When are Express Trains Warranted? Part 1: Regional Rail

The Regional Plan Association has a detailed regional rail proposal out. It’s the same one from the Fourth Plan that I’ve criticized here, on Streetsblog, and on Curbed, but with more explanation for how the service should run, with stopping patterns and frequency.

There are some good aspects there, like a section about the importance of electrification and multiple-units, though it stops short of calling for full electrification and replacement of locomotives with EMUs; the focus on off-peak frequency is also welcome. There are also bad ones, like the claim on p. 32 that it’s difficult to impossible to provide through-running using the existing Penn Station tracks used by New Jersey Transit. Foster Nichols told me that there are some difficulties with grades but they should be doable if NJT commits to an all-EMU fleet, and reminded me that the ARC studies judged through-running using these station tracks and new tunnels feasible. What he expressed to me as a difficulty turned into a near-impossibility in the report, in order to justify the $7 billion Penn Station South project.

But I want to focus on one particularly bad aspect of the proposal: the stopping patterns. The RPA is proposing three distinct stopping patterns on pp. 32-45, with three separate brands: Metro, in the city and some inner suburbs; Regional Express (RX), in the suburbs; and Trans-Regional Limited (TRL), providing intercity service to New Haven, Ronkonkoma, Philadelphia, and other major stations outside the built-up area. Even as the plan talks about the importance of making sure suburban trains serve urban stations in order to give them frequent service through overlay, the stopping patterns suggest the opposite.

The proposal involves trains from the suburbs expressing through most city stations (including the infill) even on two-track lines, like the Port Washington Branch. Metro trains would make all current stops plus additional infill to Bayside, and RX trains would only serve Willets Point, Flushing, and Bayside, and then run from Bayside to Port Washington. A similar pattern happens from Jamaica to Valley Stream, resulting in the Babylon, Long Beach, and Far Rockaway Branches all having to share a track pair. Moreover, the RX trains may themselves be divided into local and express trains, for example on the New Haven Line.

This is bad practice. On a two-track line, there’s no real reason to skip a handful of inner stations just to guarantee the outer ones express service. If anything, the need to schedule trains on the same tracks would lead to more fragile timetables, requiring more schedule padding. My analysis from 2.5 years ago found that the LIRR Main Line is padded 32% and the Babylon Branch is padded 19%: that is, the scheduled travel time on the Main Line (up to Ronkonkoma) is 32% more than the travel time imputed from line speed limits and current fleet acceleration performance. Patrick O’Hara, who the RPA study even quotes as a source elsewhere, investigated this issue separately, looking at best-case timetables, and found that some runs are padded 40-50%.

In Switzerland, trains are padded 7%, and I’m told that in Japan, after the Amagasaki accident showcased the safety problems of overly precise schedules, pads are about 5%. Express trains and locals mixed on the same line make it harder to maintain tight enough reliability for low schedule padding; this way, on an all-local line, trip times may match those of express trains on mixed lines, as they do in my analysis above. The best analogy is the RER B going to the north: the express trains are 4 minutes faster than the local trains, skipping 9 stops. The stop penalty on the RER B is higher, closer to 7 minutes over 9 stops, but the shared tracks with local trains (and with the RER D between Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles) means that there’s a fudge factor in the schedule, so it’s not possible to reliably do better than 4 minutes, and the trains end up visibly crawling on the mainline.

The reader familiar with technical transit advocacy in the Bay Area may interject, what about Caltrain? Clem Tillier has no trouble proposing timetables mixing local trains, express trains, and high-speed rail on the same track pair with timed overtakes, and a 7% pad. So why am I down on this concept in New York? The answer is line complexity. Caltrain is a simple two-track back-and-forth, and HSR is generally more punctual than legacy trains because it runs for long stretches on high-quality dedicated tracks, so it’s unlikely to introduce new variability to the line. In contrast, the RPA plan for regional rail in New York involves extensive branching, so that train schedules depend on trains elsewhere on the line. In this case, introducing more complexity through local/express sharing is likely to require more schedule padding, erasing the speed advantage.

In general, my questions to establish guidelines for where express trains are warranted are,

  • How long is the line, measured in the number of stations? More stations encourage more express trains, because more stations can be skipped. In higher speed zones, stop penalties are higher, but at equal line length measured in km, higher speeds and fewer local stations reduce the benefit of express trains.
  • How frequent are trains? At low frequency, local stations need more frequency, so express runs are less useful. At very high frequency, there may not be capacity for different stopping patterns unless the line has four tracks. On a two-track line, the optimum frequency for a local/express alternation is about 6-12 trains per hour, 3-6 local and 3-6 express, with a single mid-line overtake. Multiple overtakes on a single line are possible, but more fragile, so they are a bad idea except in special circumstances.
  • What is the demand for travel? Express trains work best if there are a few distinguished stations at regular intervals, or else if the line is long and there is strong demand at the far end; if the inner stations are very strong then it’s more important to give them higher local frequency. When performing this analysis, it’s important to make sure station ridership levels reflect genuine demand rather than service. For example, Caltrain express stops have high ridership in large part because of their better service, not nearby density, as shown in Clem Tillier’s analysis. The LIRR Main Line has far more ridership at Mineola and Hicksville than the other stations on the trunk and also far more service, but Patrick explains that this is due to better highway access, so it’s genuine demand and not just a reflection of better service.

Caltrain needs express service because it has about 20 stations between San Francisco and San Jose, depending on the amount of infill and anti-infill desired; a target frequency of 8-10 peak trains per hour; and strong demand on the outer stations, especially for reverse-peak trips. In New York, none of the two-track lines meets the same standard. Some are too short, such as the Port Washington Branch. Others are too busy, such as the Harlem Line, Babylon Branch, and LIRR Main Line. Yet others have too much demand clustering in the inner stations, such as the Erie lines and the North Jersey Coast Line.

On four-track lines, it’s always easier to run express service. This doesn’t mean it should always be run: the upper New Haven Line is a strong candidate for relegating all commuter trains to the local tracks, making all stops, giving the express tracks to intercity trains. The Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey is a dicey example: past Rahway there are four tracks, but intercity trains could run at very high speeds, making track sharing on the express tracks difficult. My service pattern map has express trains skipping Edison and Metuchen, but it’s just two stations, making it better to just run local beyond Rahway to clear the express tracks for high-speed rail.

It’s tempting to draw proposals involving intense metro-style regional rail service only serving the urban and inner-suburban stations; I’ve had to argue against such plans on some MBTA lines. The problem is that trains from the outer suburbs are still necessary and still going to pass through the inner suburbs, and in most cases they might as well stop at those stations, which need the frequency more than the outer suburbs need the few minutes of speedup.


    • Alon Levy

      Both my map and the RPA’s detach West Hempstead and Oyster Bay from the mainline system. This is because these lines have low ridership; moreover, Oyster Bay is so lightly-populated and West Hempstead so circuitous that neither is likely to succeed in the future. In my case, there’s also a scheduling issue: I’m specifically avoiding any branching on the LIRR Main Line west of Hicksville (the Hempstead Branch uses the local tracks of the four-track segment) to simplify scheduling – putting Oyster Bay back would have occasional gaps in the Main Line schedule for Oyster Bay trains, and those would mess up the service pattern. West Hempstead is in theory possible to schedule with a simple branch off the Babylon Branch, but that leaves the Babylon Branch with too little service, since four lines (West Hempstead, Babylon, Long Beach, Far Rockaway) would need to share the same spine on Line 5 and Babylon would need more than 6 tph at the peak, constraining the other lines’ scehdules.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Hempstead, West Hempstead, and OB all used to be one contiguous north-south line crossing diamonds on the Main Line at Mineola and Central Branch north of Country Life Press until passenger service on that pattern ended in 1928 and the Mineola-CLP segment was abandoned some years later. The old ROW is still completely intact from CLP to Old County Rd. 2 blocks south of Mineola station for a DC traction power line interconnection between the Mineola and Garden City substations, with only the former Mineola diamond itself physically blocked by subsequent building construction. The former Hempstead-West Hempstead track connection, disused for passenger service since circa-’60 but hanging on for freight a decade-plus longer, is still 100% intact for a much more recent and superiorly encroachment-proofed DC transmission interconnection project. That one’s a much more straightforward service restoration only needing the will to do the necessary grade crossing eliminations.

        So theoretically you could trade those 3 pieces of branch flotsam off the NYCRER network by piecing them back together into a contiguous N-S service line between Oyster Bay and Valley Stream with transfer stations bolstered by the E-W RER frequencies at Valley Stream, Mineola, and/or something on the Central Branch between Garden City and CLP. Then right-size the density difference for that service by having lower-capacity trainsets pinging the OB-VS shuttle, do a mode change on that line over to LRT trams that are more nimble over the grade crossings than an M# set (i.e. possible solution for negotiating the compromised turning radii around the Mineola diamond encroachment for restoring the contiguous connection), slice/dice service patterns…or pursue some other likeminded solution that takes all this malformed branch flotsam off the RER while re-weaving it at reasonable cost into something else more coherently useful.

        • orulz

          Would/could it also make sense to absorb the Far Rockaway branch into such a setup? Not really familiar with passenger volume or train frequency on Long Island. It’s just hard to miss how the West Hempstead branch and the Far Rockaway branch basically meet end-to-end at Valley Stream.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Yes, you’d absolutely be able to tie in Far Rockaway to that N-S line if desired.

            Prior to 1933 Valley Interlocking was all at-grade and there was indeed an east wye leg onto the Far Rockaway Branch permitting thru movements from West Hempstead. The old Valley Stream station used to sit in the middle of the junction where the current MOW yard is. The Montauk viaduct and the elevated FR + WH branch splits were all part of a mass grade separation project to eliminate the nutty number of crossings around that interlocking.

            To re-create the old setup today you’d need to construct a flyover wye from the WH Branch viaduct that leaps over the Montauk viaduct and connects to the existing FR Branch viaduct, then flip Valley Stream station a block east back to its pre-’33 location in the middle of the current yard so the upstairs/downstairs Montauk and “Rocka-hemp-oyster Line” platform transfers are on the same block.

            Shouldn’t be difficult since the only private property taking would be the small used car dealer + car wash on Sunrise Hwy. @ Rockaway Ave. The footprint of the former at-grade FR east wye is completely unencroached. Whole vicinity’s basically a nuke zone of excess road lanes ripe for a thorough TOD fumigation. Only thing I could see the locals objecting to is the height of said flyover where it passes over the elevated Montauk…not too bad overall, but certainly won’t be anyone’s idea of most visually appealing structure towering over the neighborhood.

        • orulz

          ..And if we’re really being unrealistic, how about taking it a step further, and taking over the IND Far Rockaway branch!

          Most of this could be completed with organizational and electronics changes.

          –IND Far Rockaway branch is built for B division axle loads, so whatever trains are chosen would have to be lighter than standard issue FRA rolling stock.
          –B division trains are 10′ wide, LIRR EMUs are 10’8″ wide. B division has 45″ platforms, LIRR has 48″. Get trains matching B division dimensions. Low tech solution for the existing LIRR platforms: realign the tracks to be 3 inches higher and 4 inches closer to to the platforms along the LIRR segments.
          –Power systems are more complicated. Doing anything to change the electrification on the IND Far Rockaway branch elevated lines would probably be prohibitive, but the existing 750vdc LIRR third rail should probably be abandoned. Oyster Bay is mostly unelectrified, and there are grade crossings on all the LIRR segments. So, converting to an overhead system probably makes sense. So that means dual-mode But do you stick with 750vdc, for compatibility with existing substations, change to 625vdc for compatibility with the IND Far Rockaway segment, or just go with high-voltage AC to be as modern and efficient as possible? I couldn’t say.

          The bits of concrete needed are:
          (1) Rebuild Beach-90th street so this line could have a cross-platform transfer with A trains there.
          (2) Build a connection linking the Far Rockaway branches of the LIRR and the Subway
          (3) Build a flyover at Valley Stream for the West Hempstead Branch to connect to the Far Rockaway branch. Relocate Valley Stream Station 1/4 mile to the east so the platforms can be right next to each other.
          (4) Rebuild the West Hempstead branch to Mineola. Build a flyover of the LIRR mainline connecting it to the Oyster Bay branch. Relocate Mineola Station 1/4 mile east to make the transfer as short as possible.

  1. po8crg

    I’m somewhat confused by your use of the word “express”.

    I’ve always understood “express” to mean the fastest trains on a given track, ie the ones with the fewest stops. So, for Caltrain, the express trains are the high-speed trains to Los Angeles (well, Bakersfield). On the NEC, the express trains are the Acelas.

    But you seem to be using “express” to mean some other trains, slower than the intercity trains (the intercity trains are very much the trains I would be calling “express”). I’d probably be calling those “semi-fast” trains, meaning that they’re faster than a service that stops at all stations, but slower than the true express.

    It’s certainly true that having three speeds of trains on four tracks creates similar but lesser problems than having two speeds on two tracks. One good approach is if your local service terminates before the end of the quad-track, you can run all-stop locals on the slow lines, then you can run both express and semi-fast no-stop (or limited-stop, but the same stopping pattern) on the fast lines and switch the semi-fast to the slow lines beyond the station where the all-stop locals terminate. This is roughly how London’s “inner suburbans” and “outer suburbans” work.

    • Alon Levy

      There are so many different sets of terminology here. There’s slow/semi-fast/fast; there’s local/express/super-express; there’s local/rapid/special rapid.

      North London’s four-track mainlines are precious, yeah, for precisely the reason you give. The problem is that some lines have loops instead of four straight tracks, and then there are local tracks on both the mainline and the loop, like West Anglia or Chatham.

      • anonymouse

        Semi-express, sub-express, express, rapid service, rapid express, limited express, and rapid limited express “Raku Raku”. Gotta love Japanese interurbans’ service patterns.

        • anonymouse observer

          Also semi special express, commuter limited express, midnight express, section semi-express, suburban semi-express, etc., etc., etc…

          I guess giving a unique name to each stopping pattern variation does favor to passengers – they don’t have to look at timetable just to make sure that whichever random “express” trains stops at a particular station. I don’t think memorizing something like Caltrain timetable is easier.

  2. Diego Beghin

    So are you arguing that the RER-B shouldn’t run express trains to the north? It’s true that a 4 min time saving looks underwhelming when compared to the lost frequency in the 9 stations it skips.

    Also, how does a timed overtake work, exactly? Do you just need to hold the local a few minutes in a station where the express doesn’t stop? This should slow down the local as well as the express, but you’re saying that the schedule padding hurts the express more than the local, decreasing the express’s time advantage. I guess the best practice is to shift all the extra overtaking padding onto the express.

    • Alon Levy

      In the specific case of the RER B, I think it should make use of the four-track mainline up to Aulnay and overtake local trains there. Transilien K is so low-ridership that it can be safely folded into the RER B, with one RER train every half hour (or even every hour) going beyond Mitry.

      Timed overtakes could work the way you propose; that’s how Caltrain does it. Or the overtake could happen at an express station, offering a cross-platform transfer. On the Chuo Line, the special rapids overtake the regular rapids at Tachikawa and Kokubunji, slowing down the regular rapids by around 4-5 minutes each time, but letting passengers transfer between trains.

      • Diego Beghin

        The Chuo Line way is certainly superior, otherwise passengers transferring from a local have just missed an express train and have to wait for the next one. But the local has to wait a long time at the transfer station, right? It has to wait for the express to catch up, then let it leave the station first.

        • anonymouse observer

          If standing/timed overtake is done right, it can minimize the wait time for slower trains. There is several commuter rail lines and even on Shinkansen HSR lines in Japan where the local train sits just for 2 to 3 minutes at the scheduled overtake location. Scheduled penalty for train overtaken due to standing overtakes could be longer (5 to 6 minutes) in some cases, but those longer dwell time for the standing overtakes are for double-overtakes (2 express trains pass 1 local train at one location) or triple-overtakes (3 express trains pass 1 local train at one location) like how Keio operates 21 to 24 trains per hour per direction (in 4 different stopping patterns) between Shinjuku and Chofu after 9 AM or JR Central operates Tokaido Shinkansen HSR (14 TPH per direction in 4 different stopping patterns).

          It might be annoying that the local train you are on stays at the station for a couple of minutes, but in most convenient rail systems, timed overtake with transfer between express train and local train occurs at once every 3 or 4 stations. It gives you to catch another local train ahead and save some time by making two transfer even in a short distance (transfer to an express train at the first overtake-transfer and then transferring again to another local train at the next overtake-transfer).

  3. ckrueger99

    Isn’t a major reason in favor of express trains is that it allows passengers at the local stops a chance at getting a seat during the morning rush and express passengers getting a seat in the evening?

    • Alon Levy

      Not if you think about it right. This local/express pattern doesn’t really create more seats; it just assigns different seats to different stations, so to speak.

      • ckrueger99

        OK. On the other hand, the total number of stops by all trains is nearly halved.

  4. The Economist

    While your arguments against running express and local service at the same time on two tracked lines are generally sound, I think that you need to be careful in considering certain characteristics specific to the NYC (and the US) environment. First, NYC lacks good secondary destinations on most lines. For the most part the demand is very peaky — inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. That might change in a few decades, but for now this is the status-quo and it is quit different than the spread out demand of most European cities. Second, even in the NYC driving is an option. It is slow, it is frustrating, it is expensive, but it is an option and the rail service needs to have at least one feature that is better than driving in order to have enough customers. Third there are alternative schemes for providing faster (not necessarily “express” in the usual definition of the word) service. That includes skip-stop and other more complex patterns that are especially appropriate for fast peak-demand service, not all day off-peak use. Let’s consider these one by one.

    First, other than Harlem-125St and Jamaica, no other inner stations (not end-points such as Penn, GCT or Atlantic) have demand large enough to make them worth considering in a service trade-off between such inner stations and the end-point. The jobs and other trip destinations just are not close to those inner stations to make taking the train preferable for large enough number of people. Hopefully that changes in the future, but it is the status now. Were you to force every train to stop at such inner stations, you would effectively be slowing everyone from the outer stations in order to effectively just pick up more people on the way to the end-point. If those inner stations had enough demand, that would be OK, but most do not. While dense for US standards, the areas surrounding those stations do not provide enough riders to stop every train at them during peak hour. Additionally at least some of those stations have alternatives that some portion of the population prefers due to cost — bus or subway. Don’t fall into the fallacy that we should cut the prices on the trains to match the buses and the subway. That does not work because you end up with (1) empty buses and subways because people have switched to the train and (2) made the trip unpleasant/long enough for the people who take the train from the outer stations that driving is once again preferable for them. Both of these are inconsistent with typical public policy goals.

    Second, for good or bad, the US has much more highway surface than any other developed country and that is true even in NYC and its surrounding areas. While driving might not be a great option in many European cities, even in NYC the highways get you quite close to practically any destination within the city including the CBD. Yes, they are clogged up, but they are there and any train that hopes to have a customer must offer something superior than those clogged highways to that customer, or the customer will just use the highways. Outside of rush hour driving is faster than the train for most outer stations. It is unfortunate, but it is a fact of life even in NYC. We can argue all day why this is so — lack of investment in rail, circuitous routes, etc — but that will not change the fact that even with all the traffic, outside of rush hour the trains are just not time competitive. If you stop every train from the outer stations at every inner station you will delay them enough during rush hour to see significant number of customers from the outer stations switch to driving (remember, they are typically better off financially and have that option). Again that is an outcome that is not consistent with typical public policy goals.

    Third, there are other ways to provide express and local service than simple overtaking. Probably the simplest one is skip-stop service. It works quite well in context where practically every one is going to the CBD. You lose the ability to go between arbitrary pairs of stations without transfers, but as we established in the first point above, the demand for that ability even in NYC is small. What skip-stop gets you is to cut the number of stops by half, while eliminating the need to have trains overtake each other. The latter really matters on two tracked lines. Obviously there are winner and losers between the stations compared to the traditional local and express service, but you can run a very dense schedule on two tracks without any passing sidings. I am not aware if anyone in the world has tried running by stopping at every third station, but certainly variations of that type are possible. Another variation is to run “expresses” one after the other the way Metro-North already does on some of the inner portions of the line. The idea is this: Trains leave the outer terminal in quick succession, but the first one skips all stops, but the X (where X is some number dependent on ridership and train capacity) closest to the end-point destination. The second train skips all stops, but the ones between X+1 and 2X closest to the end-point destination. The third one, 2X+1 and 3X and so on. By the time the first train is leaving the station closest to the destination you can probably again send another one that would stop at the X stations closest to the destination and the process repeats. Again, no need for overtaking trains and no need for sidings. The schedule can be reasonably dense, but probably not “subway” dense.

    Given the distances and the speed of our trains, express services are here to stay in NYC. There is no way to abolish them without causing too much damage. While I am sure there are service improvements that can be made, abolishing express services of all kinds to make way for more locals on two tracked lines is not the way to go.

    • Alon Levy

      Ad your points:

      1. On the LIRR specifically, you could plausibly match peak express trip times on a local train if all trains had the same stopping pattern.

      2. There actually are a number of suburban stations around New York with decent density around them: Mineola, Flushing, Hempstead, White Plains, New Rochelle, Stamford, Yonkers, Newark, Paterson. Mineola is walkable to a bunch of jobs, it’s just rarely used that way because there’s no reverse-peak service; White Plains and Stamford have more reverse-peak service and do get a small but nontrivial mode share for reverse-commutes. There are also strong stations with very little service and premium fares and consequently low ridership: Forest Hills, a bunch in the South Bronx, a few potential infill locations, etc.

      3. Shifting passengers from buses and the subway to commuter trains is good. The buses could be redeployed to feed rather than duplicate the LIRR, and the relevant trains are overcrowded – moving passengers from the 2 to Metro-North at Wakefield would help decongest the most crowded subway trunk line in the city. Most Queens stations would decongest the E/F, which is also quite crowded (unclear how much because of how the counts are done, but same ballpark as the 2/3 and 4/5 from Uptown and the Bronx). Far Rockaway has no decongestion benefits, but it’s also at the end of its LIRR branch, so it doesn’t cause problems for riders from farther out.

      4. Driving isn’t more of an option in New York than in any number of European cities. Parking is more expensive in New York than here, for example, and there also seems to be much worse traffic on the arterial roads.

      5. Metro-North already runs the express pattern you’re suggesting, and it doesn’t work unless you intend to take the same train every day to the CBD at the same time at rush hour. It’s a stopping pattern that repels other riders, guaranteeing expensive-to-provide peaky service. It also requires schedule padding, because if the train only serves your station every half hour at the peak then the conductor will hold the doors for you for a few seconds, whereas if it serves your station every 5 minutes they probably won’t.

      • johndmuller

        Left out of Alon’s 4/1/18 post
        NEWSFLASH Amtrak announced today that effective immediately, Chinatown Bus tickets will be cross-honored as standing room on all Acela Express segments within the NEC. …

        3: I agree with the Economist that more harm than good would come of cutting intra-City fares on Metro North and the LIRR to the price of Subway fares. Current suburban commuters will get a big attitude over having their quiet ride inundated by discount passengers in the morning and competing for seats in the evening with these selfsame riders – paying one half, one third or even less than what they are paying – and possibly having to stand up for the first half of their ride home.

        The new ex subway and bus riders, for their part, will have a reasonable chance of getting a seat on the way home, but will have a new extra transfer at GCT or NYP to deal with unless they happen to be going exactly there. They may have to leave that seat a few stops early in order to push through the crowded cars, but OTOH, those crowds may keep the conductors from getting around to them during their brief visit on the train. saving them money. Along the Metro North lines, many of the stations involved are down at sea level with the Hudson, Harlem and Bronx rivers, while their homes may be across a major highway and up a steep hill from the station. (To be fair, some of the stations are not so disadvantaged and/or the subway station may not be much better. The station locations for the proposed East Bronx stations along the Hell Gate line are also a mixed bag in this regard; I don’t really know the neighborhoods in Queens where the stations are.)

        I think that in order to make this work, there would need to be special trains dedicated to this service running from Yonkers, Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle, Hempstead, Jamaica or wherever to GCT & Penn. This would, of course, require additional equipment, especially if one were to bump up the frequencies to 4 or more trains per hour in this inner zone. Capacity in the Park Ave or East River tunnels or in the terminal stations might be an issue; turnaround at the suburban stations might be problematic.

        Think about money. At the very least, passengers who already use this expensive service will get a price break. Only people who wanted to go to GCT or Penn would switch to this unless it also included a free transfer to the subway system. Just try to limit the free transfer to the subway to only those who are getting a 2/3 off ticket already; if you haven’t already pissed off the hoi oligoi, try that one. So now we are reducing fares in the city and giving all the commuters free transfers to the subway (and vice versa presumably in the opposite direction). This is a really huge huge huge hit on revenue, without even including giving free transfers &/or actual subway status to PATH. Only Governor Cuomo would even think of making such an offer – and only if it included something free for Staten Island and a new interstate for somewhere upstate.

    • Bjorn

      The zonal express pattern you propose (if I am reading your comment right) is now used by Metra in Chicago, on it’s Electric Line. During the peak hour (4:30-5:30), express trains to the farthest station, University Park, followed by trains to the second and third farthest stopping zones leave every 15 minutes at :02, :05, and :08, respectively, past the quarter-hour.

  5. James Sinclair

    “The Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey is a dicey example: past Rahway there are four tracks, but intercity trains could run at very high speeds, making track sharing on the express tracks difficult. My service pattern map has express trains skipping Edison and Metuchen, but it’s just two stations, making it better to just run local beyond Rahway to clear the express tracks for high-speed rail.”

    Local trains between New Brunswick and Newark take 45 minutes. Express trains do it in 23 minutes. That’s a huge time penalty.

    • Alon Levy

      I’m seeing a slightly smaller spread: nonstop trains in 26 minutes, or 28 with the airport stop; locals in about 41, or 44 with a stop at North Elizabeth; trains making local stops to Metropark and then expressing to Newark do it in about 34. It’s consistent with a stop penalty of about 120-130 seconds. The rolling stock used is low-acceleration (a locomotive hauling a long train) and has long dwells because of poor door placement and interior passenger circulation; cutting the stop penalty to about 80 seconds is eminently possible.

      • James Sinclair

        Going north:
        07:54 AM Northeast Corridor #3828 takes 51 minutes
        08:55 AM Northeast Corridor #3932 does it in 24 minutes

        Going south:
        06:55 PM Northeast Corridor #3961 takes 23 minutes
        08:26 PM Northeast Corridor #3883 takes 45 minutes

        From Princeton, the spread is from 33 minutes for express to 69 for local (northbound) and 32-66 southbound

        I dont quite understand why trains making the same stops take different amounts of time though.

          • adirondacker12800

            Local versus express? There is logic to NJTransit train numbers, IIRC things starting with 39 are express trains. 38 may or may not be local. I’m not gonna go look.

            Track complications! In olden days the slow trains between Penn Station Newark and Penn Station New York were scheduled for 15 minutes. The rush hour Jersey Arrow I liked to use would do it in 11, from the time the doors closed to the time they opened. There was a control stand in each married pair, the speedometer was visible. We’d get …. well over 100… between the tunnel and Harrison. The speed limit on Portal Bridge was 90, it’s now 60. There was no Midtown Direct and Secaucus was something mentioned in passing in the study Parsons did in 1959.
            The New Jersey railfans like to call it “Shirley time”. On time performance was dropping. So they did the cheap thing, they padded the schedules. When Shirley DiLibero was in charge of NJTransit. … if in olden days if the local tracks were Class 6 the train could attempt 110. If today they are class 5, 90, class 4, 80. The Turboliner geeks love to go about how the Turboliners made better time between Albany and Grand Central. The old timers point out that back then the express tracks were class 6. And they don’t want to pop the circuit breakers until someone comes up with the money to upgrade the substations. One of the reasons for the odd service patterns, 4 or 5 local stops and then express is that you can run two locals or one local and two expresses, without tripping the circuit breakers. It allows a whole extra train.

    • Joey

      I think you underestimate the difference in stop penalty between long locomotive-hauled trains with poor ingress/egress and EMUs with better circulation is.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Passenger flow on the ingress/egress isn’t going to make much difference, because NJT’s upcoming EMU order is going to be for bi-levels with 100% identical interior configuration to their current MLV coaches. Stopping (because braking isn’t the performance difference push-pull vs. MU, acceleration in) + dwells are constant. As is level boarding, since Jersey Ave. is the only remaining low NJT platform on the NEC and is due to be replaced in (2019???) by a new full-high replacement station opening down the street. To the extent passengers get backed up on the platform, it’s mainly at older stations needing egress improvements off the platforms in the station buildings/headhouses.

        The NEC in Jersey does indeed have stoopid amounts of schedule padding because of outdated trackside infrastructure, Amtrak v. commuter turf warrage on dispatch and electric rates, and institutional scheduling sloppiness leading to extreme overcrowding on many peak trains with the ensuing dwell problems. The fixes are mainly going to be slogging ahead on the lineside infrastructure renewal at increasing pace, ops reform in the dispatcher’s office, and fairer cost-sharing structure. On electricity cost-sharing, that’ll be critical for getting the EMU’s deployed on mainline NEC commuter schedules. Amtrak’s cost-gouging on the Safe Harbor-supplied 25 Hz AC draw is a big reason why NJT went so heavily with ALP-46 push-pull locos instead of EMU’s on their last 2 power purchases. P-P consists use less electricity on-average than MU’s, especially on the kinds of ultra-long sets NJT runs on the NEC at peak. The fees bleed of having every MU car in the consist sucking juice at arbitrarily high $/kW ended up partially rationalizing the pick of poorer-performing loco haul on those prior orders. Even with the EMU’s coming, the new stock is most likely going to be assigned to the in-house electrification on the NJCL and M&E lines first over NEC mainline duty…with the extra units on the option orders then acting to flush all remaining ALP-46 all-electrics from those lines TO additional NEC assignments rather than putting EMU’s on all manner of NEC-proper schedules. In the immediate term the ALP-46’s will basically be re-skewed to ‘the’ primary NEC power and be little-seen elsewhere on the system…the reassigned extras powering add’l NEC trains and swapping out the cab cars on some of those monster peak sets to run as 2-loco double-drafts for curbing the performance penalty a bit.

        Follow-on mass procurement #2 of EMU’s is where push-pull finally gets purged from the NEC for all-EMU NJT schedules…and that’s contingent on some forward progress with that festering boil of AMTK electric rates distribution. They’re always at the negotiating table for that, but the feds so far have not felt compelled into pressuring AMTK to make a deal. And until they are it ends up more feasible to defer those NEC units to a second full-on procurement of EMU’s instead of stuffing hundreds of extra options on the end of this ongoing procurement with little hope that they’ll ever be drained. Certainly NJT being an top-down administrative dumpster fire at the moment does not help their leverage in any way, shape, or form at making forward progress here. But competent leadership and agency-wide turnaround in execution would help them loads…and relatively quickly on political timescales…at striking a fairer deal that abolishes their AMTK rate penalty.

        • Joey

          Ugh, well, I certainly wouldn’t put it past NJT to shoot themselves in the foot with respect to passenger circulation for the next two decades.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Well…the logic of the EMU order is that NJT is already heavily invested in the MLV carbody with 425 push-pull coaches of that make in-service and another 260+ MLV’s to-be-ordered in the next 2-3 fiscal years to scramble retirement of the ancient and fast-declining Comet IIM & IV coaches. This EMU order aims to glom upon that preexisting/ongoing investment in the MLV’s to help maximize fleet scale.

            The self-propelled units are going to be fashioned out of more-or-less stock MLV cab car frames: single-ended, self-contained propulsion units. And then each propulsion unit is supposed to be brawny enough to sandwich up to 2 unpowered trailers between each powered set at supposedly minimal performance penalty. The unpowered trailers are then going to be literal off-shelf MLV’s taken from the first-, second-, and (to-be) third-generation of push-pull MLV trailers on the roster, with the only required modification to the existing coaches being installation of an MU communications cable so they can trainline either/or with the EMU’s or P-P sets (MU’s by their nature have a much “talkier” trainlining connection between each car than the passive HEP + loco-to-cab connection in push-pull sets that largely passes inert between the trailers). Executed right, it aids their fleet management enormously by being able to use the same trailers to put together sets anywhere on a mixed-power system and have fewer coaches sitting idle in the layover yards at any given time. And in theory it should lower their costs for further system electrification because additional vehicle purchases would be limited to just the MU cars; the trailers making up 50% of the cars in those electric consists would just be reassignments from the existing coach fleet.

            So, for example, you could have EMU consists built like this:

            …2-car (e.g. minimum Princeton Dinky consist)
            …3-car w/ 1 sandwich trailer
            …4-car w/ 2 sandwich trailers
            <MU]–[T]– …5-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 2 sandwich trailers
            –[T]–[MU> …6-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 3 sandwich trailers
            –[T]–[T]–[MU> …7-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 4 sandwich trailers
            –[T]– …high-performance 7-car: 2 middle EMU’s + 3 sandwich trailers
            –[T]–[T]– …10-car

            . . .and so on. Differing combos available like subbing more power cars for fewer trailers to up the performance level, like the dueling 7-packs illustrated above.

            Bombardier is the one who originally pitched the idea, since they’ll later be able to serve up the same exact EMU product in their 8-inch boarding BLV carbody and go after the ultra-lucrative GO Transit (700 rostered BLV cars) electrification rolling stock order by pitching the same exact deal as NJT. Other established 8-inch BLV and 48/50-inch MLV users like Metrolink, Caltrain (if their Frankenstein mixed-level car scheme goes splat), AMT/RER, MARC, ACE, etc. would likewise see their initial electrification costs substantially lowered by buying these EMU’s that let them retain and keep rebuilding their existing trailer fleets…as well as keep purchasing more BLV/MLV push-pull coaches without fear of obsolescence should they opt to take the future EMU plunge.

            There will be a natural performance penalty for liberally including trailers in the consists vs. having propulsion in every single car; that’s unavoidable. And the MLV is a very heavy frame to begin with, so that’s a risk factor on the execution. It’s not yet known what Bombardier is going to be using as a propulsion platform, other than odds heavily weight to them deriving it from the latest-gen Talent family from Europe. Certainly any form of EMU, even one that has to lug some extra inert weight, is still going to beat the pants off an ALP-46 hauled P-P set. But proof in the pudding comes with how much BBD will be able to minimize the acceleration penalty in a mixed MLV EMU set vs. an all- self-propelled Arrow set. And we simply don’t know enough yet to speculate on that (the RFP doc dump released in Feb. are still hard to come by online without running into procurement paywalls!).

            While I certainly wouldn’t trust NJT to project-manage this thing cleanly as far as I could throw them…this thankfully is mostly Bombardier’s playbook they’re following (with coattails aimed square at the even bigger GO Transit order), and thus not quite as terrifying a prospect as if NJT cooked up this whole thing completely in-house from their own acid dreams. Again, the logic behind it all is that if the product works it’ll substantially lower fleetwide management costs by enabling use of the same trailers with any power, make it EASIER to pursue additional system electrifications by establishing optimally robust power-agnostic fleet scalability, and make it a less-scary proposition for other agencies well-invested in BBD-or-clone rolling stock to dip their toes in the EMU waters. Also wouldn’t be hard at all to adapt the same scheme to single-level cars; BBD just hasn’t produced any domestic single-level coaches at all since the last order of Comet IV clones well >2 decades ago and have a far huger installed base of bi-level coaches, so they’re simply following the money by targeting the MLV and BLV form factors first above all else. Executed well, these EMU’s could be a very good thing for advancing the state of North American commuter rail electrification…whether or not their heavy FRA frames and liberal use of trailers are anyone’s idea of “bestest” starting practices. The scalability logic does wash well in theory.

            “In theory. . .” We just have to gulp hard and hope the theory has good execution behind it…because botched badly enough these things could end up every bit the underwhelming, slovenly turds you’d fear from NJT trying to innovate itself out of a paper bag. Very much a high-risk, high-reward home run swing.

          • Joey

            Yes, I’m sure Bombardier is delighted to lock them into future orders by ensuring that their entire fleet is compatible.

            CalTrain … capacity is already going to be constrained enough at Transbay that their decision to go with bilevels is highly questionable. It looks like the high doors on Caltrain’s fleet are spaced a bit wider than the quarter points (which would be ideal), but the Multilevels are even worse, and have smaller doors as well.

            NJT can maybe get away with this because there are so many platforms at Penn (so dwells don’t matter as much), and passenger circulation there sucks anyway. It’s a scenario that’s worth avoiding if possible though.

  6. F-Line to Dudley

    Ugh…HTML shredded my crude ASCII-illustrated EMU consists. Let’s try this again. . .

    (MU|–|MU) …2-car (e.g. minimum Princeton Dinky consist)
    (MU|–|T|–|MU) …3-car w/ 1 sandwich trailer
    (MU|–|T|–|T|–|MU) …4-car w/ 2 sandwich trailers
    (MU|–|T|–|MU)–|T|–|MU) …5-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 2 sandwich trailers
    (MU|–|T|–|T|–MU)–|T|–|MU) …6-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 3 sandwich trailers
    (MU|–|T|–|T|–|MU)–|T|–|T|–|MU) …7-car w/ 1 middle EMU + 4 sandwich trailers
    (MU|–|T|–|MU)–|T|–(MU|–|T|–|MU) …high-performance 7-car: 2 middle EMU’s + 3 sandwich trailers
    (MU|–|T|–|T|–|MU)–|T|–|T|–(MU|–|T|–|T|–|MU) …10-car

    • Joey

      Or they could do what the rest of the civilized world has found to be the optimal solution and order semi-permanent trainsets. Simplifies maintenance and operations, and doesn’t lock you to a particular vendor if you decide you want more.

  7. Pingback: When are Express Trains Warranted? Part 2: Subways | Pedestrian Observations

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