Based on a Patreon poll, the top two priorities for this blog for critiquing the RPA Fourth Regional Plan are its mess of the LGA connection and the Astoria Line, and the proposed commuter rail trunk line on Third Avenue. The third priority is multi-tracking existing lines and timetable-infrastructure integration.
New York’s existing regional rail network suggests a north-south trunk line, starting from the Harlem Line in the north and continuing south to Lower Manhattan and beyond. Such a line would run parallel to the Lexington Avenue Line, providing additional express service, running fast not just between 125th Street and City Hall but also farther north and south. Going back to 2009, I have proposed such a line, controversially continuing on to Staten Island:
Of note, the depicted regional rail network makes use of the entirety of Grand Central’s approach tracks. There are four tracks, two used by Line 2 to Penn Station (the green line) and two by Line 4 (the blue line), the north-south trunk under discussion. In contrast, here is the RPA version:
There is a lot more going on in the RPA version – more tunnels, some light rail lines – but the important thing to focus on in this post is the north-south trunk. The RPA is proposing the following items:
- A north-south trunk line under Third Avenue, with an onward connection to Brooklyn.
- Stops at 125th, 86th, 42nd, 31st, 14th, Canal, and Fulton Street.
- Two tunnels to New Jersey (in addition to Gateway), at 57th and Houston Streets, using Third Avenue to connect between them.
- A tunnel directly under the Harlem Line in the Bronx, called an express tunnel but making more stops, with infill at 138th and 149th Street, to intersect the 6 and 2/5 trains respectively.
I contend that all three elements are problematic, and should not be built without major changes.
1. Third Avenue
The RPA plan bypasses the existing tracks to Grand Central entirely. This simplifies scheduling, in the sense that all trains using Third Avenue are captive to the reorganized system from the start. It also serves the Upper East Side and East Harlem slightly better: there is more population density east of Third Avenue than west of it, so it materially benefits riders to have a commuter rail station on Third rather than on Park, where the current line goes.
Unfortunately, these advantages are swamped by the fact that this means the Fourth Regional Plan is proposing about 8 kilometers of tunnel, from 138th Street to 42nd, redundant with the existing Grand Central approach. At the cost I think is appropriate for urban tunnels, this is around $2 billion. At what New York seems to actually spend, start from $13 billion and go up.
Because this trunk line would have to be built from scratch, it also has necessarily limited capacity. The Grand Central approach has four tracks; Third Avenue is as far as I can tell based on the plan just two. Many trains on the Hudson and New Haven Lines would need to keep terminating at the existing Grand Central station, with no through-service; any transfer to the Third Avenue trunk would involve walking a long block between Park and Third Avenues, 310 meters apart.
The capacity limitation, in turn, forces some reverse-branching onto Metro-North, on top of that coming from future Penn Station Access lines (the connections from the New Haven and Hudson Lines to Penn Station, depicted on both the RPA map and my map). It is possible to avoid this by connecting just one of Metro-North’s line to the new trunk, probably the Harlem Line, and then make passengers from the other two lines go to the existing Grand Central. But at least as depicted in the map, this service pattern seems unlikely: the High Bridge infill stop suggests some Hudson Line trains would go to the trunk, too. Unfortunately, even without reverse-branching, service would not be great, since connections between the old and new system (especially with the Hudson Line) would require a long walk at 125th Street or Grand Central.
The long walk is also a problem for the trunk line from Grand Central south. According to OnTheMap, the center of gravity of Midtown jobs seems to be between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, with few jobs east of Third. While this trunk line is good for scooping Upper East Side passengers, it isn’t good for delivering them to their exact destination.
2. Stop Spacing
The RPA stop spacing is too local. The 4 and 5 trains stop at 125th, 86th, 59th, Grand Central, Union Square, City Hall, and Fulton Street. It’s for this reason that my map’s Line 4 is so express, stopping only at 125th Street, Grand Central, Union Square, and Fulton Street: the line parallels the Lexington Avenue Line so closely that it should offer a different stopping pattern. For the same reason, observe that I do not include any infill on the LIRR Main Line west of Jamaica, where is it closely parallel to the Queens Boulevard Line with its E and F express trains; on lines not so close to express subways, I have extensive infill instead.
In contrast, the RPA wants trains to make the same number of stops between Harlem and Lower Manhattan as the 4 and 5 subway lines, just at slightly different locations: 31st instead of 59th, Canal instead of City Hall.
The Canal Street location is understandable. Chinatown is a major destination, overshadowed by Midtown and Lower Manhattan but important in its own right; the Canal Street complex on the 6, N/Q/R/W, and J/Z is the 18th busiest subway station in New York on weekdays and the 11th busiest on weekends. It’s also an intersection point between the north-south trunk line and the N/Q trains (in addition to Union Square) and the J/Z trains (in addition to Fulton Street). I think it’s overall not a good idea to include this location, because the 4/5/6 exist, and the connections to the N/Q and J/Z also exist elsewhere, but I think the alternatives analysis for this project should include this station as an option.
In contrast, 31st Street is inexcusable. On the surface, the rationale for it is clear: provide a transfer point with the east-west tunnels feeding Penn Station. In practice, it is weak. The area is just frustratingly out of walking range from Midtown jobs for train riders. The transfer is good in theory, but in practice requires a new tunnel from Penn Station to Long Island, one that the RPA included because Long Island’s turf warriors wanted it despite complete lack of technical merit; the cost of this tunnel, according to RPA head Tom Wright, would be $7 billion. The only reason to include this connection in the first place is that RPA decided against a connection between Grand Central and Penn Station.
3. The New Jersey Tunnels
In New Jersey, the RPA believes in making no little plans, proposing three two-track Hudson crossings: Gateway, and two new tunnels, one connecting Bergen and Passaic Counties with 57th Street, and one from Hoboken to Houston Street. Tunnels in the general vicinity of these are good ideas. But in this plan, there’s one especially bad element: those tunnels link into the same Third Avenue trunk line.
The RPA has a tendency, going back to at least the Third Regional Plan, to hang many elements on one central piece of infrastructure. The Third Plan proposed Second Avenue Subway as a four-track line, with many branches hitting all the other priorities: regional rail, an express rail connection to JFK, more lines in Brooklyn and the Bronx – see schematic on PDF-p. 13 of the executive summary and more detail on PDF-pp. 204-207 of the full plan. Most of these elements were good on their own, but the connection to Second Avenue Subway made them more awkward, with extensive conventional- and reverse-branching, and a JFK connection that would miss all Midtown hotels.
On this plan, the need to link the new elements to the Third Avenue trunk leads to incoherent lines. High-frequency east-west trunks would make a lot of sense, complementing the north-south trunk, but instead of connecting Hoboken with Brooklyn and 57th Street with Long Island, both end up hooking to the north-south trunk and loop back to connect to each other. The proposed tunnels are already there, in the form of Gateway East and the trunk connection to Brooklyn, they just don’t align. Instead, the only east-west alignment that fully goes through is Gateway, with just one stop in Manhattan at Penn Station, except in the tunnel that also has an additional stop at off-Midtown 31st and 3rd.
4. Harlem Line Tunnel
Between Grand Central and Wakefield, the Harlem Line has four tracks. In the South Bronx, the Hudson Line splits off, but the rest of the Harlem Line still has four tracks. Thus, the Bronx effectively has six tracks feeding four in Manhattan. It is this configuration that probably led the RPA to believe, in error, that two additional regional rail tracks in Manhattan were required. In this situation, it is unlikely there will ever be capacity problems on the Harlem Line in the Bronx – the bottleneck is further south. So why is the RPA proposing to add two more tracks to the Harlem Line, in a tunnel?
In section 1 of this post, I defined the Third Avenue trunk’s unnecessary part as running from Grand Central to 138th Street, a total of 8 km. This tunnel, from 138th to the depicted northern end at Woodlawn, where the Harlem and New Haven Lines split, is 11 km. In a city with reasonable cost control, this should be around $2.5 billion. In New York, it would be much more – I can’t tell how much, since it is likely to be cheaper than the recent subway projects (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, and the 7 extension), both of which were in Manhattan, but I would guess about $10 billion is in line with existing New York costs. Is there any valid reason to spend so much money on this tunnel?
When I interviewed Tom Wright and Foster Nichols for my above-linked Streetsblog piece, I only saw the plans around Gateway, and was aware of the Third Avenue trunk idea but not of any of the details, so I never got a chance to ask about the Harlem Line express tunnel. So I can only guess at why the RPA would propose such a line: it got some pushback from the suburbs about wanting more express trains. The RPA could try to explain to suburbanites that the new system would not be so slow in the Grand Central throat: Metro-North does the 6.6 km from 125th to Grand Central in 10 minutes; the trains are capable of doing it in 5-6 minutes, but the last 15 blocks are excruciatingly slow, which slowness would be eliminated with any through-running, via the existing tunnels or via Third Avenue. Instead, for the same reason the organization caved to Long Island pressure to include Gateway East, it caved to Westchester pressure to include more express tracks.
In reality, this tunnel has no merit at all. The way the existing suburban lines are laid out points to a clear service pattern: the Harlem Line on the local tracks, the New Haven Line on the express tracks (regardless if those trains run local or express on the New Haven Line farther out). Wakefield has four tracks and two platforms, but the Harlem and New Haven Lines split just short of it; perhaps new local platforms on the New Haven Line could connect to it, or perhaps the junction could be rebuild north of Wakefield, to enable transfers. With much of the New Haven Line capacity occupied by the reverse-branch to Penn Station Access, there wouldn’t be much of a capacity crunch on the express tracks; in a counterfactual in which reverse-branching is not a problem, some Harlem Line trains could even be routed onto the spare capacity on the express tracks.
Build a Network, Not One Line With Branches
In the short run, the biggest thing the RPA is proposing for regional rail in New York is Gateway plus tie-ins. But this doesn’t really distinguish it from what the politicians want. The real centerpiece of the Fourth Plan, as far as regional rail goes, is the Third Avenue trunk line – even taking over some functionality of Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA proposes to not build south of 63rd Street.
Unfortunately, this trunk line, while almost good, doesn’t quite work. It has 19 km of superfluous tunneling, from Grand Central to Woodlawn, adding no new service to the system, nor new connections to existing service, nor more capacity on lines that really need it. And it insists on linking new east-west tunnels beyond Gateway to the same trunk, ensuring that they couldn’t really work as east-west trunks from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. In centering the trunk, the RPA is in effect ruining the possibility for additional trunks creating a bigger system.
Building a north-south trunk leveraging the Harlem Line is a no-brainer. When I sent Yonah Freemark my first regional rail proposal in 2009, he responded with some draft he’d been working on, I think as an RPA intern, proposing a through-running network using the Harlem Line, with an extension to the south with an onward connection to Brooklyn much like the RPA’s current Third Avenue trunk south of 42nd Street. It’s something that different people with an interest in improving New York’s transit system could come up with independently. What matters is the details, and here, the Fourth Regional Plan falls short.