Sunnyside Junction, Redux

Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.

Here is how service would look:

The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.

The infill stations that are not planned

An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.

A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).

The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.

The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.

Network improvements

East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.

To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.

Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.

This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.

The connection with development

I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.

However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.

Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.

In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.

If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.

18 comments

  1. IAN Mitchell

    Hudson Yards isn’t treading water because decking was so expensive.
    It’s treading water because rather than being opened up to desirable high-rise luxury residential, it was constrained to be mostly commercial space adding to a global glut and too close to actual midtown (in price and proximity) to justify costs.

    The lesson? Leave the market alone to build what’s most profitable. NYC needs more housing more than it needs more Class A office space.

  2. The Economist

    The location where your are proposing the station (between 39th and 43rd streets) is unfortunately not available for such a station. While not everything is yet visible on the satellite view in Google Maps all the spaces between the tracks there are already “spoken” for. They will be taken up by the three access tunnels into ESA (A, B/C and D) as well as the westbound bypass and the shifted Main 4. Should it have been made available? Maybe. At this point this is absolutely not an option.

    Like it or not the most we will get at this point is a platform and a stop under Queens Blvd.

    What is also not obvious to everyone is that the tracks in the yards are at different elevations at different places. For example they go under 39th street, but above 43rd street. The east side of the yards themselves (not the mains) is level with 43rd street, while the west side at Queens Blvd is generally below the streets. While the west side is probably the most desirable area to deck, over it is also the worst in terms of allowing flexibility to reconfigure the tracks below. Once the deck is in place it is a game over for track reconfiguration. The easiest place to deck over is the area where the LIRR will store its trains and where Amtrak and NJT store theirs, but decking those is not very desirable as they are quite a bit further from the Queensboro Plaza on non-pedestrian friendly streets/bridges.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s the western half of the 39th-43rd stretch, right? I see the ramps on Google Earth, and there’s a 300-meter stretch right to their east, spilling over 43rd a bit, where there’s room for platforms.

      • The Economist

        I am looking here https://www.google.com/maps/place/Sunnyside,+Queens,+NY/@40.7490417,-73.9239548,481m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25ed16db83ad1:0xbc845c2a1ddd9c48!8m2!3d40.7432759!4d-73.9196324 .
        The ramps you see are not complete yet as the track beds are not at the same elevation. By the time the construction of the ramps is complete, they will extend another 400-500 ft east depending on the exact switch configuration. They had to rebuild one of the bridges over 43rd street in order to make the grade of the ramps more manageable (I think it was the one for tunnel D). Also note that the B/C tunnel ramp is not visible yet, but it will be in the middle where most of the “free” space now is. To the north of all the visible tracks is where the west-bound bypass tracks for Amtrak will be (you can see the new bridge over 43rd for it).

        • Alon Levy

          The longer of the two ramps that’s visible looks about long enough for EMU grades. Or are they purposely trying to have locomotive-friendly grades even though the only rolling stock that fits the tunnel is M# EMUs?

          • F-Line to Dudley

            There isn’t a push-pull loco in existence that can fit in that tunnel while providing enough power for a whole consist, and it’s unlikely that even another 50 years of component shrinkage and design innovation could ever come up with one (if it were ever desired, which it’s not). So loco-climbing grades was never a design guideline. Tightest parts of ESA are fit snugly to M7/M9 dimensions and the shrunken subway-like diesel genset work locos LIRR bought specifically for maintenance in the tunnels. They’ve already long-possessed all manner of FRA dimensional & related exemptions stemming from that continentally-tightest clearance envelope. While they would obviously try to avoid if possible grading the ramps at absolute max allowable steepness for those EMU’s out of consideration for vehicle performance in a such high-traffic area, they aren’t bound by any onerous grade restrictions as a design rule.

            Something else has to explain why the ramps were built the way they were. Given how much infrastructure is packed into that small area it could be any number of mundane blockers above/below/around the ramps locking them into a set layout. The real explanation is probably findable online without excessive effort, but Google Maps alone isn’t going to be nearly precise enough to try to figure it out just from eyeballing.

          • TunnelVision

            When the vertical profile was developed you have a couple of fixed points, the existing 63Rd st Tunnel and 43rd St Bridge. You then have the WestBound Bypass, Amtrak’s boondoggle, which imposes restraints on the Tunnel A grade to ensure no vericsl and horizontal grade
            Changes through a switch. There was also the potential future T1A and T2A NYCT lines that were supposed to split from 63Rd st upper level and then cross cross under Sunnysdie somewhere to take into account. Add in the need to preferably maintain a diameter between the tunnel and the surface when crossing beneath live tracks then life gets complicated threading that needle.

  3. Andy Thompson

    You picked probably the worst spot in Harold Interlocking for your proposed Station, as mentioned elsewhere this area is being rebuilt to accommodate ESA revenue tracks and as such there is literally no space left to install platforms etc. also your right where LIRR and AMTRAK diverge, not the greatest spot for a Station. ESA had plans for a station closer towards Penn but the problem is it’s so close to the tunnels that it would impact throughout into Penn. The track has been adjusted to create the space but no other infrastructure has been built and I believe AMTRAK was not in favor of it. As for the overdeck the new ESA mid day storage yard has been designed with an overbuild in mind but the rest of Sunnyside/Harold would be a challenge. We looked at a deck to support a Soccer stadium here but it was not big enough to be able to orientate the stadium for sun……or so the artichokes said.

  4. adirondacker12800

    New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site

    .. because it would cost too much. The expensive places keep getting pruned from the competition. This elaborate kabuki will be that someplace cheap will be the bestest thing ever. If your worker bees can get a McMansion for a quarter of a million, they won’t want to be paid as much. With the side benefit that it won’t be a huge metro area where people can switch jobs easily. Though the current rumor is that it will be two places.

    the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).

    Yeah well the foamers will froth. It’s not Shinjuku or Union Square. It would be cheaper and easier to redevelop the parking lots on Northern Blvd. I see it happening sometime between 2200 and never. As in Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.”. People didn’t want to live along a traffic sewer when it was developing, by the time it was developing, Northern Blvd. was already a traffic sewer. … Gatsby hurtled to the Queensboro Bridge on Northern Blvd. A block or two back from Northern Blvd it’s denser than almost anyplace in North America.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queens_Community_Board_2

    • threestationsquare

      Did you miss that the decision had been announced? Long Island City and Crystal City Virginia are not particularly places I’d think of as “someplace cheap”.

    • adirondacker12800

      Amazon hasn’t said it is either or both or much more than it will be two locations instead of one. Which sent the real estate press into a tizzy.

  5. adirondacker12800

    And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it.

    Few people would use it if was free and there was a train stopping every few minutes. There isn’t a whole lot of demand for Astoria to Parkchester or Co-op City or Stamford or … Mostly because there aren’t a whole lot of people.

    The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North.

    Transfers between the New Haven Line and the LIRR. Everybody else will be changing trains at Grand Central or Penn Station. Which would just slow down the trip for the majority of passengers to and from Penn Station. The point of the exercise to get people off Grand Central trains so other people can use the Grand Central trains. Not to get them to Lynbrook. Where they don’t want go anyway.

    both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels

    Only in the fevered imaginations of foamers on railroad.net and subchat.org. Random Nassau County elected officials bleating at a Newsday reporter isn’t the LIRR or the MTA. Amtrak owns the tunnels and Penn Station, they’ll decide who gets which slots. Metro North want’s slots, they get them. Or Metro North will discover all sorts of reasons to make Amtrak’s life difficult.

    The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica.

    I’m confused. If I’m at a New Haven line station and I want to get to Grand Central why would I get on a train going to Penn Station and change for Grand Central in Queens? When I can get on a train to Grand Central or change cross platform someplace in Westchester or Connecticut? They aren’t done with construction yet. From what I can see on Google Earth, Port Washington trains are going to go to Penn Station. They won’t be able to get from Grand Central westbound. They can change in Woodside. Since Woodside is already there, the cost to do that is something around zero and almost nothing.

    I suspect the majority of the few people going from a non-Manhattan Metro North Station to a non-Manhattan LIRR station would want to go to Jamaica and points east. Or vice versa. Sounds like a plan, to make it easy to get to Flushing! Which wouldn’t be cross platform without lots of flyovers and duckunders. I can see the thundering herds of people in Larchmont who want to go to Auburndale now. The ones in Hartsdale who want to go to Bayside will have to change trains in Manhattan cuz the Harlem Line and the Hudson line won’t be going through Queens. Both of them. But then if I’m in Port Chester and I want to get to Hempstead instead of changing trains in Manhattan where there are a lot of services I can loiter around on a platform in Sunnyside until the train to Hempstead arrives. Sounds even better! Assuming trains from Hempstead go to Grand Central. Even though there is plenty of space and “slots” east of Jamaica to have trains from the branches aim for the correct tracks in Jamaica then go to Penn Station or Grand Central. I haven ‘t seen a service plan but I suspect most of the scheduled cross platform transfers are going to happen someplace other than Jamaica.

    • Alon Levy

      The transfers I’m talking about are mostly not diagonal, but rather PSA -> GCT and ESA -> Penn. So you can get on an LIRR train that’s going to Grand Central and then transfer cross-platform at Sunnyside, rather than waiting for a Penn Station-bound train (which may not even serve your branch). And if you’re in Coop City or Parkchester you can take the train to Sunnyside and transfer cross-platform to Grand Central, which is still a lot faster than schlepping on the 6. Wrong-way transfers to Jamaica and Flushing might get some riders too, but they’re not the focus of this plan, and if anything Jamaica’s relative importance is decreasing as LIC becomes Queens’ biggest job center.

      You’re right that it’s less relevant on the New Haven Line from New Rochelle north because it’s easy enough to just wait for the destination you want, but there are the Bronx stations and the LIRR branches.

      The random Nassau County elected officials you mock include Dean Skelos. Helena Williams was against PSA as well on the same grounds; my understanding is that she was removed on these grounds.

      • adirondacker12800

        Metro North wants to add, someday, 6 trains an hour. East Side Access can reliably serve 20 trains an hour. 20 minus 6 is 14. Maybe the prison Dean Skelos is in, has arithmetic courses. They can teach him how to multiply 14 times 12. An extra 14 trains an hour, at peak, times 12 cars per train. Nassau county legislators making fools of themselves with a Newsday reporter is not the MTA or it’s LIRR subsidiary. State legislators in the Bronx and Westchester have something to say too. And U.S. senators from Connecticut. The governor, the mayor. U.S. senators from New York. Partly the reason why the MTA and it’s subsidiary Metro North have continued to plan for it. You do realize that the LIRR and Metro North are subsidiaries of the the same MTA and if the board, governor, legislators, passengers and prospective passengers want something, the organization pays attention. No matter how hard people in Nassau county bleat.
        I’ve never seen a proposed service pattern but they are busy pouring a new schedule, in concrete and steel, at Jamaica where they are adding an island platform. For the shuttle to Brooklyn. The whining on the foamer forums is that there will no longer be timed transfers at Jamaica. There will likely be very few because they will be changing trains out in Nassau county, freeing up circulation space in Jamaica for the people transferring to the Brooklyn shuttle. Passengers not on the Port Washington Branch can change trains east of Jamaica, Jamaica or Woodside. they don’t need a fourth or fifth place to change trains. I’ve never seen a proposed service pattern. I can hazard a guess that 20 trains an hour to Grand Central is gonna be something like 10 tens an hour at Floral Park or Valley Stream. It’s likely that it won’t be that balanced. Assuming they aren’t going to do something clever and give the Port Washington Branch service to Grand Central along with service to Penn Station. If they aren’t, Port Washington passengers can change trains in Woodside. 20 trains an hour and only half of them stop in Woodside that’s 10 an hour or every six minutes. At peak, with today’s schedule, the Port Washington Branch has 6 trains an hour.
        There are a lot places the 6 train doesn’t go. Brooklyn, Queens, Cleveland. Shanghai. The LIRR doesn’t go to Wall Street or New London. Metro North doesn’t go to Staten Island or Albany. Or Chicago. There’s gonna be place ya can’t get to from Morris Park on a Metro North train. Change at Hunts Point if you want to go to 59th and Lex.

        • Judge99

          You seem to respond to a lot of facts and figures with “I’d hazard”s and angry rants about Metro North trains to Chicago.

          • adirondacker12800

            I hazarded a guess that 20 divided by 2 is 10. You use a different system of arithmetic?

      • johndmuller

        Alon, I believe you suggested that the PW branch go only to Penn not to ESA. What about all those people the gov wants to go use his new LGA toy train set. Don’t you think he wants people to get to Willets Point from either terminal? What international fat cat is going to want to make yet another transfer (yuck) on their way to the airport (to say nothing about Mets and/or tennis fans at GCT or whichever terminal is not on the PW line), if you only allow one destination for all PW trains?

        • Alon Levy

          The governor wants a piece of infrastructure named after himself. Good transit is not part of the plan. As it happens, offering high frequency is obligatory, and this means not splitting frequency in half (or else having cross-platform transfers).

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