Followup on New York Regional Rail and the Hempstead Line

I had an idea that the reaction to my last post would go along the lines it did. It was incredibly nitpicky, sometimes pointing out valid concerns, but often just asserting certain things are impossible or incompatible with Long Island culture that happen thousands of times a day in large European and Japanese cities. And it speaks to different communities in different cities – as I said in the post, I wrote that article in the style of a TransitMatters Regional Rail appendix, like the just-released Newburyport/Rockport Line appendix. This matters, in a number of different ways. The most important is this:

The complexity of regional rail

Naively, Boston should be a harder system to modernize than New York. The system is not electrified, and only around half the stations don’t even have high platforms. Most lines have single-track bottlenecks, especially the world-of-pain Old Colony system. Then there’s the need to tie everything together with the North-South Rail Link, to be built as a four-track rail tunnel underneath the Big Dig.

And yet, it’s still easy mode. Boston has four commuter lines on each side: Fitchburg, Lowell, Haverhill, Eastern; Worcester, Providence, Fairmount, Old Colony. There are some alignment questions in that the Franklin Line can get to Boston via the Providence Line (that is, the Northeast Corridor) or the Fairmount Line and that the outer Haverhill Line can be turned into a branch off Lowell, but otherwise the eight lines are independent. The North Station approach has a six-track pinch point, but a schedule that is optimized for short turnarounds is a schedule that automatically avoids at-grade conflicts in the throat. So each system can be planned independently; the line-by-line appendix structure comes from this technical fact.

Moreover, on the level of ridership and social planning, the lines’ sheds are mostly disjoint too. It makes complete sense to speak of jobs on the Providence Line: Providence, for one, has 30,000 jobs within 1 km of the station, which is a near-tie with Ruggles for #4 in the system after the two Boston terminals and Back Bay; and there is never much of an overlap between different lines’ sheds. This also leads to some socioeconomic targeting – the Eastern Lines appendix linked at the top of this post goes into the economic justice implication of service to working-class suburbs on the line, like Chelsea and Lynn.

New York is not like this, at all. The lines are too dense: the Hempstead Line is closely parallel to the Main Line, and it matters that Garden City and Mineola’s walk sheds overlap, albeit only marginally. The branching structure is such that one must treat each system as a whole from the start, with only a handful of plausible cleaves. My Hempstead Line post winks at that by briefly talking about how to schedule Babylon trains, but the reality is that the technical complexity of timetabling New York-area commuter railroads is genuinely high, especially once through-running comes in. (Our Boston Regional Rail timetables are pre-NSRL, so without through-running.)

None of this should be taken to mean that this is not possible. Nor does this mean it is only possible with the sort of expenditures the MTA and Port Authority are used to. Surface improvements should be budgeted in the billions of dollars, but that is equally true of Boston, with New York’s greater size trading off against the mostly-electrified, mostly-high-platform character of its network. The real difference is that Boston can do this in $1-2 billion chunks and each chunk has meaningful improvements on a few lines, whereas in New York there are more moving parts and planning has to be more integrated.

In a way, this shouldn’t surprise. Big cities trade off greater efficiency for greater needs of social organization. New York’s efficiency means that most of it can have every bus and train run every six minutes, but then someone has to plan these bus networks and train connections. At metro area scale, it has enormous potential transit ridership – I think Metro New York beats every other American metro region for how much extra transit ridership it can get in absolute numbers through better capital construction and operations, even Los Angeles – but this doesn’t easily lend itself to line-by-line planning.

Line by line in New York

New York plausibly has the weakest directionality of any city I’m familiar with. Its directional identities are New Jersey vs. in-state suburbs, and to some extent North vs. South Shore of Long Island but city vs. suburbs is the dominant distinction, so social targeting on one commuter line is completely pointless.

This also has an implication for infrastructure. The Hempstead Line is also really two different things – the Hempstead Line proper and the local tracks within the city, with different needs. The East Garden City branch is a way to fit them together, using the jobs around East Garden City to really look for ways to create more local service within Eastern and Central Queens. The upshot is that in New York, a large fraction of the missing ridership on regional rail – the difference between the region’s 800,000 daily riders and Ile-de-France’s 3.5 million on a smaller population – comes from within the city. This matters; the suburbs have a strong not-the-city identity, manifesting itself in resistance to school integration, to densification, to transit fare integration.

Essentially, the correct structure of a New York regional rail proposal is to start from generalities, as we did at TransitMatters, but then transition not to line-by-line, but to topical aspects: scheduling, extensions of electrification, near-city infrastructure (new interlockings, etc.), transit-oriented development, in-city and inner-suburban service, the Gateway tunnel, further through-running tunnels.

What does it mean to be technical?

The first Boston Regional Rail report came out three years ago. We started working on the appendices immediately; things slowed down because of juggling of priorities. We spent much of 2019 trying to address a certain technical commentary gallery that would ask about South Station capacity concerns, back when there was real risk of Massachusetts funding the completely pointless South Station Expansion project; this led to the proof of concept, released at the same time as the Worcester appendix. But that essentially led to trust in TM’s technical acumen, meaning the remaining appendices have been written to a broader audience. This is why we talk about the destinations one can go into near the stations, which I reproduce in a shorter form in my Hempstead writeup.

New York is different. Its size makes it parochial, and thus there is an enormous base of people who know the minutiae of its various pieces and only them – and thanks to its size, they respond extremely aggressively toward any outside knowledge. There are too many things that people on Subchat and New York City Transit Forums, which communities include a fair number of insiders, treat as obvious and yet are incorrect. This is worse when it comes to mainline rail – the insularity is worse, the not-regular-transit identity means that even things that are unremarkable on the subway are treated with suspicion on commuter rail.

Essentially, this forces a dialogue that we didn’t really need to have in Boston about the items (about costs, yes, but that’s a separate matter). Keolis knows what a clockface timetable is, thankfully. Enough insiders are reasonable that the only real technical need was to rebut the idea of South Station Expansion. New York, in contrast, is full of people who think the city is on top of the world and not just in corona death rates, and has capital plans that spend $40 billion in a cycle to do what other cities get done on more than a full order of magnitude less.

How special is New York?

New York is uniquely large, just like all other large cities. What this means is that there are always little places where it needs more. For example, regional rail planning in New York needs to be able to reliably run 24 trains per hour on a two-track line; this is routine, but this is not something seen in every city, because most cities don’t need this. Tokyo, Paris, and London of course all have this, even on fairly fast lines – the RER A averages 49.5 km/h, a hair less than the LIRR, and the Tokaido Main Line scratches 60 km/h. Munich has this, but is a fairly special case for a city that’s objectively kind of small. But Berlin for example tops at 18 tph on the Stadtbahn and even short-turns some trains that really should be going through.

But precisely because the number of examples, while solid, is finite, it’s easy to excuse them away. People who are committed to making New York better can figure out how to modify things as necessary – where the signal blocks need to be shortened, where a track needs to be moved, etc. Learning from Spain should be especially easy given the large number of Spanish-speaking New Yorkers. However, that requires a willingness to learn, and as Sandy points out in his master’s thesis, American commuter rail encourages insularity. New York’s size then means it’s easier to be insular there than elsewhere, to the point of not even noticing advances in other American cities, let alone actually good regional rail networks outside North America. This, in turn, forces every plan to degenerate into either accepting incorrect service assumptions, or getting into too much detail about why those assumptions are wrong.


  1. Tonami Playman

    This is mind boggling. How does one go about rectifying this problem? You’ve made wonderfully thorough and extensive regional rail plans for New York, but if the transit community or general population is unwilling to learn, where does one begin?

      • Tom M

        If the mass murdering sexual predator goes does LGA air train get dropped as well? Or are there people out there who think it is actually a good idea?

        • Alon Levy

          I am guessing it goes? But I don’t know. It’s hard to tell what came direct from Cuomo and what came from some local hack who’s good enough at bootlicking to make it look like the idea came from Cuomo and who’ll be equally good at bootlicking Hochul, James, etc.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            It’s hard to tell what came direct from [national-level big cheese] and what came from some local hack who’s good enough at bootlicking

            I know nothing about NY (state or city) politics but I’d bet $100k that it’s exactly the same situation as here in California: the contractors and consultants drive the process, from conception to “design” to lobbying to earmarking to contract award to delay to budget blowout to supplemental funding to failure to repeat.

            Agency staff — who will either eventually revolving-door, or who are stupendously unqualified and owe their entire “public service” careers to the lobbying of the contractor mafiosi — are useful ancillary agents and certainly personally benefit from skimming-off “overheads” from the project budgets. They are generally unprofeesional, ignorant, overpaid, and contemptous of anybody but their peers, and quite happy for truly bad and hideously expensive projects to drag on forever. Even if there ever were to be career consquences for failure — and there aren’t, in fact the exact opposite in the case — by the time the shit project is revealed to be a failure it’s due to decisions made by “somebody else” a couple decades ago, or “unforeeable circumstances” (coronavirus is going to do tens of billions of lifting.)

            Medium-profiile politicians are outrageously cheap to purchase. The eternal gratitude of a city councilperson or mayor or regional planning board member can be bought for mere 10^4 quantities of dollars — you can, and you’d be stupid not to, have handfuls of these types where $10^9 earmarked projects are in play.

            I’ve little direct personal into higher-profile politicians (a couple notable local but now ascended examples aside), but the pay-for-play corruption appears total, and they’ll shill anything for anybody. Infrastructure, including “transit”, projects are no-brainers: infinite cash involved, always “somebody else’s” money (county, regional, state, federal) being earmarked for “local” jobs, “environmental” dimwits are either on-board (choo choo good!) or dismissed (congestion relief!) by appeal to wider suburban driving constituency.

            These people don’t come up with ideas — any ideas, really — but boy can they deliver the threats and cut the deals that mean that the right money flows to the right people.

            It’s important to understand that it is the contractors who drive this from start to finish.
            * They conceive the project. Some of these things have been sitting in their back pockets, sometimes on actual blueprint paper, for decades, far longer than the careers or attention spans of electeds.
            * They designate and eliminate straw-man “alternatives” in “environmental analysis” that they direct and conduct.
            * They buy as much political support as high up the food chain as is necessary.
            * They ensure the earmarks are delivered as high up the funding chain as is necessary.
            * They write the bid documents and ensure that the correct contractors win.
            * They ensure the supplemental funding to cover “unexpected” cost escalation flows, being careful in general to structure construction order as blackmail to create unconnected “stranded investments” so the project can’t be truncated.
            (Calfornia HSR is a great/tragic example of all of this.)

            Political figureheads may be the public face of shit projects, but they’ll do that for anything, even good projects. The problem is that there isn’t the money in good projects, and the mafia are never going to to promote them, so senators and governors and so on are never going to hear about them, let alone be “encouraged” (= $$$) to promote them.

        • Henry

          IIRC, the (bad) justification for LGA AirTrain is that the current remodel of LGA pushes the terminals towards the Grand Central Parkway. Right now, there is airport parking there, and it has to go somewhere.

          While airport travelers are privileged and get to park on the airport property still, that leaves where the employees are going to park, and the only parcels big enough to host that kind of parking without knocking down someone’s house are in Willets Point.

          • Russell.FL

            Yup, I believe this rings true. The intention of the LGA airtrain is not so that people can use it to get to the airport solely by transit. It is so that workers and (cheaper) long term parkers can still drive, and that there would be enough parking for them. The new West garage is mostly used for Ubers and Limos pickup, with some (expensive) parking on the upper levels.

  2. adirondacker12800

    For example, regional rail planning in New York needs to be able to reliably run 24 trains per hour on a two-track line;
    They have been since MidTown Direct put the bus companies into bankruptcy a few months after opening, back in the 90s. There are claims that the December schedule changes, when NJTransit has the money and equipment to do it, there is a 60 minute period in the A.M. rush with 26 eastbound trains.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, but they never platform 24 tph on a stopping line (both Secaucus and Penn have multiple platform tracks per approach track), and think that because they don’t do it, nobody else can.

      • adirondacker12800

        They have more than two platforms, why would they? East of Jamaica or west of Secaucus everything spreads out. They don’t have 24 trains an hour on any of those sets of track.

  3. Matthew A da Silva

    I think was a really productive twist on New York exceptionalism that challenges people to gear up as oppose to give up. I also hope my nitpicking on your previous article was productive, and not pedantic. Thanks for this.

    I think pointing out the difference in perspective between an international third-party operator like Keolis and the in-house operations of the NY transit entities is the most interesting part here. Perhaps we need to look to other cities with large, institutionalized local operators (London Underground, RATP/SNCF) and see what they did to earn buy-in when local practice and best practice conflicted.

      • Matthew A da Silva

        Even if the hole we are in is bigger than what any of those cities was in, there are processes to learn from – i.e. how did LU win buy in from the drivers union for OPTO on the Underground? How did RATP and SNCF figure out how to cooperate on seamless RER operations? How did TfL get the commuter rail operators to adopt the Oyster Card/London Fare Zones? There are even North American examples: How did Muni figure out how to offer a fare product that provided for BART rides within city limits as well? How did Seattle get free transfers and revenue sharing to work between Sound Transit and King County Metro? How did Metrolinx learn how to guide transit planning investment in Greater Toronto regionally while still allowing local operators autonomy? These are all institutional problems that these agencies solved that could provide some lessons for NYC institutional actors.

      • Luke

        It seems like that should be part of the discussion, though, right? At least some of the opposition to transit spending in the U.S. is that people see how much we spend on infrastructure projects and how little we get for it, and say “it can’t be done” or “it doesn’t work here”, when in fact the crux is that indeed, nowhere else would spend like we do for the returns we get on that spending. That was one point that I felt like could’ve/should’ve been flushed out more in your talk at Transit Con in January–the connection between maintaining low costs and being able to build more infrastructure specifically because of that.

  4. GojiMet86

    “New York is different. Its size makes it parochial, and thus there is an enormous base of people who know the minutiae of its various pieces and only them – and thanks to its size, they respond extremely aggressively toward any outside knowledge. There are too many things that people on Subchat and New York City Transit Forums, which communities include a fair number of insiders, treat as obvious and yet are incorrect.”

    Yeesh, tell me about it. There is a recent discussion on open-gangway trains on the NYCTF. I and a couple others argued that these trains are more likely to be beneficial, but the response to that was the typical New York but-think-of-the-crazy-stinky homeless argument. A related but tangential discussion in that same thread was dedicated to the benefits of longer (4-car, 5-car) fixed sets versus the historical one-car or married pair trains that have historically run in New York. The “insiders” of course were arguing that married pair sets were much better because they were more flexible in cases of emergencies or malfunctions and for off-peak versus peak ridership demands, nevermind that that sort of shunting hasn’t been done in decades.

  5. Herbert

    Munich’s high throughput on the one S-Bahn trunk is bug and feature at once.

    The only cities larger than Munich in Germany have S-Bahn systems that aren’t compatible with mainline rail, which in the modern era means trains that to farther than x out from the city do not usually share tracks with the S-Bahn. In Munich of course all regional rail is either diesel or catenary electrified, which means it can – and does – share the same infrastructure.

    Add to that that while Berlin has a ring and two spines through it intersecting at right angles, Munich has one single trunk – even trains that start out due north or due south of central Munich have to be finagled into the north south spine. On the feature side, this provides great frequency on the trunk and two seat rides or better for most S-Bahn trips imaginable. On the downside are capacity constraints and the vulnerability of the system when the sole trunk is disrupted. The wisdom of building a second trunk in essence below the first is certainly questionable if one looks at it all as a blank slate but the conditions specific to Munich may make it make sense.

    Of course the Nuremberg S-Bahn network has no trunk whatsoever and while a Ringbahn is mostly extant, it isn’t really used for passenger trains and it is perhaps situated too awkwardly to be of much service.

    By the way, here is a fifty year old article on construction of U1 in Nuremberg:

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