Chatelet-Les Halles has a problem with passenger circulation. It has exceedingly wide platforms – the main platforms, used by the RER A and B, are 17 meters wide – but getting between the platform level and the rest of the station runs into a bottleneck. There are not enough stairs and escalators between the platform and the mezzanine, and as a result, queues develop after every train arrival at rush hour. Similar queues are observed at the Gare du Nord RER platforms. The situation at Les Halles is especially frustrating, since it’s not a constrained station. The platforms are so wide they could very easily have four or even six escalators per access point flanking a wide staircase; instead, there are only two escalators, an acceptable situation at most stations but not at a station as important as Les Halles.
This is generally an underrated concern in the largest cities. In smaller cities, the minimum number of access points required for coverage (e.g. one per short subway platform, two per long platform) is enough even at rush hour. But once daily ridership at a station goes into the high five figures or the six figures, a crunch is unavoidable.
There are two degrees of crunch. The first, and worse, is when the capacity of the escalators and stairs is not enough to clear all passengers until the next train arrives. In practice, this forces trains to come less often, or to spread across more platforms than otherwise necessary; Penn Station’s New Jersey Transit platforms are that bad. The situation at Les Halles and Gare du Nord is a second, less bad degree of crunch: passengers clear the platform well before the next train arrives, but there’s nonetheless a significant queue at the bottom of the escalator pits. This adds 30-60 seconds to passenger trip times, a nontrivial proportion of total trip time (it’s a few percent for passengers within the city and inner suburbs). Avoiding even the less bad crunch thus has noticeable benefits to passengers.
The capacity of a horizontal walkway is 81 passengers per minute per meter of width (link, p. 7-10). This is for bidirectional travel. Unidirectional capacity is a little higher, multidirectional capacity a little lower. Subway platforms and passages are typically around 5 meters wide, so they can move 400 passengers per minute – maybe a little more since the big crunch is passengers heading out, so it’s unidirectional with a few salmons (passengers arrive at the station uniformly but leave in clumps when the train arrives). Busier stations often have exits at opposite ends of the platform, so it’s really 400*2 = 800. Queues are unlikely to form, since trains at best arrive 2 minutes apart, and it’s uncommon for a train to both be full and unload all passengers at one station.
An escalator step can be 60 cm, 80 cm, or 1 meter wide, with another 60 cm of handrail and gear space on both sides. On public transit, only the widest option is used, giving 1.6 meters of width. The theoretical capacity is 9,000 passengers per hour, but the practical capacity is 6,000-7,000 (link, p. 13), or 100-120 per minute. This is more than pedestrian walking capacity per unit of step width, but less per unit of escalator pit width. So a pedestrian walkway ending in a battery of escalators will have a queue, unless the width of the escalator bank is more than that of the walkway leading to it.
Moreover, escalators aren’t just at the end of the station. The busiest train stations have multiple access points per platform, to spread the alighting passengers across different sections of the platform. But mid-platform access points have inherently lower capacity, since they compete for scarce platform width with horizontal circulation. It appears that leaving around 2 meters on each side, and dedicating the rest to vertical circulation, is enough to guarantee convenient passenger access to the entire platform; in a crunch, most passengers take the first access point up, especially if there’s a mezzanine (which there is at Les Halles).
Should New York invest in better commuter rail operations, it will face a bigger risk of queues than Paris has. This is for two reasons. First, New York has much higher job density in Midtown than Paris has anywhere, about 200,000/km^2 vs. perhaps 100,000 around La Defense and the Opera (my figures for both areas in Paris have huge fudge factors; my figure for New York comes from OnTheMap and is exact). And second, Manhattan’s north-south orientation makes it difficult to spread demand across multiple CBD stations on many commuter rail lines. One of the underrated features of a Penn Station-Grand Central connection is that through-trains would have passengers spread across two CBD stops, but other through-running regional rail lines would not have even that – at best they’d serve multiple CBDs, with one Midtown stop (e.g. my line 4 here).
When I computed the needs for vertical circulation at a Fulton Street regional rail station in this post, I was just trying to avoid the worse kind of crunch, coming up with a way to include 16 platform-end escalators (12 up, 4 down in the morning peak) and 16 mid-platform escalators (8 up, 8 down) on a 300-meter long two-level station. It’s likely that the escalator requirement should be higher, to avoid delaying passengers by 1-1.5 minutes at a time. With four tracks (two on a Grand Central-Staten Island line, two on a Pavonia-Brooklyn line) and 12-car trains arriving every 2 minutes, in theory the station could see 240,000 incoming passengers per hour, or 4,000 per minute. In reality, splitting passengers between Grand Central and the Financial District on what I call line 4 means that a sizable majority of riders wouldn’t be getting off in Lower Manhattan. When I tried to compute capacity needs I used a limit passenger volume of 120,000 per hour, and given Midtown’s prominence over Lower Manhattan, even 90,000 is defensible.
90,000 per hour is still 1,500 per minute, or 3,000-4,000 if we are to avoid minute-long queues. A single up escalator is limited to about 100-120 people per minute, which means that twenty up escalators is too little; thirty or even forty are needed. This requires a wider platform, not for horizontal passenger circulation or for safety, but purely for escalator space, the limiting factor. I proposed an 8-meter platform, with space for four escalators per end (two ends per platform, two platforms on two different levels), but this suggests the tube diameter should be bigger, to allow 10-meter platforms and six escalators per end, giving four up escalators per end. This is 16 up escalators. Another 16-20 up escalators can be provided mid-platform: the plan for eight up escalators involved eight access points interspersed along the platform, and 10-meter platforms are wide enough width to include three escalators (two up, one down) per bank and on the border of allowing four (three up, one down).
The situation at the Midtown stations in New York is less constrained. Expected volumes are higher, but Grand Central and Penn Station both spread passengers among multiple platforms. In the near term, Penn Station needs to add more vertical circulation at the New Jersey Transit platforms. The LIRR remodeled its section of the station to add more access points in the 1990s (e.g. West End Concourse), but New Jersey Transit is only doing so now, as part of phase 1 of Moynihan Station, and it’s still not adding as many, since its platforms are shorter and don’t extend as far to the west.
Nonetheless, given the number of proposals out there for improving Penn Station, including ReThinkNYC and Penn Design’s plan, it’s important to think of longer-term plans for better vertical circulation. When I proposed eliminating Penn Station’s above-ground infrastructure, I came up with a design for six approach tracks (including a new Hudson tunnel connecting to Grand Central), each splitting into two platform tracks facing the same platform; the six platforms would each be 15 meters wide, but unlike Les Halles, each of six access points would have six escalators, four up and two down in the morning peak, or alternatively four escalators and a wide staircase (the climb is 13 meters, equivalent to a five-floor walkup). There would be ample capacity for anything; emptying a full 12-car train would take forty seconds, and it’s unlikely an entire 12-car train would empty.