This is a writeup I prepared for modernization of the Hempstead Branch of the LIRR in the same style as our ongoing Regional Rail line by line appendices for Boston at TransitMatters, see e.g. here for the Worcester Line. This will be followed up in a few days by a discussion of the writing process and what it means for the advocacy sphere.
Regional rail for New York: the Hempstead Line
New York has one of the most expansive commuter rail networks in the world. Unfortunately, its ridership underperforms such peer megacities as London, Paris, Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul. Even Berlin has almost twice as much ridership on its suburban rail network, called S-Bahn, as the combined total of the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit. This is a draft proposal of one component of how to modernize New York’s commuter rail network.
The core of modernization is to expand the market for commuter rail beyond its present-day core of 9-to-5 suburban commuters who live in the suburbs and work in Manhattan. This group already commutes by public transportation at high rates, but drives everywhere except to Manhattan. To go beyond this group requires expanding off-peak service to the point of making the commuter railroads like longer-range, higher-speed Queens Boulevard express trains, with supportive fares and local transit connections.
The LIRR Hempstead Line is a good test case for beginning with such a program. It is fortunate that on this line the capital and operating costs of modernization are low, and service would be immediately useful within the city as well as dense inner suburbs. With better service, the line would still remain useful to 9-to-5 commuters – in fact it would become more useful through higher speed and more flexibility for office workers who sometimes stay at the office until late. But in addition, people could take it for ordinary transit trips, including work trips to job centers in Queens or on Long Island, school trips, or social gatherings with friends in the region.
The Hempstead Line
The Hempstead Line consists of the present-day LIRR Hempstead Branch and a branch to be constructed to East Garden City. The Hempstead Branch today is 34 km between Penn Station and Hempstead, of which 24 km lie within New York City and 10 lie within Long Island.
Most trains on the branch today do not serve Penn Station because of the line’s low ridership, but instead divert to the Atlantic Branch to Downtown Brooklyn, and Manhattan-bound passengers change at Jamaica to any of the branches that run through to Midtown. Current frequency is an hourly train off-peak, and a train every 15-20 minutes for a one-hour peak. Peak trains do not all run local, but rather one morning peak train runs express from Bellerose to Penn Station.
Ridership is weak, in fact weaker than on any other line except West Hempstead and the diesel tails of Oyster Bay, Greenport, and Montauk. In the 2014 station counts, the sum of boardings at all stations was 7,000 a weekday, and the busiest stations were Floral Park with 1,500 and Hempstead with 1,200. But commute volumes from the suburbs served by the Hempstead Branch to the city are healthy, about 7,500 to Manhattan and another 10,500 to the rest of the city, many near LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens. Moreover, 13,500 city residents work in those suburbs, and they disproportionately live near the LIRR, but very few ride the train. Finally, the majority of the line’s length is within the city, but premium fares and low frequency make it uncompetitive with the subway, and therefore ridership is weak.
Despite the weak ridership, the line is a good early test case for commuter rail modernization in New York. Most of it lies in the city, paralleling the overcrowded Queens Boulevard Line of the subway. As explained below, there is also a healthy suburban job market, which not only attracts many city reverse-commuters today, but is likely to attract more if public transportation options are better.
The stations of the Hempstead Line already have destinations that people can walk to, so that if service is improved as in the following outline, people can ride the LIRR there. These include the following:
- JFK, accessible via Jamaica Station.
- Adelphi University, midway between Garden City and Nassau Boulevard, walkable to both.
- York University, fairly close to Jamaica and very close to a proposed Merrick Boulevard infill station.
- Primary and secondary schools near stations within the city, where students often have long commutes.
- Penn Station as an intercity station – passengers from Queens and Long Island traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington would benefit from faster and more frequent trains.
- Many jobs near stations in Queens and on Long Island as described below.
Within a kilometer of all stations except Penn Station, there is a total of 182,000 jobs in Queens and 50,000 on Long Island. The spine of the Main Line through Queens closely parallels the overcrowded Queens Boulevard express tracks, and in the postwar era was proposed for a Queens Super-Express subway line. But on Long Island, too, it serves the edge city cluster of Garden City and the city center of Hempstead. All of those jobs should generate healthy amounts of reverse-peak ridership and ridership terminating short of Manhattan.
|Station||Jobs within 1 km|
|Queensboro Plaza (@ QB)||62266|
|Sunnyside Jct (@ 43th)||23655 (with QBP: 78219)|
|Woodside||14409 (with Sunnyside: 36469)|
|Triboro Jct (@ 51st Ave)||14339 (Elmhurst Hospital)|
|Merrick Blvd||17020 (with Jamaica: 29260)|
|Bellerose||3014 (with QV: 7735)|
|Floral Park||5389 (with Bellerose: 6776)|
|Country Life Press||5404 (with GC: 10865)|
|Hempstead||10896 (with CLP: 15823)|
|East Garden City (@Oak)||12461|
|Nassau Center (@Endo)||6352 (with EGC: 17904)|
Required infrastructure investment
The LIRR has fairly high quality of infrastructure. Every single station has high platforms, permitting level boarding to trains with doors optimized for high-throughput stations. Most of the system is electrified with third rail, including the entirety of the Hempstead Branch. High-frequency regional rail can run on this system without any investment. However, to maximize utility and reliability, some small capital projects are required.
Queens Interlocking separation
Queens Interlocking separates the Hempstead Line from the Main Line. Today, the junction is flat: two two-track lines join together to form a four-track line, but trains have to cross opposing traffic at-grade. The LIRR schedules trains around this bottleneck, but it makes the timetable more fragile, especially at rush hour, when trains run so frequently that there are not enough slots for recovering from delays.
The solution is to grade-separate the junction. The project should also be bundled with converting Floral Park to an express station with four tracks and two island platforms; local trains should divert to the shorter Hempstead Line and all express trains should continue on the longer Main Line to Hicksville and points east. Finding cost figures for comparable projects is difficult, but Harold Interlocking was more complex and cost $250 million to grade-separate, even with a large premium for New York City projects.
Trains switch from one track to another at a junction using a device called a switch or turnout. There are two standards for turnouts: the American standard, dating to the 1890s, in which the switch is simpler to construct but involves an abrupt change in azimuth, called a secant switch; and the German standard from 1925, adopted nearly globally, in which the switch tapers to a thin blade to form what is called a tangential switch.
Passengers on a train that goes on a secant turnout are thrown sideways. To maintain adequate safety, trains are required to traverse such switches very slowly, at a speed comparable to 50 mm of cant deficiency on the curve of the switch. In contrast, German and French turnout standards permit 100 mm on their tangential switches; the double cant deficiency allows a nominal 40% increase in speed on a switch of given number (such as an American #10 vs. a German 1:10 or a French 0.1, all measuring the same frog angle). The real speed increase is usually larger because the train sways less, which creates more space in constrained train station throats.
With modern turnouts, Penn Station’s throat, currently limited to
10 15 mph ( 16 24 km/h), could be sped up to around 50 km/h, saving every train around 2 minutes just in the last few hundred meters into the station. Installation typically can be done in a few weekends, at a cost of around $200,000 per physical switch, which corresponds to high single-digit millions for a station as large as Penn. Amtrak has even taken to installing tangential switches on some portions of the Northeast Corridor, though not at the stations; unfortunately, instead of building these switches locally at local costs, it pays about $1.5 million per unit, even though in Germany and elsewhere in Europe installation costs are similar to those of American secant switches.
In addition to modifying the physical switches as outlined above, the LIRR should pursue speedups through better use of the rolling stock and better timetabling. In fact, the trains currently running are capable of 0.9 m/s^2 acceleration, but are derated to 0.45 without justification, which increases the time cost of every stop by about 30 seconds. In addition, LIRR timetables are padded about 20% over the technical running time, even taking into account the slow Penn Station throat and the derating. A more appropriate padding factor is 7%, practiced throughout Europe even on very busy mainlines, such as the Zurich station throat, where traffic is comparable to that of the rush hour LIRR.
To get to 7%, it is necessary to design the infrastructure so that delays do not propagate. Grade-separating Queens Interlocking is one key component, but another is better timetabling. Complex timetables require more schedule padding, because each train has a unique identity, and so if it is late, other trains on the line cannot easily substitute for it. In contrast, subway-style service with little branching is the easiest to schedule, because passengers do not distinguish different trains; not for nothing, the 7 and L trains, which run without sharing tracks with other lines, tend to be the most punctual and were the first two to implement CBTC signaling.
In the case of the LIRR, achieving this schedule requires setting things up so that all Hempstead Line trains run local on the Main Line to Penn Station, and all trains from Hicksville and points east run express to Grand Central. Atlantic and Babylon Branch trains can run to Atlantic Terminal, or to the local tracks to Penn, depending on capacity; Babylon can presumably run to Penn while the Far Rockaway and Long Beach Lines, already separated from the rest of the system, can run to Downtown Brooklyn.
Within the city, commuter rail station spacing is sparse. The reason is that the frequency and fares are uncompetitive. Historically, the LIRR had tight spacing in the city, with nine more stations on the Main Line within city limits, but it closed most of them in the 1920s and 30s as the subway opened to Queens. The subway offered very high frequency for a 5-cent fare compared with the LIRR’s 20-to-30-cent fares. Today, the fares remain unequal, but this can be changed, as can the off-peak frequency. In that case, it becomes useful to open some additional infill stops.
The cost of an infill station is unclear. There is a wide range; Boston and Philadelphia both open infill stations with high platforms for about $15-25 million each, and the European range is lower. Urban infill stations in constrained locations like Sunnyside can be more expensive, but not by more than a factor of 2. In the past, LIRR and Metro-North infill stops, such as those for Penn Station Access, have gone up to the three figures, and it is critical to prevent such costs from recurring.
This station is already part of the Sunnyside Yards master plan, by the name Sunnyside, and is supposed to begin construction immediately after the completion of the East Side Access project. This proposal gives it a different name only because there is another station called Sunnyside (see below).
Located at the intersection of the Main Line with Queens Boulevard, this would be a local station for trains heading toward Penn Station. It is close to the Queensboro Plaza development, which has the tallest building in the city outside Manhattan and more jobs than anywhere in the Outer Boroughs save perhaps Downtown Brooklyn. Within a kilometer of the station there are more than 60,000 jobs already, and this is before planned redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards.
The opening of East Side Access and Penn Station Access will create a zone through Sunnyside Yards where trains will run in parallel. LIRR trains will run toward either Penn Station or Grand Central, and Metro-North trains will run toward Penn Station.
It is valuable to build an express station to permit passengers to transfer. This way, passengers from the Penn Station Access stations in the Bronx could connect to Grand Central, and passengers from farther out on the New Haven Line who wish to go to
Penn Station Grand Central could board a train to either destination, improving the effective frequency. Likewise, LIRR passengers could change to a different destination across the platform at Sunnyside, improving their effective frequency.
The area is good for a train station by itself as well. It has 24,000 jobs within a kilometer, more than any other on the line except Penn Station and Queensboro Plaza. There is extensive overlap with the 1 km radius of Queensboro Plaza, but even without the overlap, there are 16,000 jobs, almost as many as within 1 km of Jamaica, and this number will rise with planned redevelopment of the Yards.
This station is at 51st Avenue, for future transfers to the planned Triboro RX orbital. Population and job density here are not high by city standards: the 14,000 jobs include 5,000 at Elmhurst Hospital on Broadway, which is at the periphery of the 1 km radius and is poorly connected to the railroads on the street network. The value of the station is largely as a transfer for passengers from Astoria and Brooklyn.
About 1.5 km east of Jamaica, Merrick Boulevard catches the eastern end of the Jamaica business district. It also connects to one of Eastern Queens’ primary bus corridors, and passengers connecting from the buses to Manhattan would benefit from being able to transfer outside the road traffic congestion around Jamaica Station.
The East Garden City extension
The Hempstead Branch was historically part of the Central Railroad of Long Island. To the west, it continued to Flushing, which segment was abandoned in 1879 as the LIRR consolidated its lines. To the east, it continued through Garden City and what is now Levittown and ran to Babylon on a segment the LIRR still uses sporadically as the Central Branch. The right-of-way between Garden City and Bethpage remains intact, and it is recommended that it be reactivated at least as far as East Garden City, with an East Garden City station at Oak Street and a Nassau Center station at Endo Boulevard. This is for two reasons.
Long Island is unusually job-poor for a mature American suburb. This comes partly from the lack of historic town centers like Stamford or Bridgeport on the New Haven Line or White Plains and Sleepy Hollow in Westchester. More recently, it is also a legacy of Robert Moses, who believed in strict separation of urban jobs from suburban residences and constructed the parkway system to feed city jobs. As a result of both trends, Long Island has limited job sprawl.
However, East Garden City specifically is one of two exceptions, together with Mineola: it has a cluster with 18,000 jobs within 1 km of either of the two recommended stations. Reopening the branch to East Garden City would encourage reverse-commuting by train.
Opening a second branch on the Hempstead Line helps balance demand in two separate ways. First, the population and job densities in Queens are a multiple of those of Long Island and always will be, and therefore the frequency of trains that Queens would need, perhaps a local train every 5 minutes all day, would grossly overserve Hempstead. At the distance of Hempstead or East Garden City, only a train every 10-15 minutes (in a pinch, even every 20) is needed, and so having two branches merging for city service is desirable.
And second, having frequent Hempstead Line local service forces all of the trains on the outer tracks of the Main Line in Queens to run local, just as the subway has consistent local and express tracks. The LIRR gets away with mixing different patterns on the same track because local frequency is very low; at high frequency, it would need to run like the subway. Because passengers from outer suburbs should get express trains, it is valuable to build as much infrastructure as possible to help feed the local tracks, which would be the less busy line at rush hour.
Train access and integration
Today, the LIRR primarily interfaces with cars. LIRR capital spending goes to park-and-rides, and it is expected that riders should drive to the most convenient park-and-ride, even on a different branch from the one nearest to their home. This paradigm only fills trains at rush hour to Manhattan, and is not compatible with integrated public transportation. In working-class suburbs like Hempstead, many take cheaper, slower buses. Instead, the system should aim for total integration at all levels, to extend the city and its relative convenience of travel without the car into suburbia.
Fares must be mode-neutral. This means that, just as within the city the fares on the buses and subways are the same, everywhere else in the region a ticket should be valid on all modes within a specified zone. Within the city, all trains and buses should charge the same fares, with free intermodal transfers.
Such a change would entice city residents to switch from the overcrowded E and F trains to the LIRR, which is by subway standards empty: the average Manhattan-bound morning rush hour LIRR train has only 85% of its seats occupied. In fact, if every E or F rider switches to the LIRR, which of course will not happen as they don’t serve exactly the same areas, then the LIRR’s crowding level, measured in standees per m^2 of train area, will be lower than that of the E and F today.
In the suburbs, the fares can be higher than in the city, in line with the higher operating costs over longer distances. But the fares must likewise be mode-neutral, with free transfers. For example, within western Nassau County, fares could be set at 1.5 times subway fare, which means that all public transit access between the city and Hempstead would cost $190 monthly or $4.00 one-way, by any mode: NICE bus, the LIRR, or a bus-train combo.
This would be a change from today’s situation, where premium-price trains only attract middle-class riders, while the working class rides buses. In fact, the class segregation today is such that in the morning rush hour, trains run full to Manhattan and empty outbound and NICE buses, which carry working-class reverse-commuters, are the opposite. Thus, half of each class’s capacity is wasted.
Bus redesign and bus access
Instead of competing with the trains, buses should complement them, just as they do within the city with the subway. This means that the NICE system should be designed along the following lines:
- More service perpendicular to the LIRR, less parallel to it.
- Bus nodes at LIRR stations, enabling passengers to connect.
- Timed transfers: at each node the buses should arrive and depart on the same schedule, for example on the hour every 20 minutes, to allow passengers to change with minimal hassle. This includes timed transfers with the trains if they run every 15 minutes or worse, but if they run more frequently, passengers can make untimed connections as they do in the city.
Urban and suburban rail stations should include bike parking. Bikes take far less space than cars, and thus bike park-and-ride stations in the Netherlands can go up to thousands of stalls while still maintaining a walkable urban characteristic.
In many countries, including the United States on the West Coast, systems encourage riders to bring their bikes with them on the train. However, in New York it’s preferably to adopt the Dutch system, in which bikes are not allowed on trains, and instead stations offer ample bike parking. This is for two reasons. First, New York is so large and has such a rush hour capacity crunch that conserving capacity on board each train is important. And second, cultures that bring bikes on trains, such as Northern California, arise where people take trains to destinations that are not walkable from the station; but in New York, passengers already connect to the subway for the last mile from Penn Station to their workplaces, and thus bikes are not necessary.
Trains should run intensively, with as little distinction between the peak and off-peak as is practical. At most, the ratio between peak and off-peak service should be 2:1. Already, the LIRR’s high ratio, 4:1 on the Hempstead Branch, means that trains accumulate at West Side Yard at the end of the morning peak. The costs of raising off-peak service to match peak service are fairly low to begin with, but they are especially low when the alternative is to expand a yard in Midtown Manhattan, paying Midtown Manhattan real estate prices.
For an early timetable in which the Babylon Branch provides extra frequency in the city, the following frequencies are possible:
|Penn Station-Garden City||5 minutes||10 minutes|
|Garden City-Hempstead||10 minutes||20 minutes|
|Garden City-Nassau Center||10 minutes||20 minutes|
A more extensive service, with all LIRR South Side diverting to a separate line from the Main Line, perhaps the Atlantic Branch to Downtown Brooklyn, requires an increase in off-peak urban service:
|Penn Station-Garden City||5 minutes||5 minutes|
|Garden City-Hempstead||10 minutes||10 minutes|
|Garden City-Nassau Center||10 minutes||10 minutes|
Further increases in peak service may be warranted for capacity reasons if there is more redevelopment than currently planned or legal by city and suburban zoning codes.
With rerating the LIRR equipment to its full acceleration rate, a fix to the Penn Station throat, and standard European schedule padding, the following timetable is feasible:
|Station||Time (current)||Time (future, M7)||Time (Euro-EMU)|
|Country Life Press||00:49||00:38||00:35|
|East Garden City||—||00:38||00:35|
Providing peak service every 10 minutes to each of Hempstead and Nassau Center requires 20 trainsets, regardless of whether they are existing LIRR equipment or faster, lighter European trainsets.