from there, but it is rather hilly around here and while the downhills are not so bad unless it is icy, the uphills are not that much fun for anyone (making biking dicey as well). Sidewalks seem to have lost their appeal about 50 years ago, so they are only a 50-50 proposition now, and the narrower the road, the less likely they seem to be and the more inconsiderate the drivers.

    So much for that sad story, I’m just trying to pound into the ground the idea that it is a simple matter to increase transit share in the suburbs, even in a place like this where there are still quite a few options. In my opinion, a great deal of stuff needs to be done at a quite local level before you have a reasonable chance to even get down below 2 cars per household. A mini-bus going in and out of the village all day along a few enough routes to keep the schedule frequent; then maybe more exciting stuff later. As you might expect, regional rail seems to be several steps beyond this level.

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