Rapid Transit on the LIRR

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.


  1. Henry

    WRT the recent bus-rail connections post; I feel like both PW and Hempstead are missing connections in this thread.
    On PW, you do have a frequent bus crossing at 108 St as well. And Auburndale is awkwardly sited between Utopia and Francis Lewis.
    On Hempstead, Rego Park/Woodhaven Blvd is notably missing. Francis Lewis may be a good intermediate station between Hollis and Queens Village for bus connections.

    • Alon Levy

      My take on Rego Park is that the LIRR is so close to the QB Line, so it should be making fewer stops rather than more. On the same logic, I never propose infill on Metro-North between Grand Central and 125th Street.

      Building infill at 108th is a possibility, yes. That said, the Q23 gets better ridership than the Q72 partly it connects to Forest Hills, an express E stop, rather than Rego Park, a local. The faster LIRR connection is likely to lead a shift toward the Q72, which is a good thing, since the Q72 doesn’t meander.

      • Henry

        That’s fair. I would only support it if QBL Woodhaven was also an express stop (which IMO should be done, given the long distance between Roosevelt and FH and the platform overcrowding at Roosevelt due to handling both 7 and express-local transfers).

        I think a nice thing from the bus side, is that Rego Park would be south of the congested LIE/Woodhaven/Queens Blvd interchange, so you’d probably be saving a bunch of bus hours terminating southern buses there.

        • newtonmarunner

          Personally — and this is unrelated — but I’d prioritize 36th St. having a local/express connection with room for a Northern Blvd. Line to hit 36th St. over a Woodhaven QB Local/Express transfer. This makes de-interlining the QB Lines much easier as QB Local in Astoria/Jackson Heights west of 74th/Roosevelt can transfer to the QB Express Line and whichever tunnel it goes to (53rd St./8th Ave. or 63rd St./6th Local).

          I think the way to relieve 74th/Broadway, Flushing, and QB Express is a Northern Blvd. line and a new Queens/Manhattan trunk on 50th St. hitting Lex (connecting to the 6), 5th Ave., and Broadway (connecting to the 1). Northern doesn’t have to go to 50th St. — can have another permutation. The bullet doesn’t need to be bit right now, but I think it should be done around the time of Alon’s mythical 5th Regional Rail Line is built.

          I do somewhat like at 108th St. station as much of Corona will still have a looong walk to a subway station. Only thing is Willets Pt. to 108th to Junction is awfully close stop-spacing for regional rail, which I don’t like.

          • Bobbo

            Regarding converting 36 St. (or Woodhaven Blvd) into an express stop, how long have similar projects in different systems taken?

  2. Martin

    Of course fare integration is highly beneficial for overall welfare. It is just a more efficient solution. I don’t really see the source of the criticism.

    It would also really only negativley affect outbound commuters in any case, so while I think it should be adopted universally, at least make sure to adopt it for morning (and mid-day) trips.

    • Henry

      This would assume that voters in Long Island would view integration, and welfare improvement, as positive. The reality on the ground is that they don’t; they privatized a bus network because they don’t like poor people, which resulted in poor service and about a third of ridership dropping vs. the previous MTA ownership. Long Island has very toxic racial politics and is one of the most segregated communities in the country.

      • Martin

        So this practical objection I can understand (though of course not share), but some quoted transit advocates above seem to consider fare integration in itself as they seem to assume it would reduce revenue. If the system is even a little bit well designed, increases in demand and efficiency should also increase revenue.

        In general all transport system should take distance inte acoount for fares, and be as fare integrated as possible. This is simply a matter of efficiency.

  3. Joe

    Any idea whether the substations in place can support the increase in service? And if not, is there some sort of unit cost for upgrading substations?

    • F-Line to Dudley

      Substations would need a boost, but the inner zones of LIRR have such thick interconnections amongst transmission lines that costs are well-distributed…much better than MNRR’s DC network because of how many criscrossing lines there are packed into a small geographic area. It’s not necessarily a matter of building X new substations or making Y existing substations Z times bigger. If a particular interconnection has more juice to redirect than another, the actual upgrade $$$ can get diffused to hard-to-predict places across the western LI 750V DC transmission network.

      So it’s a factor, but not one that calculates well by service increases on a given power section of track. LIRR should see some modest cost savings on power boosts afforded by the pre-existing density of its transmission network.

    • Alon Levy

      I assume so, since ESA involves a large increase in peak service. Power drawn equals acceleration times speed times mass, so derating the initial acceleration doesn’t actually save you anything – when accelerating past 110 km/h you’re drawing full power anyway, and Main Line trains hit 130 km/h.

      Infrastructure requirements generally come from the peak. One reason to boost off-peak service is that the marginal capital cost in terms of infrastructure and equipment approaches zero.

  4. adirondacker12800

    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).

    You have to upgrade the substations. One of the reasons for the peculiar service patterns on metro New York suburban trains is to run more trains with the existing substations. Keeping an express train at speed uses less electricity than accelerating it from a stop. They are derated so they don’t trip the circuit breakers at the substations. Throw enough trains on the line you need more substations. Pesky volts times amps equals watts thing.

      • adirondacker12800

        I’m not an electrical engineer. A electric motor that is stopped appears to the network as a short. Because it is. All sorts of weird and wonderful things begin to happen as the rotor starts to spin. An express train surfing along at express speeds uses less electricity than one accelerating away from a stop. Very roughly you can have two locals or two expresses and a local. However you slice that up. You want to run four locals you need to ask electrical engineers if it can be done without tripping circuit breakers or melting the third rail.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        M8’s aren’t derated on the New Haven Line, but they only make a maximum of 3 stops in third rail territory on the Stamford locals and 2 of those stops are on the shared Harlem Line portion that has the most power capacity to give. It’s a non-factor in practice. Better question might be whether there are any derating restrictions slapped on M8 sets for when they’re borrowed occasionally for Hudson Line duty. That’s an uncommon but not altogether rare occurrence, as M8 sets do make spot revenue trips to Croton-Harmon when being rotated out to Harmon Shops for routine maintenance, or when service gets FUBAR’ed at GCT and an idle New Haven set is called on to pinch-hit.

        AFAIK M8’s are only “banned” in-practice on the Harlem. And that’s simply because: 1) North White Plains shops doesn’t do any semi-regular maint tasks on them the way Harmon Shops does so there’s no reason to spot-rotate them out there; 2) the Lower Harlem already has dicey power restrictions forcing rush hour packing of M3’s and keep-away of M7’s when the longest consists are out putting max strain on the circuit breakers, so allowances for one-off M8 trips would further complicate that power budgeting; 3) MNRR never put the M8’s through non-revenue testing in third rail grade crossing territory (though they are fully mechanically capable of handling gaps) because that capability is moot for their native territory, so unless compelling need arises to qualification-test them to Southeast they’re currently limited to North White Plains turns where Problem #2 looms largest.

  5. Billy

    The comptroller proposal weighs the construction cost of new stations vs lowering the commuter rail fares to match MTA subway fares seems to make perfect sense. Families can live further away from Manhattan, and still get into the city using the commuter rails relatively quick while paying a more reasonable fare. Why not test out the new fare system for 2-3 years, instead of infusing billions into building new stations?

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