New York Regional Rail: Scheduling Trains of Different Speeds

The simplest train schedules are when every train makes every stop. This means there are no required overtakes, and no need for elaborate track construction except for reasons of capacity. In nearly all cities in the world, double-track mainlines with flying junctions for branches are enough for regional rail. Schedule complexity comes from branching and short-turns, and from the decision which lines to join together, but it’s then possible to run independently-scheduled lines, in which delays don’t propagate. I have worked on a map as part of a proposal for Boston, and there, the only real difficulty is how to optimize turnaround times..

But then there’s New York. New York is big enough that some trunk lines have and need four tracks, introducing local and express patterns. It also has reverse-branching on some lines: the Hudson Line and New Haven Line can serve either Penn Station or Grand Central, and there are key urban stations on the connections from either station to either line. The presence of Jamaica Station makes it tempting to reverse-branch the LIRR. Everything together makes for a complex map. I talked in 2014 about a five- or six-line system, and even there, without the local/express artifacts, the map looks complicated. Key decisions turn out to depend on rolling stock, on scheduling, and on decisions made about intercity rail fares.

Here is what I drew last week. It’s a six-line map: lines 1 and 2 connect the Northeast Corridor on both sides plus logical branches and the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR, line 3 connects Hempstead with the Empire Corridor, line 4 connects the Harlem Line with the Staten Island Railway as a north-south trunk, line 5 connects the Erie Lines with the South Side LIRR lines, line 6 connects the Morris and Essex Lines with the LIRR Main Line.

As I indicated in the map’s text, there are extra possible lines, going up to 9; if I revised the map to include one line, call it line 7, I’d connect the Northern Branch and West Shore Railroad to a separate tunnel under 43rd Street, going east and taking over the LIRR portions of line 3; then the new line 3 would connect the Hudson Line with the Montauk Line (both Lower Montauk and the Babylon Branch) via an East River Tunnel extension. The other options are at this point too speculative even for me; I’m not even certain about line 6, let alone line 7, let alone anything else.

But the real difficulty isn’t how to add lines, if at all. It’s the reverse branch of lines 1 and 2. These two lines mostly go together in New Jersey and on the New Haven Line, but then take two different routes to Manhattan. The difficulty is how to assign local and express trains. The map has all line 1 trains going local: New Brunswick-Port Washington, or Long Branch-Stamford. Line 2 trains are a mix of local and express. This is a difficult decision, and I don’t know that this is the right choice. Several different scheduling constraints exist:

  1. Intercity trains should use line 1 and not line 2. This is for two reasons: the curve radius between Penn Station and Grand Central might be too tight for Shinkansen trains; and the Metro-North trunk north of Grand Central has no room for extra tracks, so that the speed difference between intercity and regional trains (e.g. no stop at Harlem-125th) would limit capacity. For the same reason, line 1 only has a peak of 6 trains per hour on the Northeast Corridor east of where the Port Washington Branch splits.
  2. Since not many regional trains can go between New Rochelle and Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor, they should provide local service – express service should all go via Grand Central.
  3. There are long segments with only four tracks, requiring track sharing between intercity trains and express regional trains. These occur between New Rochelle and Rye, and between the end of six-tracking in Rahway and New Brunswick. See details and a sample schedule without new Hudson tunnels here. This encourages breaking service so that in the Manhattan core, it’s the local trains that share tunnel tracks with intercity trains, while express trains, which share tracks farther out, are less constrained.
  4. Express trains on the New Jersey side should stay express on the New Haven Line, to provide fast service on some plausible station pairs like Newark-Stamford or New Rochelle-New Brunswick. Flipping local and express service through Manhattan means through-riders would have to transfer at Secaucus (which is plausible) or Penn Station (which is a bad idea no matter how the station is configured).
  5. There should be infill stops in Hudson County: at Bergenline Avenue for bus connections and the high local population density, and just outside the portal, at the intersection with the Northern Branch. These stops should be on line 2 (where they can be built new) and not line 1 (where the tunnels would need to be retrofitted), and trains cannot skip them, so the line that gets these stops should run locals.

It is not possible to satisfy all constraints simultaneously. Constraint 5 means that in New Jersey, line 2 should be local and line 1 should be express. Constraint 4 means the same should be true on the Metro-North side. But then constraints 2 and 3 encourage making line 1 local, especially on the Metro-North side. Something has to give.

On the map, the compromise is that there’s an infill stop at Bergenline but not at the intersection with the Northern Branch (which further encourages detaching the Northern Branch from line 5 and making it part of a Midtown-serving line 7). So the line 2 express trains are one stop slower than the line 1 locals between Newark and New York, which is not a huge problem.

The scheduling is still a problem, The four-track segment through Elizabeth between the six-track segments around Newark Airport and in Linden and Rahway has to be widened to six tracks; the four-track segment between the split with the North Jersey Coast Line and Jersey Avenue can mix three speed classes, with some express trains sharing tracks with intercity trains and others with local trains, but it’s not easy. At least on the Connecticut side, any high-speed rail service requires so many bypasses along I-95 that those bypasses can be used for overtakes.

At this point, it stops being purely about regional rail scheduling. The question of intercity rail fares becomes relevant: can people take intercity trains within the metro area with no or limited surcharge over regional trains? If so, then constraint 4 is no longer relevant: nobody would take regional trains on any segment served by intercity trains. In turn, there would be demand for local intercity trains, stopping not just at New Haven, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia, but also at Stamford, New Rochelle, perhaps Metropark (on new express platforms), and Trenton. In that case, the simplest solution is to flip lines 1 and 2 in New Jersey: line 1 gets the express trains to Trenton and the trains going all the way to Bay Head, line 2 gets the locals to Jersey Avenue, the Raritan Valley Line trains, and the Long Branch short-turns.

This, in turn, depends on rolling stock. Non-tilting high-speed trains could easily permit passengers with unreserved seats to pay commuter rail fare. On tilting trains, this is dicier. In Germany, tilting trains with unreserved tickets (ICE-T) have a computer constantly checking whether the train is light enough to be allowed to tilt, and if it is too heavy, it shuts down the tilt mechanism. This should not be acceptable for the Northeast Corridor. This might not be necessary for tilting Shinkansen (which are so light to begin with this isn’t a problem, and they do sell unreserved tickets in Japan), but it’s necessary for Pendolinos and for the Avelias that Amtrak just ordered. Selling reserved tickets at commuter rail fares is another option, but it might not be plausible given peak demand into New York.

The point of this exercise is that the best transit planning requires integrating all aspects: rolling stock, timetable, infrastructure, and even pricing. Questions like “can intercity trains charge people commuter rail fares for unreserved tickets?” affect express regional service, which in turn affects which branch connects to which trunk line.

Ultimately, this is the reason I draw expansive maps like this one. Piecemeal planning, line by line, leads to kludges, which are rarely optimized for interconnected service. New York is full of examples of poor planning coming from disintegrated planning, especially on Long Island. I contend that the fact that, for all of the Gateway project’s scope creep and cost escalations, there’s no proposed stop at Bergenline Avenue, is a prime example of this planning by kludge. To build the optimal line 2, the region really needs to know where lines 3-6 should go, and right now, there’s simply none of this long-term planning.


  1. Joey

    Great write-up! Couple of thoughts:

    1) I think it might be possible to add additional capacity under Park Ave. It’s certainly wide enough to fix 6 tracks under it. Some reconstruction might be necessary near 86th St where the abandoned platforms are between the local and express tracks (see cross section about 1/3 of the way down the page). I guess the ambiguous part starts in what to do once the existing 4 tracks go above ground – you could widen the existing portal and then viaduct, or keep the tracks underground all the way into the Bronx

    2) As alternative to line 7 above, would it make sense to route those lines via the abandoned Fairview tunnel and then via a new tunnel or bridge to join the Hudson line? I think the overall amount of construction would be less (since you don’t need a new tunnel under the palisades, although you might want to add a station at Fairview) and I think it would do more to saturate the northern pair of East River Tunnels (you’d probably want to add another line on the Long Island side).

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with #2 is that then you have a new underwater tunnel that can’t be used to full capacity (since it shares tracks with trains that don’t go through the tunnel). Tunneling under the Palisades isn’t that expensive – the expensive part is underwater tunneling and tunneling in Manhattan, so it’s better to set up the line to make that part easier.

      I think on the east side, line 3 gets saturated very easily. It provides local service in Queens and Hempstead, and under any rational fare system, that fills very fast.

      Six-tracking Park Avenue is nontrivial! It’s 4.5 km of painful new construction for the exclusive use of intercity trains. That’s not where you’d spend ~$2 billion at normal-world costs on high-speed rail in the Northeast (try a longer I-95 bypass heading into Stamford, a restored Providence East Side tunnel, larger curve radius in Elizabeth knocking down the housing project to the west, and maybe a downtown tunnel alignment in Baltimore). The only regional benefit to this is more frequency on the Penn Station Access route, and that by itself isn’t worth thaaaat much. You’d need to do other construction anyway to disentangle the Port Washington Branch, and if you do that, then with all-surface construction you can just as well run 12 tph regional even with track-sharing with HSR (with four tracks everywhere except Hell Gate Bridge).

      • Joey

        Doesn’t that assume that you could saturate a tube only with demand from just those two lines though? It seems less than guaranteed to me.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    Princeton Junction and Metropark used to make it into the lists of Amtrak’s busiest stations. Because the Clockers would run empty between Philadelphia and Trenton. Either there is very little space on the intercity trains for trips across the metro area or there are a lot of empty seats south of Trenton and east of New Haven. They have software these days that can adjust the fare to suppress demand to fill the seats almost precisely. They can use the same software to make the fare on the trains bouncing back and forth between Phialdelphia and New York cheaper than the faster trains. The very clever software can figure out things like Harrisburg-Springfield via West Trenton makes sense. Or not. The shuttle bus from Morristown to Bound Brook/Bridgewater can haul people who want to go to Washington D.C. there in addition to the few dozen people a week who want to go to Jenkintown. Though I suspect there are more people in Morris County interested in Temple, Jefferson and Suburban than there interested in Jenkintown.

    Nassau and Suffolk have 90 % of the population of Connecticut, Brooklyn has 84 % of the population of Connecticut and Queens has 74%. It would be okay if New Rochelle, Stamford and Bridgeport had once an hour service to Boston via Providence, once an hour via Hartford and once an hour to Albany and beyond. I suspect Connecticut is much more interested in turning the local between Springfield and New Haven into the express to Penn Station or the local from New London to New Haven into the express to Penn Station than it is in turning the local between New Haven and Stamford into the express to Philadelphia. Though they could do something clever like turn every other one into the express to Grand Central. Nah, M8s to New London means New London is the terminus for the Grand Central trains and Springfield is the terminus for the Penn Station trains that don’t terminate in Stamford or New Haven. Change in New Haven or Stamford. People in Pennsylvania who get on NJTransit trains in Trenton and Hamilton are much more interested in local between Philadelphia and Trenton or West Trenton and express to Newark and Manhattan than they are in express to New Haven.

    You have to put a bigger waiting room or a second concourse into Wall Street and Brooklyn but there’s no reason why two or three Kodama an hour can’t wander off that way. . . there are more people in Brooklyn than there are in metro Baltimore and many of them have a one seat ride to Barclay’s Center. Though since there are lot less people between New Rochelle and New Haven than there are between Wall Street and Yaphank it’s more like two or three Kodama wander through Fairfield County. This would give everybody the heebie jeebies, Hicksville or Ronlonkoma to Albany via Hartford would be faster than through Manhattan. People in Hartford want to go to Cleveland, Montreal and the places in between. … they want to change in Springfield for parts of Vermont and Saratoga Springs for other parts of Vermont. .. There are more people along the Inland Route than there are along the Shore Line… you are under guesstimating things.

    • Alon Levy

      The only way you’re hitting more people along the Inland Route than along I-95 is if you swerve from Hartford to Providence. Hartford + Worcester are not bigger than Providence + New London; the NEC Future study claiming that the Inland Route has more people sandbags Providence by excluding its Massachusetts suburbs.

      Having some intercity trains hit Ronkonkoma isn’t bad! One of the aspects of the map that I didn’t discuss in the post is the assignment of LIRR lines to Manhattan trunks. Flipping lines 3 and 6, so that Hempstead gets to go to Grand Central and the M&E Lines and the Main Line connects to Penn Station and the Hudson Line, is quite easy. The only reason the map doesn’t flip them is that in a 5-line system, with line 6 just stub-ending at ESA, it’s better to through-run Hempstead than the Main Line, on the “through-running is more important for local lines than for express lines” principle. With lines 3 and 6 flipped, it’s very easy to schedule some intercity trains on the Main Line. It would have to be quad-tracked, but that by itself isn’t that expensive by the standards of building tunnels.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    Metro Boston sucks in Providence and Worcester. I’m not going to try to parse what metro each itty bitty town is in. There are more people in Worcester County, Hampden County and Hartford County than there are in metro Providence. 2.1 million versus 1.6 million. Throwing metro New London in still doesn’t give you more people.

    • Alon Levy

      Hampden County isn’t on any high-speed inland route, though. It’s plausibly on a legacy inland route, which would be way slower than the Shore Line because have you seen how curvy the Boston and Albany is?

      • Adirondacker12800

        It’s one of the places off the NEC that would be busy enough to spend the money on. It connects the ten million people in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Masschusetts to the 5 million people in upstate New York. the 11 million people in Ohio, 4 million people in metro Detroit and 15 million Canadians. …. Almost as many people as the full build out of stuff radiating from Los Angeles. Go across the Sound instead of trying to fix Connecticut and it connects even more people. Where else are there that many people in range of HSR?

        • Alon Levy

          The problem with this list of regions is that, if they’re west of New York, they don’t benefit very much from routing HSR through Long Island. The travel time difference between HSR and upgraded legacy express trains is maybe 20 minutes, possibly as low as 15. Even with a transfer penalty, it’s not that big of a deal relative to a 2.5- or 3-hour trip.

          The big difference is connections to points east. The Sound tunnel gets you New Haven-Ronkonkoma in maybe 15 minutes, vs. 1:15 on HSR from New Haven to New York + upgraded legacy express on the LIRR. The question is whether connecting Long Island to New England is worth 27 km of underwater tunneling.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Routing HSR through Stamford screws all the people on Long Island. There are twice as many of them as there are in Connecticut. Though Amtrak, at the moment wants to send HSR through Danbury and Waterbury not Stamford and New Haven. Sending HSR through Danbury doesn’t get Bostoinians to Albany. There is no legacy ROW that can be upgraded from New England to Albany. Any that exist has too much freight on it. Springfield-Worcester has too much freight on it. Freight is good. It keeps trucks off the road. Barges are good, they keep trucks off the road. Which is why when Amtrak rebuilds bridges along the Shore Line they make them higher and where possible avoid movable ones.

            Causeways are lot cheaper than tunnels and since there aren’t any Navy bases on that part of the Sound you probably don’t even need tunnels


          • Alon Levy

            The only way you’re doing Boston-Albany is by building a new HSR line, vaguely near I-90. The NEC inland route doesn’t actually save any money on construction (since the Shore Line east of New Haven can be done with zero tunnels), so might as well just build a triangle instead of a Y.

          • Adirondacker12800

            When people in Boston want to go to Albany or beyond they will get on a train that goes through Worcester and Springfield. When they want to go to New York or beyond they get on one that goes through Providence and New Haven. When they want to get to Hartford they’ll get on the one people in Worcester, Springfield and Hartford use to get to New York. There are enough people going enough places to have two HSR ROWs. More or less along I-90 to Buffalo connects 30 million people in the U.S. and half of Canada. Who will be sharing tracks with the 10 million other people in metro New York who aren’t in Connecticut or on Long Island, metro Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. Lancaster, Harrisburg, Richmond, Allentown but Allentown got sucked into metro New York… Albany is going to be a very busy place…. well, Rensselaer….

  4. Car(e)-Free LA

    I can’t help but wonder if at some point, intercity trains should have their own exclusive ROW through Manhattan, presumably using the existing Hudson Tunnels and the north two East River Tunnels. Perhaps they should even have their own ROW to Bronx, either via Willets Point and the Whitestone Bridge, or even via Jamaica and the Throgs Neck Bridge.
    Presumably, this capacity could be made up for by rerouting Raritan Valley Line Trains across Staten Island to line four, and then routing them out to Connecticut along line 2.

    • Alon Levy


      1. HSR should use tunnels that face each other, to speed up interlockings. A nontrivial portion of the travel time gains I’m assuming in my HSR proposals involves being able to just take the straight end of station turnouts and run at 160 km/h through the throat. This means, the old Hudson tunnels face the southern East River Tunnel pair, not the northern one.

      2. Lines 1-2 are way faster between Jersey and Manhattan than line 4. Current trip time from Linden to Penn Station is 39 minutes; with better equipment and no interlocking hell, Baltimore Junction-Penn with all the infill stops is 25 minutes. Via line 4, Baltimore Junction-Grand Central is 29 minutes. If you instead measure this from Cranford, then it’s 23 minutes on line 2 and 34 on line 4.

      3. You really don’t want to carve a new ROW for high-speed trains through New York. It won’t be straight, and the curves will kill any speed gains over just using the legacy NEC with a few curves straightened.

      • Adirondacker12800

        There’s a 75 mph curve just west of the tunnel portal according to the maps-that-are-no-longer-online. How fast can a train be going at 9th Avenue if it is going to stop at 7th ave? If it’s ten cars long the front of it will be at 9th when the end of it is at 10th…. New bridge over the Hackensack means they can blow through there at 110. Move the Morris and Essex lines off the NEC, NEC trains can blow through there at 110. So can the Morris and Essex lines, under the NEC and across the second new bridge.

        • Alon Levy

          The curve at the portal looks like the radius is 860 meters. Superelevate it to Shinkansen value and it becomes a 160 km/h curve for regional rail and a hair less than 170 km/h for HSR. Superelevate it to a normal mixed traffic level (150 mm, as opposed to 200) and it’s still 150 km/h for regional rail and 155 km/h for HSR.

          By the same token, Portal Bridge is not an ROW geometry constraint. It’s an old bridge problem, and part of the speed limit (how big a part I don’t know) can be mitigated by running lighter trains on it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They are going to tear it down as soon as the new one is built. Then start building second one. They need two. It would be silly to have a two track bridge connected to four tracks of tunnel. They run slower on the old bridge because it doesn’t align reliably anymore.

            15 minutes between New York and Newark. But Portal Bridge had a 90 MPH speed limit and even wheezy Arrows would hit 100 out in the Meadows.


            Part of the tasty half billion Ohio and Florida turned down is replacing all the 15mph switches west of Penn Station New York with 30 MPH switches. Trains can’t be going very fast if they are going to stop in a few hundred meters. ( to keep it simple approximately 250 to a block, 750 from from the tunnel portal to eastern end of the platforms. . )

      • Car(e)-Free LA

        True, but I think a new, faster ROW with slightly fewer stops along Staten Island is reasonable to build. Furthermore, the line 4 route is faster for anywhere in NYC other than Penn Station and the UWS.

      • Michael Schaeffer

        What do you mean by “interlocking hell”? Interlockings at Penn, or interlockings on the NJ side?

  5. Car(e)-Free LA

    I noticed your map does not include a West Trenton line. Why do you think it shouldn’t be included?

    • Alon Levy

      Because it made the numbering system even more complicated. The schedule can very easily fit in West Trenton trains running as R23s, since the branch point isn’t very far from where most trains should be short-turning anyway, i.e. Raritan.

      There are more serious reasons not to include that service on an early map, e.g. a 5-line map. There’s not much development along the line, and not much at the end, around West Trenton. It gives direct service to some Reading-side suburbs north of Philly, but the NY-Philly end-to-end time will never be as fast as even conventional NY-Philly express commuter rail, let alone intercity rail.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, okay, running on slow local tracks will wreck you. But a 160 km/h train running the R20/R21/R22 route depicted on the map could do Penn Station-Trenton in 55 minutes, and Trenton-30th Street in 36 minutes making all current SEPTA stops without any infill.

          • Adirondacker12800

            ALPs and multilevels can do 125. They don’t but they can.
            At the rate SEPTA puts in level boarding it will be 35 minutes sometime in the 22nd century. People clambering up and down from low platforms kills running time too.
            The fast express trains make it to Trenton in 75 minutes or less. Cut five minutes of padding between Newark and New York it’s down to 70. There’s quite a lot of padding between Newark and Elizabeth too. When you have an afternoon to waste, look up “Shirley Time” on If your on time performance sucks, the cheap way to fix it is to lengthen the schedule…..
            Trenton Line is Philadelphia to Trenton and the Pennsylvanians can figure out if they want local and express to Philadelphia. That would express to Newark with perhaps a stop or two. Trenton to North Brunswick, North Brunswick to Rahway and Rahway to New York. Rahway to New York could be the inner local on the North Jersey Coast instead of the Trenton Line. Infill where South Elizabeth and North Rahway used to be would be good. And get people in Monmouth County to decide where they want the other line to go. There is more than one option.
            Raritan Valley line is local from Allentown to Phillipsburg, Philipsburg to Bridgewater or the enormous park-ride at-287 and there to Newark. Figure out if stopping everything at Union makes sense because Kean University and a big Merck campus are there. And figure out where all the post-Panamax freight is going to go. It’s Philadelphia to West Trenton or the big office complex east of there, then express to Newark and West Trenton to the park-ride.

  6. Adirondacker12800

    ….Line 6

    You aren’t going to run third rail all over New Jersey. Or build anything in Greenwich Village. You might get away with burrowing a deep tunnel under stuff but you aren’t going to build things in Ye Olde Greenwich Village HIstorick District where tiny condos start at a million.

    • Eric

      “You aren’t going to run third rail all over New Jersey.”

      It’s cheap, it wouldn’t be a cost issue. But more likely is to run catenary all over Long Island.

      “Or build anything in Greenwich Village.”

      I don’t know what Alon was thinking, but to me the main justification for a stop there is the subway transfer.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Third rail is not cheap. Otherwise Metro North and NJTransit would have used it when they re-electrified. Not that the former Erie main line is straight enough to do it but third rail has mechanical issues around 90 mph. Volts time amp equals watts, it has electrical issues too. If we are going to be building deep cavern stations it makes more sense to build the deep cavern stations so that people don’t need to get on the subway to get to where they are going.

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