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.