How Fast New York Regional Rail Could Be Part 2

In my last post about New York regional rail schedules, I covered the New Haven and Harlem Lines of Metro-North and the Main Line and Hempstead Branch of the LIRR. I was hoping to cover more lines tonight, but due to time constraints only the Hudson Line is available.

This post should be viewed as considerably more accurate than the previous one, because I’ve obtained a Metro-North track chart with exact curve radii. I had to use measuring tools in the previous posts, and although the results were generally accurate, they were not completely so, and a few short, sharp curves cost a few more seconds than depicted. I do not believe the total slowdown between New York and either New Haven or Southeast to be worse than one minute relative to the track chart, but it is a slight slowdown, more than countermanding my tendency to round all fractional seconds up in speed zones.

Capital expenses

One key difference with my last post is that the Hudson Line is not entirely electrified. It is only electrified south of Croton-Harmon; farther north, trains run with diesel locomotives, changing to electric mode only in Manhattan. My timetable assumes electrification. This is a project Metro-North should be pursuing anyway, since the outer Hudson Line is one of the busiest diesel lines in New York, alongside the outer Port Jefferson Branch and the Raritan Valley Line.

This lack of electrification extends to part of the express tracks south of Croton-Harmon as well. As a result, this schedule, while relying on cheap investments, is not quite the near-zero cost improvement on the express line. On the local line it is, since the trains are electrified.

As before, I am not assuming any curve is straightened, merely that track geometry trains fix the tracks to have higher superelevation (150 mm) and that trains run at 150 mm cant deficiency rather than today’s 3″. In metric units, this means acceleration in the horizontal plane is 2 m/s^2, so curves obey the formula

\mbox{speed} = \sqrt{2\times\mbox{curve radius}}.

One big-ticket item that Metro-North should look into, in addition to completing electrification, is grade-separating the interlocking at CP 5, between the Hudson and Harlem Lines. The flat junction is extremely busy – it may plausibly have higher peak throughput than the flat junctions that plague South London’s commuter rail network – and hinders a simple 2-tracks-in, 2-tracks-out operation. This is not strictly speaking a speedup, but I would be more comfortable writing aggressive, high-frequency timetables if trains did not conflict at-grade.

Local schedule

Local trains run up to Croton-Harmon, making all stops.

Station Current time Future M-7 time Future Euro time
Grand Central 0:00 0:00 0:00
Harlem-125th 0:10 0:06 0:06
Yankees-153rd 0:15 0:09 0:09
Morris Heights 0:18 0:12 0:12
University Heights 0:20 0:14 0:14
Marble Hill 0:22 0:16 0:16
Spuyten Duyvil 0:24 0:18 0:17
Riverdale 0:28 0:21 0:20
Ludlow 0:30 0:24 0:23
Yonkers 0:33 0:26 0:25
Glenwood 0:35 0:28 0:27
Greystone 0:38 0:31 0:29
Hastings-on-Hudson 0:42 0:34 0:31
Dobbs Ferry 0:45 0:36 0:33
Ardsley-on-Hudson 0:47 0:39 0:36
Irvington 0:49 0:41 0:38
Tarrytown 0:53 0:44 0:41
Sleepy Hollow 0:55 0:47 0:43
Scarborough 0:59 0:50 0:46
Ossining 1:02 0:53 0:48
Croton-Harmon 1:11 0:56 0:52


The 9-minute interstation between Ossining and Croton-Harmon represents end-of-line schedule padding – in the southbound direction, trains are scheduled to take only 4 minutes.

Observe that the travel time difference is smaller than on the other lines presented in my previous post. Current equipment could shave 21% off the travel time, which is considerable but a far cry from the 33-40% elsewhere in the system. The reason is that the Hudson Line is maintained to higher standards, with cruise speeds of 80 mph on much of the line; I am assuming a speedup to 160 km/h, but the stop spacing along the Hudson is so short that trains can’t even hit 160 km/h while accelerating. The curves are still insufficiently superelevated – the Spuyten Duyvil curve where the fatal derailment happened has only 2.5″ of superelevation – and trains are only rated for low cant deficiency. However, the other aspects of the speedup on other lines are less conspicuous.

I also suspect that there is less schedule padding on the Hudson Line than on the other lines. Its frequency is lower, the line is four-track for most of its length, and the one significant flat junction equally affects the other two Metro-North mainlines. So the schedule may already be stable enough that padding, while considerable, is less outrageous than on the LIRR.

Express schedule

Express trains on the Hudson Line run a variety of stopping patterns, especially at rush hour. The line’s infrastructure is set up for intermediate express stops at Harlem, Marble Hill, Yonkers, Tarrytown, Ossining, and Croton-Harmon, but the standard off-peak pattern makes slightly fewer stops. My assumption is that all the above stations will receive express service.


Station Current time Future M-7 time Future Euro time
Grand Central 0:00 0:00 0:00
Harlem-125th 0:11 0:06 0:06
Marble Hill 0:13 0:13
Yonkers 0:18 0:18
Tarrytown 0:39 0:27 0:26
Ossining 0:47 0:32 0:31
Croton-Harmon 0:53 0:35 0:34
Cortlandt 1:01 0:41 0:39
Peekskill 1:06 0:44 0:42
Manitou 0:50 0:48
Garrison 1:17 0:54 0:51
Cold Spring 1:21 0:57 0:55
Breakneck Ridge 1:00 0:58
Beacon 1:30 1:05 1:02
New Hamburg 1:38 1:10 1:07
Poughkeepsie 1:55 1:15 1:12


This is a 35-38% reduction in travel time while making four more stops, two on the inner part of the line and two on the outer part that currently only see occasional seasonal use for hiking trails. The explanation for this is simple: the rolling stock used today is not M-7 EMUs but diesel locomotives. Rush hour trains running nonstop between Manhattan and Beacon connect Grand Central with Poughkeepsie in 1:36-1:37, a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes, twice as high as what a European regional EMU can achieve at a top speed of 160 km/h.

Moreover, the 80-90 mph speed limit, which is dead letter on local trains for most of the way because they stop so frequently, consumes a few minutes relative to 160 km/h when trains run nonstop for long stretches. Thus, an increase in top speed is necessary in addition to an increase in curve superelevation and cant deficiency.

What about Grand Central?

My schedules consistently depict 6-minute trip times between Grand Central and Harlem, compared with current timetables that have them do it in 10-11 minutes. On most of the line, the top speed is the same – 60 mph, against 100 km/h in my timetable. The difference is entirely in the last mile out of Grand Central, where the limit today is 10 mph for no good reason.

The constrained environment of Grand Central does not leave room for high-speed switches. Nonetheless, the existing switches, called #8 switches, have a curve radius of about 140 meters, which is good enough for 40 km/h with no superelevation and a cant deficiency of 150 mm. American switches are generally rated for twice their number in miles per hour, assuming no superelevation and a 2″ cant deficiency; but higher cant deficiency is possible, and is really important as the difference between 25 and 40 km/h for a few hundred meters is considerable.

Moreover, 40 km/h is only the governing speed for a very short distance, about half a kilometer. Farther out, trains can always take the straight direction on turnouts, with one exception, turnout number 309B on the southbound local track (track 4), which is a triangular switch, i.e. one without a straight direction. Fixing the switch to have a straight direction from track 4 to track J, the westernmost approach track to the lower level of the station, should be a priority, plausibly saving 3 minutes for all trains using this track.

With trains taking the straight direction wherever possible, the central express tracks in the Park Avenue Tunnel (tracks 1 and 2) should exclusively feed the upper level, and the outer local tracks should exclusively feed the lower level; this way, there would not be any conflict. The station was originally designed for local trains to use the lower level and express trains to use the upper level, so this is nothing new, just a more rigid way of running service than today. Each of the two levels has ladder tracks permitting access to about 10 platform tracks, which is more enough for a train every 2 minutes; for reference, the 4 platform tracks of Haussmann-Saint Lazare on the RER E turn 16 trains per hour at the peak today, and were constructed with the ability to turn 18.

The upshot is that very little station reconstruction is needed at this stage. Some reconstruction is required for through-running, as it would require all approach tracks to go to the lower level, but even that would be much cheaper than the through-running tunnels. But with terminating service, only one switch needs to be changed. This is not expensive; the limiting resource is imagination to do better than today’s slow service.


  1. Matthew A da Silva

    This is really great work, Alon! I would love to see a Part 3 taking a look at NJ Transit – I suspect NJ Transit, with their push-pull equipment and low-level platforms, is where your types of reforms can make the biggest difference, and also where bringing operations up to modern standards will be most expensive.

    It’s a shame NJ Transit never had the modernization investments that Metro-North and LIRR had in the 1960s in advance of the M-1s.

      • Matthew A da Silva

        Awesome! Thanks.

        On an unrelated note – w.r.t. consist and ridership balancing, you are proposing all-local service for the Harlem Line but maintaining an express-local split for the less-busy (at least during weekdays) Hudson. Won’t those Brewster locals be very crowded unless you are providing service twice as frequent as elsewhere on the system? Likewise, is there demand to run a train every 7-10 minutes north of White Plains?

        • Alon Levy

          I’m proposing more frequent service on the Harlem Line, yeah. I keep going back and forth about frequencies; I only tried figuring this out for a through-run system, in which there’s more capacity since a lot of the Hudson and New Haven trains divert to Penn Station, and in that case the Harlem Line should get 24 peak tph, probably cut in half off-peak, probably with half the trains turning at North White Plains.

          • Shaul Picker

            Without through running and grade-separation at Melrose, how much could capacity at Grand Central be increased, and how would you allocate the additional capacity? How much capacity would grade-separating Melrose add?

  2. Robert Hale

    There are some #6.5 turnouts mostly near the platforms. Number 6 switches have 86 m radius; I haven’t yet found specs for #6.5 switches. Number 6 switches should be good for at least 15 mi/h at 3″ cant deficiency, 20 mi/h with 6″ cant deficiency. There is a lot of room to improve upon the current limit of 10 mi/h for a mile from the blocks at little cost.

    • Alon Levy

      The ladder tracks that connect tracks 23-33 to running tracks 1-2 and tracks 104-114 to running tracks 3-4 are all #8. They’re also right next to the tracks, so the only conflicts occur within about 500 meters of the bumpers, trains taking about 50 seconds to do that at 40 km/h including acceleration time.

      • Jan

        A 140 m radius in itself might just about be good for 40 kph by European standards when regarding cant deficiency alone, but
        – railways commonly employ stricter standards for cant deficiency through frogs as opposed to a plain curve
        – for simple (no clothoid or other form of transition) turnouts, the governing factor for the speed limit usually isn’t cant deficiency, but rather *variation* of cant deficiency (jerk), and 40 kph @ 140 m might just be a tad too optimistic

        • Alon Levy

          The rules in France and I think also in Germany are that on a switch, an abrupt change from 0 to 100 mm cant deficiency is allowed without third derivative control. 40 km/h is fine by this rule for a 1:8 German turnout or a French 0.125 (American #8s are slightly different in shape in the same footprint – they aren’t even perfectly tangent).

          EDIT: ugh, no, maximum is 36 km/h. You need a 1:9 to get to 40. Still doable within current footprint, though…

          • Richard Mlynarik

            UIC DB-Netz standard turnouts:
            1:9 300m radius with curve through frog is good for 50kmh.
            1:9 190m radius with space-wasting straight frog 40kmh.
            Undesirable outside of yards 190-1:7.5 40kmh
            If 140m radius turnouts were a thing any longer (they’re not, except for renewals of old yard tracks) the speed limit (100m maximum cant deficiency through turnouts, usual sqrt (r/11.8 * cant) formula) would be 34.4kmh which would be rounded down to 30kmh.

            The insane adherance to freight-style turnouts in constrained locations is insane and hugely costly in pretty much every way, especially so at any location with any sort of space constraint.

  3. IAN! Mitchell

    While on the subject of Park Avenue Tunnel, why the heck is the old one being used for a roadway? Would it make more sense to re-use that tunnel for some kind of rail, like a shuttle line, or bringing Metro-North trains south to a direct transfer with the L?

    • Alon Levy

      Without having looked at a 3D profile, my suspicion is that a regional rail tunnel from Grand Central to Union Square would have to go deeper than the existing tunnels, to go underneath the 4/5/6 and S. That’s why in the future all trains would have to feed the lower-level tracks.

        • Alon Levy

          Through the express tracks, if the grades are limited to about 2% to be compatible with electric locomotives. Build the tunnel with 4% grades and it’s possible to dodge everything.

          • adirondacker12800

            And thn into the flushing line. your are building two copies of East Side Access. so that the trains to Wall Street can also stop at Grand Central. they don’t have to. Change in Mott Haven. Somebody somewhere it likely to get screwed out of a one seat ride. Too bad. The next train is going to be in three minutes

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t know. Options include keeping them just in case and paving them over to create an annex of the train station hall, which can include concessions, office space, and new vertical circulation points to the lower level tracks.

  4. James S

    Alon, NJT regularly schedules express trains to depart NYP 2-3 minutes after a local.

    What do you think is the logic behind this?

    • The Economist

      The real answer is complicated. The short answer is so that the express can overtake the local at Secaucus.

      In general though, the operations at Secaucus are terrible. NJT foolishly insists on stopping all local trains on the middle platform. Additionally 95% of the time all locals stop on the same track, so it is a conga line of westbound trains getting on track B as opposed to alternating between tracks A and B.

    • Alon Levy

      You mean stuff like the 5:01 and 5:03, and the 6:37 and 6:39 on the NEC Line? They overtake at Secaucus. It seems weird, yeah – the 4- and 5-minute gaps elsewhere are fine for overtaking south of Newark Penn.

      The interesting thing is that despite the Secaucus overtake, overall trip time on the local isn’t higher. The 5:01 and 6:37 locals do NY-Newark in 20 minutes, same as any other afternoon peak train that stops at Secaucus.

      • adirondacker12800

        Odd, peculiar and strange things will happen when you try to stuff 15 pounds of stuff into a 10 pound bag. They are finagling something. The 6:37 and the 6:39 are easy to imagine why they do that. To encourage people going to New Brunswick and Jersey Avenue to wait two minutes to get there faster. … ARC and more tracks between Newark and Secaucus should have been opening this year, to beat the dead horse again…

          • adirondacker12800

            And Lyndon Johnson signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 which was aiming for two hours between New York and Washington D.C. in 1980-ish. The promotional film the PRR and Budd made about the wonderful new service had a blurb about the next generation being capable of 160 MPH. Any decade now. Someone with a comptometer projected NJTransit, LIRR and Amtrak ridership and came up with there being capacity problems somewhere on either side of 2000. Any decade now.

          • Alon Levy

            Hey, they were right about the next generation being capable of 160 mph by 1980-ish, they just got the country wrong :P.

  5. Michael Whelan

    Alon, in a hypothetical future will a full buildout of your proposed regional rail system, which trains will still use the upper level of Grand Central? I’m assuming that expresses from Poughkeepsie, Wassaic, and Danbury will still terminate there? Or will all run through to Staten Island and New Jersey? Will any intercity Amtrak trains be diverted to GCT or will Penn Station remain the sole intercity stop? Thanks!

    • Alon Levy

      So far, i.e. based on the maps I drew in 2014-7, the assumption is that all trains using the Park Avenue Tunnel are to use the lower level of Grand Central and run through. The reason is that the tunnel only has four tracks and is the only north-south route through the center of Manhattan, so all capacity should be used intensively for local and regional service. This is not like London, where most of the trunks feeding the main terminals have four tracks each and then the two slow tracks can run through and the two fast tracks can keep terminating and run longer-distance service, including intercity trains; or like Paris, where some of the stations have six, eight, or even ten approach tracks.

      For the same reason, all intercity service should use Penn Station. The only reason to use Grand Central is if for some reason there’s an intercity rail tunnel connecting the two stations. However, I do not believe such a tunnel to be a great idea, for multiple reasons:

      1. The area is constrained, so the curve radius will be low, possibly in the 200 meters area, which Shinkansen trains can’t navigate well.
      2. If there is money for a Penn-GCT tunnel, then the trains that should use it should be shorter-range (since longer-distance passengers lose less from having to transfer at Penn Station) and busier (since serving two Midtown stations spreads the peak passenger load better than serving one), and those are regional rather than intercity trains.
      3. There’s less room to install passing tracks to permit intercity trains to overtake regional trains at Harlem-125th than at Sunnyside.

      I have lately stared thinking about the possibility of entirely dedicated tracks for HSR through Manhattan. It’s expensive, but might be worth it, essentially as a way to create more regional rail capacity while also slightly speeding up New York-Boston trains. But even then, intercity trains should only serve Penn Station.

      • adirondacker12800

        If there is demand, there can Kodama/Hikari from upstate and New England terminating in Grand Central. Just like if there is demand for Suburban, in Philadelphia, there can be trains that use the upper level at 30th and perhaps even go to Jefferson and Temple. When there are a lot of trains they don’t all have to do the same thing. Send four tracks of Metro North to Wall Street you screw Long Island or New Jersey out of service to Wall Street. Or Staten Island. Think in terms of express PATH connecting major nodes not sending everything everywhere.

          • adirondacker12800

            Does Shinjuku have Shinkansen tracks?
            Suburban has Acela tracks, Amtrak chooses to not do that but they could. Like the Clockers did. The 1956 schedules I have, there are a few trains from Suburban to Jersey City instead of New York. Somebody made a whoopsie a few years ago and an Amtrak train managed to get to Bala Cynwyd. Wanna send a Regional to West Trenton or Morristown, you could.
            The Hikari to Richmond leaves Saratoga Springs at :00, the Kodama to Grand Central leaves at :02 and toddles along until it switches onto the Hudson Line miles and miles and miles away from Manhattan. And before the :30 from Montreal catches up to it. One less trainload of passengers in Penn Station means people who want to go to Charlotte, Cleveland and Detroit can use Penn Station instead. And it’s one less trainload of people on the shuttle. That would probably need third rail capable trains. But that’s not impossible to do either. Souped up M8-ish things with better seats. The same kind of ones that sop up Boston to Grand Central via Hartford and Stamford. I don’t think they’d do this but there could be a train originating in Harrisburg that swoops through Philadelphia via Jefferson and the West Trenton line and terminates in New Haven or Springfield. Or sumptin. The reservation system will know and can suggest things.

          • Alon Levy

            It has a safeguarded route for a deep tunnel that could carry Shinkansen tracks; there were plans to actually dig there from the north for Joetsu Shinkansen service.

          • adirondacker12800

            Sending an Amtrak train to Bala Cynwyd didn’t cost much. Digging a tunnel from North Philadelphia to the airport would cost a bit. If the point is to get people to City Hall, Suburban is good enough, there can be a Kodama that does that. Tomorrow if they had the urge. Deep caverns are expensive, you want to finagle things to avoid digging them. Harlem Line and Staten Island to both Midtown West and Midtown East seems to be the ickiest problem. Grand Hyatt or the Chrysler Building to the Comcast Center in Philadelphia, meh, it doesn’t need a one seat ride.

      • df1982

        So just to clarify: your plan for Grand Central would be to have four through tracks running through the lower level (presumably slicing through the food hall), and close down the platforms on the upper level altogether (as well as all but four of the lower level platforms)? I can’t help but think that’s leaving behind a lot of otherwise useful stranded assets. Not to mention what the heritage people would say about a plan like that.

        • adirondacker12800

          And that pesky Lexington Avenue subway might be in the way too. And whatever is in the terminal under the floors you can see.

        • Alon Levy

          First, my plan for Grand Central would use eight lower-level platform tracks, with two platform tracks per approach track for more capacity. Grand Central is an extremely busy train station and will remain so no matter what, so trains cannot stick to 30-second dwell times there, and to allow 1-minute dwells without reducing capacity, two platform tracks per running track are required.

          Second, the food hall would probably have to go, but it’s not guaranteed, I think the tunnel might be able to go under it. It would need to be underpinned for construction, though.

          Third, I haven’t really thought about what to do with the other station tracks. Maybe keep them in case they’re needed, maybe extend station facilities there – not sure.

          • HalMallon

            The lower level tracks at GCT run under the food hall…the gates are at the food hall level, then you walk down the stairs to the platform…

          • PDuncan

            I found a track schematic in the PDF that adirondacker12800 posted earlier, (page 26), that somewhat shows where the conflicts with thru-running the lower level would be. The Lower level loop track would go, not a loss with thru-running. It looks like they can go between the IRT lines with enough headspace. There is a another tube just south of the 7 that I can’t read the description on, though it seems to say “Old”, which would block any attempt to dip the line before reaching the express tracks under park. If that isn’t a problem then the very rough estimate for the slope of the track is 3.65% to miss the express tunnel, and that’s with starting to decline where the current platforms are.

          • peteraduncan

            Yeah, please consolidate. WordPress freaked out when I commented and made me sign in so I didn’t think the first one went through. Thanks.

          • peteraduncan

            I found a schematic on page 26 of the pdf adirondacker12800 linked to earlier, found here It seems to suggest that as HalMallon correctly pointed out the foodhall is out of danger, and that there may be space for the trains to run between the IRT lines. There is what looks like another tunnel there but what I can make out from the low res image it says “old” which might suggest it’s disused. From my rough calculation it would be around a 3.6% gradient to fit below the express tracks under park and that’s with starting about forty feet back from the end of the current tracks.

  6. Pingback: How Fast New York Regional Rail Could Be Part 3 | Pedestrian Observations
  7. df1982

    I’m guessing you can steer west a little to avoid the Lexington Ave line, but what about the 7 and the shuttle? Is it possible to thread a path through them from the lower level platforms?

    And why not keep the upper levels for, say, long-distance New England services (once the Boston connector is built)? Passengers needing to continue south could transfer at an earlier station (New Haven, Stamford, New Rochelle) if necessary.

  8. crazytrainmatt

    Compared to Europe, rail in the NE is extremely bouncy, sometimes violently so. I don’t know if it is lower standards for maintenance of ROW or just the heavier equipment causes more damage. Could the existing agencies be trusted to safely increase speeds, or is a root cause that they have been de-skilled and gotten accustomed to outsized margins?

  9. Ian Donnelly

    Are you taking into account Amtrak on your Hudson Line schedules? I always feel like they could be going much faster there then they currently do. With modified superelevations on the curves how quickly could an Amtrak train reach Poughkeepsie?

  10. Hugh B

    Whenever you talk about through-running at GCT, how do you intend to deal with the fact that there is active space at the upper track level? Just use lower level tracks for through-running? Extend the balloon tracks? Demolish a large part of one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions? Build a deep level cavern?

  11. Shaul Picker

    Could you do a post on travel times for the Port Jefferson Branch, and possibly also other lines like Babylon/Montauk, and the Erie Lines in New Jersey? Thanks.

  12. Pingback: How High-Speed and Regional Rail are Intertwined | Pedestrian Observations
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