The Interborough Study

I was excited about the idea of Interborough Express (IBX) as announced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, and then last week her office released a preliminary report about the alternatives for it, and I got less excited. But it’s not that the study is bad, or that Hochul is bad. Rather, the study is a by the numbers alternatives analysis, shorter than the usual in a good way; its shortcomings are the shortcomings of all American planning.

The main rub is that the report looks at various options for the IBX route, broken down by mode. There’s a commuter rail option, which bakes in the usual bad assumption about commuter rail operations, including heavier trains (lighter trains are legal on US tracks as of 2018) and longer dwell times that are explained as a product of the heavier trains (dwell times have nothing to do with train mass). That’s par for the course – as we saw yesterday, everything that touches mainline rail in North America becomes stupid even in an otherwise understandable report.

But even excluding commuter rail, the study classifies the options by mode, focusing on bus rapid transit and light rail (and no subway, for some reason). It compares those two options and commuter rail on various measures like expected ridership and trip times. This is normal for American alternatives analyses for new corridors like IBX: they look at different modes as the main decision point.

This is also extraordinarily bad governance. There are some fundamental questions that are treated as afterthoughts, either not studied at all or mentioned briefly as 1-2 sentences:

  • How far north should the line go? The IBX plan is to only go from Jackson Heights to the south, in contrast with older Triboro proposals going into the Bronx.
  • What should the stop spacing be? The stops can be widely spaced, as in the current proposal, which stops mainly at intersection points with other lines, or more closely spaced, like an ordinary subway line.
  • Under a light rail option, should the line be elevated where the trench is too narrow or at-grade?
  • Should freight service be retained? What are the benefits of retaining freight rail service on the Bay Ridge Branch and what are the incremental costs of keeping it versus taking over the right-of-way?
  • How large should the stations be?
  • How frequent should the trains be? If freight service is retained, what frequencies are compatible with running freight on the same tracks for part or all of the line?

A better study must focus on these questions. Some of them, moreover, must be decided early: urban planning depends on whether the line goes into the Bronx or not; and industrial planning depends on what is done with freight service along the corridor.

Those questions, moreover, are more difficult than the modal question. A BRT option on a rail corridor without closely parallel arterial roads should be dismissed with the same ease that the study dismisses options not studied, and then the question of what kind of rail service to run is much less important than the scope of the project.

But American planning is obsessed with comparing public transit by mode rather than by corridor, scope, or any other aspect. Canadian planning has the same misfeature – the studies for the Broadway SkyTrain extension looked at various BRT and light rail options throughout, even though it was clear the answer was going to be SkyTrain, and omitted more fundamental questions regarding the cost-construction disruption tradeoff or even the scope of the project (the original studies from 2012 did not look at truncating to Arbutus, an option that had been talked about before and that would eventually happen due to cost overruns).

So overall, the IBX study is bad. But it is interestingly bad. Andrew Cuomo was a despicable governor who belongs in prison for his crimes. Less criminal and yet similarly loathsome people exist in American public transit. And yet, Hochul and her office are not like that, at all. This is not a sandbag, or a corrupt deal. It’s utterly ordinary in its failure; with all the unique failures of the Cuomo era stripped, what is left is standard American practice, written more clearly than is usual, and it just isn’t up to par as an analysis.

Hochul has been moving on this project very quickly, and good transit advocates should laud this. It should not take long to publish a report comparing alternatives on more fundamental questions than mode, such as scope, the role of freight, and the extent of civil infrastructure to be used. The costs and benefits of IBX heavily depend on the decisions made on such matters; they should not be brushed aside.


  1. Charles Olson

    It is clearly stated in the study that maintaining freight service through the corridor is an absolute requirement, not least because it makes a future Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel possible. That being the case, and if using eminent domain to widen the corridor where it’s only 2 tracks wide isn’t an option, the only possible modes are ones that can run on streets briefly (BRT, light rail) or can run on the mainline rail network (conventional rail). It also clearly states that a “conventional rail” solution would be designed to be as subway-like in its operation as possible (close stop spacing, short dwell times, etc).

    • df1982

      I had always assumed that a light metro-style operation would be the natural fit for the corridor, like Vancouver’s sky train. It could be driverless so operating costs would be lower than any other alternative. The dwell time thing is truly puzzling: there is no reason why it should be 45 seconds for “conventional rail” when it can be as low as 20 seconds on new build systems. It seems purposely designed to make a fully grade separated line look like the worst alternative. There is no way rapid transit should take four minutes more than BRT with on-street running segments.

      • Luke

        Only line of reasoning I could guess is seating design. Subway-style longitudinal for faster in/egress and greater capacity (my vote, for the latter reason, in a metro area this size) or commuter-style transverse for greater comfort at the cost of longer dwell times? I’m not sure that’s the rationale, but it seems plausible, even if it exists as a product of entertaining and alternative configuration that doesn’t deserve the consideration.

        • df1982

          Most trips on the IBX would be quite short though, as is usually the case for orbitals, so I would imagine transit-style seating would be a given. In any case the Paris metro has 2×2 lateral seating and still has very short dwell times, so I don’t think there’s a strong correlation.

        • Alex Cat3

          Yeah, “commuter rail” to them probably means “use Metro North’s rolling stock” with 3×2 seating, a super narrow aisle, and only 2 doors per car.

          • Phake Nick

            The report specifically mentioned “Unlike Conventional Rail elsewhere in the region, trains would be configured similarly to subway cars, allowing for faster boarding and alighting as well as more standing room on trains, and trains would operate at transit-level frequencies.”

          • Henry

            The distinction is poorly worded, but essentially “Commuter Rail” was the electric option as opposed to DMUs, which probably got tossed out the window immediately due to the negatives of diesel propulsion in a heavily populated area along with the generally worse performance.

        • Andy

          They explicitly talk about this in the study, saying they would have subway-style seat layouts on the conventional rail rolling stock.

      • Phake Nick

        Isn’t most of those automated system either elevated or underground? Meanwhile the proposed alignment see all the compared modes having majority of their service on surface, which isn’t suitable for automated operation. The saving from constructing at saving could be much more than the operational cost saving of automation, not to mention automation also come with their own costs, and even longer term the maintenance of surface level system would still probably be cheaper

        Also, the proposed headway here is 5 minutes for rails and 2.5 minutes for buses. I don’t think such headway need automation.

        • Eric2

          Isn’t the ROW already grade separated from cars and pedestrians? So automation is not a challenge (except for interlining with freight rail).

          • Phake Nick

            I think most automated train operations nowadays are either on elevated line or underground because on surface there would be risk of foreign objection intrusion and no matter how much protection are there this will still be difficult to avoid. I think I have read from some report from Japan that in order to make automated train on conventional surface railway, there’s need to borrow sensor technology from development of autonomous cars.

      • Phake Nick

        Other strange parts of the report are, “This [Conventional Rail] alternative would have lower operating costs than the LRT option.” and “LRT is potentially the costliest of the three alternatives due to the need for full physical separation from freight tracks”

        Did they mixed up conventional rail with LRT?

        • Eric2

          Conventional rail does have lower operating costs than LRT – it has longer vehicles. Same reason LRT has lower operating costs than buses. Per passenger of course.

          I imagine LRT does need separation from freight in order to escape the burden of FRA standards and so on. Conventional rail doesn’t. (Not sure why BRT would be better than LRT in this respect though)

    • Alex Cat3

      Actually, they can just use time sharing, like the NJT River Line. Passenger trains run during the day, freight runs at night.

    • Nathanael

      This line and the cross-harbor rail tunnel are the only plausible route for increasing freight rail’s modal share in New England from its currently abysmal level to something approximating the rest of the US. The benefits, from getting trucks off the road, are larger than any passenger project in the US.

      Unfortunately the cross-harbor rail tunnel isn’t a “sexy” project so it doesn’t get the same sort of attention-based funding. But yes, there is no question about it: this line’s more valuable for freight than for passengers and retaining freight is an absolute requirement if we’re going to be sane here.

  2. Phake Nick

    Looking at loop line at Taipei and Moscow, I think that having surface/elevated line dedicated for passengers to transfer between underground surface lines is a mistake. Just the time needed to walk from underground metro line up to the surface train (Moscow) or elevated medium capacity system (Taipei) from the first transfer point, and then doing the reverse at the second transfer point into another radial line, could already cost like ten minutes combined. Add on top of that includes possible lower frequency, and maybe the two stations aren’t even right on top of each other and need some walking, as well as any possible incompatibility in fare system, then for a number of trip it probably make more sense to transfer at transfer station closer to city center.

    Slower services like BRT and LRT would also have the same effect when it comes out that it’s faster to transfer at stations closer to city center instead of double transfer via the new line.

    • Alex Cat3

      Actually, in Brooklyn, the proposed alignment is a line sunk in a trench that allows people to transfer between (mostly) elevated lines. This line SHOULD be cheap to build as the trenched right of way already exists. The transfers this line would compete with already require you to walk up and down stairs, are crowded and, in many cases, already require long walks. Some transfers just don’t exist, requiring 3 seat rides already. In southern Brooklyn, where the subway lines run mostly parallel to each other, the current transfers are very circuitous– travel 4 miles north, transfer, travel 4 miles south and 1 mile west. All NYC subway services use the same fare system, allowing you to walk between platforms without passing through stations. NYC city can and should (though unfortunately it doesn’t) run all of its lines at high frequencies (3 minute intervals or shorter on trunks, 6 minutes or shorter on branches).

  3. Allan Rosen

    Why should commuter rail with commuter rail fares even be a consideration for a line entirely within city limits? If that option is chosen, few will choose to use it. The only advantage of BRT would be if multiple routes were operated to other areas in Brooklyn and Queens to reduce the amount of transferring. One single BRT route makes no sense at all.

  4. fbfree

    One more big question for a study is to look at how to minimize transfer times to existing lines. In particular, is there to be a missed connection to the R? What are the important connections at East New York and how much are you willing to pay/comprimise for them? One more question, that can wait until the success of the new line is evaluated, do you consolodate Avenue I and 18th Avenue on the F for a new connecting station at Foster? If so, do you build turnback switches to allow the G to extend to the new station?

    • Eric2

      R connection – I guess you build a 200m pedestrian tunnel from the Bay Ridge Ave R stop mezzanine to the IBX?

      East New York – all connections are important except L (but L is trivial to provide). Ideally the station can be placed around the existing tracks, with its north end at the A/C stop and stretching south towards LIRR. Eminent domain on one building (between Fulton and Herkimer) would be needed, to dig down for the station. The main complication here is ensuring space exists for freight as well as passenger tracks – otherwise the A/C tracks need to be underpinned which is a major complication.

      F/G – of course you do those things. They are very cheap as the track is elevated.

  5. Martin

    The fundamental problem seems to be that it requires the freight line to remain as it is. Then it is just a poorly drawn surface line, with no economics in existing tracks, which serves neighborhoods that for natural reasons are not very developed or transit oriented (i.e. it is all next to a freight line). The resulting area next to the new tracks – being surface and 4-tracked – is also not going to be very easy to develop for transit-oriented development.

    Given that planning light rail on a different more well-developed corridor, or doing something separate with underground rail, both probably are more reasonable. It seems more like a zombie project originating in the reasonable idea, let’s use existing tracks to build cheap transit, and end up with something that is neither going to be very cheap nor very useful.

    It reminds me how the giant by-pass highway tunnel going around Stockholm has exactly the same alignment as when it was planned as a surface highway 50 years ago, even though it is now everywhere 70 meters below ground. It is an amazing lack of imagination and path dependency.

    • Eric2

      On the contrary. There isn’t much industrial land use around the line, and what industrial land exists is easy to rezone for TOD. Also, upzoning the nearby residential areas becomes more realistic once the line is built. The line isn’t really “surface”, it’s grade separated, mostly elevated or trenched. 4 tracks are not an obstacle, that’s no wider than the average arterial road.

      LRT on another corridor is probably a political non-starter due to how much car capacity it would take away. Radial LRT (i.e. to Manhattan) is a bad idea because the subway exists and extending it provides much better service than LRT plus a transfer. Circumferential LRT has the same demand issues of IBX, with the additional issue of much slower travel (and the aforementioned politics).

      • adirondacker12800

        Keeping the industrial land along the line would be a good thing. Having the distribution centers in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk means stuff doesn’t have to be trucked in from or through New Jersey. And shipping the garbage, sewage sludge and recyclables out.

      • Martin

        If you spend billions on keeping the freight line running, presumably the entire point is also to maintain the industrial zoning and activities that already exists nearby the freight line. If you take all of the industrial zoning away, then also the point of the freight line (which probably will at least double costs, relative using the existing tracks, and right-of-way of those tracks) also will be substantially less.

        If the corridor should be used for transit-oriented development it is obviously at odds with keeping the industrial land use around it. You cannot really have both, and in this case, it will also be very expensive to build 4-tracks, and separate infrastructure.

        Seems more reasonable to make a choice, either:

        A) a 2-tracked, European commuter train & freight hybrid, that allows for freight exclusively at night time, where day-time use is to allow very fast commuter-like train connections, with rather few stations (all well placed with connections to other lines). The main advantage is that is relatively cheap, and gives good regional mobility, while being less useful for shorter transit.


        B) a 2-tracked exclusively, and much more densely stationed, rapid transit line with more subway-like characteristics, and massive transit-oriented development along the entire line (and perhaps with some land development on top of some of the trenched sections, in particular around stations).

        The current option is both much more expensive than options A and B, and will have much worse outcomes both from an urban-planning perspective, and a transit perspective.

        • Nathanael

          The freight line’s essential, because with the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel, it’s the only plausible route for increasing the use of freight rail in New England and taking trucks off the road. The problem is that currently the southernmost freight rail crossing of the Hudson River is at Albany, NY.

      • Martin

        In Sweden, modern commuter trains were developed and used on the countries most busy 2-tracked rail tracks (running straight through central Stockholm), that were used simultaneously by freight, long-distance trains (the hub of the entire national system), regional rail, airport trains, and commuter trains.

        The idea that they could not be shared at all is ridiculous (as implied in the plan).

        Modern light EMU commuter trains were developed as they needed very fast acceleration to be able to share tracks with other trains with fewer stops.

        In theory, it should be possible probably to use some freight during daytime as well mixed with commuter trains, but that is probably too much to hope for in the US.

    • Nathanael

      There is no particular “TOD” goal for this line. The goal is to connect blue-collar and pink-collar workers from their homes in Brooklyn and Queens to their jobs in Brooklyn and Queens without unnecessary diversion to Manhattan. The industrial sites are, in fact, some of the jobs.

      The proposed “commuter rail” plan would in fact run freight mixed with commuter trains, as LIRR does. I believe the desire to four-track most of the line comes from capacity considerations (and there is enough room in the trench for four tracks, most of the way). I hope the sensible solution is chosen: four tracks where they fit, two tracks where they don’t, shared between freight and commuter.

  6. Brian

    The one thing that is missing, in this study, is why isn’t this being extended a little bit beyond Jackson Heights to around Northern Blvd. and 68th St. in Queens. This would possibly allow an Air Train connection from LaGuardia. This Air Train could use the Grand Central Parkway and Brooklyn Queens Expressway rights of way. I think by doing this, the ridership on the Interborough RX, would increase. I would even consider a phase 1 to extend to 31st St. in Astoria.

      • Henry

        I mean, at this point LGA is becoming a one-terminal airport, so you could literally just extend the train to the terminal itself.

        Sets you up for a nice little northern tunnel to Hunts Point.

      • Brian

        I was just commenting on the lack of planning to have an Air Train to LaGuardia with this Interborough Plan. The planning should weave both in, Bay Ridge Branch (or New York Connecting RR) is too close to LaGuardia to not be thought of. To be honest, an Air Train from LaGuardia should use part of the Bay Ridge branch, stop at Jackson Heights and terminate at Woodside LIRR station, there by quick link to Penn and Grand Central.

  7. Z

    I’d hope that an unbiased alternatives study would at least examine the possibility of using the right of way for subway extensions instead of a new line: a northern extension of the M from Metropolitan Av to Jackson Heights and beyond and a westward extension of the L (possibly a branch of the L, like the A, from around New Lots Av; with the frequency of L service, you’d easily have reasonable by NYC standards wait times for 1/2 of L trains). This could save costs by eliminating the relatively redundant section from the Metropolitan Av M to New Lots L, including the issue of the complex Broadway Junction-area station, and provide useful service immediately without the risk of creating a stepchild of the subway. There might be good engineering or regulatory reasons why this wouldn’t make sense, and of course Hochul might prefer the political benefit of creating a whole new line instead of piecemeal additions to existing ones. But an alternatives study ought to examine, well, alternatives.

    • Henry

      This would be tossed out simply because making people do 4-seat rides to get from one outer borough radial to another would defeat a lot of the point of having the RX.

      I don’t really see the utility, particularly of an L extension, anyways; no one’s going to take the L the long way around from say, Flatbush, when the 2/5 are much faster.

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  9. Tomboli

    Hope they end up with a subway-like commuter rail option that preserves freight transport and links into the cross-harbor project. Maybe we can even get an occasional cross-harbor commuter train. Seems like that could hugely help reduce NJ – LI car traffic, not to mention the truck traffic reduction already mentioned.

    • Nathanael

      Yes, that’s what I hope for too. And frankly, it sounds like that might actually happen!!!!

  10. emjayay

    It’s odd that the map in the report has an N symbol in southern Brooklyn, includes the D, F, and B/Q lines, but the actual N line does not appear. WTF? Also any MTA subway map including this one shows that the 2/5 ends halfway down Nostrand Ave. It’s a cut and cover line at that point and should be extended to meet up with the other lines on their way to Coney Island. If the map is right, without extending it won’t connect to this new line either but stops just short of it.

    The 2/5 should have been finished many decades ago and should be the first thing to be done now. Not to mention some thought to getting subways to the vast completely unserved areas in all the outer boroughs.

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