New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a proposal to improve rapid transit in Queens and the Bronx by raising frequency and reducing fares on the in-city commuter rail stations. This has gotten some pushback from Transit Twitter, on the grounds that low fares without low staffing, i.e. getting rid of the conductors, would require excessive subsidies. I feel slightly bad about this, since the comptroller’s office reached out to me and I gave some advice; I did mention staffing reduction but not vociferously enough, whereas I did harp on fare integration and frequent local stops.
Whereas the comptroller’s report goes into why this would be useful (without mentioning staffing, which is a mistake), here I’d like to give more detail of what this means. Of note, I am not assuming any large-scale construction project, such as new tunnels across the Hudson, East Side Access, or even Penn Station Access. The only investment into civil infrastructure that I’m calling for is one flying junction, and the program can be implemented without it, just not with the reliability that I’m aiming at.
Black dots denote existing stations, gray dots denote infill.
The map includes only the lines that should be part of a Manhattan-bound rapid transit system initially. This excludes the South Shore LIRR lines, not because they’re unimportant (to the contrary), but because connecting them to Manhattan involves new flying junctions at Jamaica Station, built as part of East Side Access without any real concern for coherent service. Shoehorning these lines into the system is still possible (indeed, it is required until ESA opens and probably also until some Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan LIRR tunnel might open), but the scheduling gets more complex. These lines should be a further phase of this system, whereas I am depicting an initial operation.
The Port Washington Branch
On the Port Washington Branch, present-day frequency is 6 trains per hour at the peak, with a complex arrangement of express trains such that most stations have half-hour gaps, and a train every half hour off-peak making all stops. This should be changed to a pattern with a train every 10 minutes all day. If the single-track segment between Great Neck and Port Washington makes this not possible, then every other train should turn at Great Neck. On the schedule today the one-way trip time between Port Washington and Great Neck is 9 minutes, and this is with extensive padding and a throttled acceleration rate (the LIRR’s M7s can accelerate at 0.9 m/s^2 but are derated to 0.45 m/s^2). The technical travel time, not including station dwell time at Great Neck, which is double-track and has double-track approaches, is around 6 minutes without derating, and 6:50 with.
The current travel time from Port Washington to Penn Station is 47 minutes on an all-stop train, which permits six trainsets to comfortably provide 20-minute service; from Great Neck it’s 38 minutes, which permits five sets to provide 10-minute overlay service. Trains must be scheduled, not run on headway management, to have slots through the tunnels to Penn Station (shared with Amtrak under even my high-end proposals for regional rail tunnels), so the short-turns do not complicate scheduling.
With less padding and no derating, the travel time would be reduced to around 41 minutes end-to-end (so five trainsets provide end-to-end service) and 35 to Great Neck (allowing four trainsets to provide this service with some scheduling constraints or five very easily), even with the infill stops. Labor efficiency would be high, because even all-day headways would simplify crew scheduling greatly.
The Hempstead Branch
I proposed a sample schedule for the Hempstead Branch in 2015. Trains would take 41 minutes end to end; with my proposed infill stops, they would instead take 43. Few trains make the trip today, as off-peak Hempstead trains divert to Brooklyn, but of those that do, the trip time today is about 55 minutes.
Today’s frequency is 4 trains per hour at the peak and a train every hour off-peak. Two peak trains run express and do the trip in 48 minutes, worse than an all-stop train would with normal schedule contingency and no derating. As on the Port Washington Branch, I propose a train every 10 minutes all day, allowing ten trainsets to provide service. There is a single track segment between Garden City and Hempstead, but it is shorter than the Great Neck-Port Washington segment, making 10-minute service to the end feasible.
The reason I am proposing an increase in peak frequency on the Hempstead Branch but not the Port Washington Branch has to do with income demographics. The North Shore of Long Island is rich, and even the city neighborhoods on the Port Washington Branch beyond the 7 are upper middle class. There is still demand suppression there coming from high fares and low frequency, but evidently Bayside manages to be one of the busier LIRR stations; the equipment should be able to handle the increased peak ridership from better service.
In contrast, Hempstead is a working-class suburb, with a per capita income of $22,000 as of 2016 (in New York the same figure is $34,000, and in Great Neck it is $39,000). On the way it passes through very rich Garden City ($67,000/person), but Hempstead is a larger and denser town, and most city neighborhoods on the way are lower middle class. Fare integration, even with somewhat higher fares outside the city (which under this regime would also apply to Long Island buses), is likely to lead to ridership explosion even at rush hour, requiring more service.
My more speculative maps, for after East Side Access frees some capacity, even involve going to a train every five minutes, with half the trains going to Hempstead and half to East Garden City along a deactivated but intact branch. With such frequency, people from Forest Hills and points east would switch to the LIRR from the subway, helping relieve the overcrowded E trains. However, to avoid spending money on concrete (or scheduling around the flat junction between these two branches), starting with just Hempstead is fine.
To make this work, one investment into concrete is useful: grade-separating Queens Interlocking, between the Hempstead Branch and the Main Line. The Main Line should be able to run express (with a stop at the branch point at Floral Park) without conflicting with local trains on the Hempstead Branch. As peak traffic on the Main Line is close to saturating a double-track main, this would also facilitate a schedule in which Main Line trains get to use the express tracks through Queens while other lines, including the Hempstead Branch and the South Side Lines, use the local tracks.
What it would take
Providing the service I’m proposing would involve nine or ten trainsets on the Port Washington Branch and ten on the Hempstead Branch, if the trains are sped up. Some of the speedup involves running them at their design acceleration and some involves reducing schedule contingency by improving reliability. The reliability improvements in turn come from reducing conflicts; Amtrak conflicts are unavoidable, but hourly, involving trains that for all their faults are scheduled precisely and can be slotted to avoid delaying the LIRR. The one big-ticket item required is grade-separating Queens Interlocking, which, judging by the more complex Harold Interlocking flyover, is at actual New York costs a low nine-figure project.
Estimating operating costs is hard. On paper, LIRR service costs $10/car-km, but this includes conductors (whose wages and benefits are around $20/train-km, so maybe $2-$2.50/car-km), very low utilization of drivers (who add another $11/train-km), and high fixed costs. A driver-only operation with drivers doing four roundtrips per work day (totaling 6 hours and 40 minutes of driving and turnaround time) would spend $120 per end-to-end on the driver’s wages and benefits, $200 on electricity, essentially nothing on rolling stock procurement since nearly all the extra trips would be off-peak, and only a modicum on extra maintenance. Inducing around 150 riders per trip who would otherwise not have traveled would pay for the extra operating costs.
What it would and wouldn’t do
The most important thing to note is that this system is not going to be a second subway. This isn’t because of the inherent limitations of commuter rail, but because the alignment is not great in the inner part of the city. Penn Station is on the outskirts of Midtown Manhattan, which is why the LIRR is bothering building East Side Access in the first place. Stringer’s report talks about job centers outside Manhattan, but unfortunately, Queens’ single largest, Long Island City, has no through-LIRR station, and no chance of getting one since the Main Line is in a tunnel there. The best that can be done is Sunnyside Junction, which I do denote as an infill location.
Fortunately, Queens does have other job centers. Flushing has about 30,000 workers, Jamaica 16,000, Forest Hills 20,000 (for comparison, Long Island City has 50,000 and JFK 33,000). Sunnyside Yards are an attractive TOD target, and there may be some commercial development there, especially if there is a commuter rail station underneath (which station should be built anyway for operational reasons – it’s not purely development-oriented transit).
And, of course, most jobs remain in Manhattan. A kilometer’s walk from Penn Station gets you to about 400,000 Manhattan jobs. Hempstead and Port Washington are already less than an hour away by train – the difference is that today the train is expensive and doesn’t come frequently except for about two hours a day in each direction. The comptroller’s report errs in neglecting to talk about staffing reductions, but it’s right that running trains more often, making more stops, would make this service a very attractive proposition to a large number of commuters at all hours of day.