New York Commuter Rail Rolling Stock Needs

Last night I was asked on Twitter about the equipment needs for an integrated commuter rail system in New York, with through-running from the New Jersey side to the Long Island and Connecticut side. So without further ado, let’s work this out, based on different scenarios for how much infrastructure is built and how much capacity there is.

Assumptions on speed

The baseline assumptions in all scenarios should be,

  • The rolling stock is new – this is about a combined purchase of trains, so the trains should be late-model international EMUs with the appropriate performance specs.
  • Trains are single-deck, to speed up boarding and alighting in Manhattan.
  • The entire system is electrified and equipped with high platforms, to enable rapid acceleration and limit dwell times to 30 seconds, except at Grand Central and Penn Station, where they are 2 minutes each.
  • Non-geometric speed limits (such as difficult turnouts) are lifted through better track maintenance standards and the use of track renewal machines, and geometric speed limits are based on 300 mm of total equivalent cant, or a lateral acceleration of 2 m/s^2 in the horizontal plane.
  • However, speed limits through new urban tunnels, except those used by intercity trains, are at most 130 km/h even when interstations are long.
  • Every junction that needs to be grade-separated for reliability is.
  • Peak and reverse-peak service are symmetric (asymmetric service may not even save rolling stock if the peak is long enough).
  • Urban areas have infill stations as needed to provide coverage, except where lines are parallel to the subway, such as the LIRR Main Line west of Jamaica.
  • Timetables are padded 7% over the technical travel time, and the turnaround time is set at 10 minutes per terminal.

Line trip times

With the above assumptions in mind, let’s compute end-to-end trip times by line. Note that we do not care which lines match up with which lines east and west of Penn Station – the point is not to write complete timetables, but to estimate rolling stock needs. The shortcut we can take is that trains are sufficiently frequent at the peak that artifacts coming from the question of which lines match with which likes are not going to matter. Trip times without links are directly computed for the purposes of this post, and should be viewed as somewhat less certain, within a few percent in each direction.

TerminusService patternTrip time
Great NeckLocal0:32
Port WashingtonLocal0:39
East Garden CityLocal0:37
Far RockawayLocal0:39
Long BeachLocal0:40
West HempsteadLocal0:36
West Hempstead DinkyLocal0:10
HuntingtonExpress west of Floral Park0:43
Port JeffersonExpress west of Floral Park1:10
RonkonkomaExpress west of Floral Park0:57
GreenportExpress west of Floral Park1:42
Oyster Bay DinkyLocal0:25
New Rochelle (via NEC)Local0:26
New Rochelle (to GCT)Local0:21
Stamford (via NEC)Local0:50
Stamford (to GCT)Local0:45
New Haven (to GCT)Express south of Stamford1:18
New Canaan (to GCT)Express south of Stamford0:43
Danbury (to GCT)Express south of Stamford1:15
Waterbury (to GCT)Express south of Stamford1:40
North White PlainsLocal0:40
Yonkers (to GCT)Local0:25
Yonkers (via West Side)Local0:23
Croton-Harmon (to GCT)Local0:52
Croton-Harrmon (via West Side)Local0:50
Poughkeepsie (to GCT)Express south of Croton1:12
Poughkeepsie (via West Side)Express south of Croton1:10
Jersey AvenueLocal0:41
TrentonExpress north of New Brunswick0:52
Princeton DinkyLocal0:03
Long BranchLocal1:01
Bay HeadLocal1:23
High BridgeLocal1:04
Dover (via Summit)Local1:00
Dover (via Montclair)Local1:04
Hackettstown (via Summit)Local1:22
Montclair State UniversityLocal0:33
Suffern (via Paterson)Local0:50
Suffern (via Radburn)Local0:47
Port Jervis (via Radburn)Local1:50
Spring ValleyLocal0:50
Tottenville (to GCT)Local0:47
Port Ivory (to GCT)Local0:28
GCT-Penn (with dwells)Local0:04
Jamaica-FiDi adjustmentLocal0:02

The last two adjustment numbers are designed to be added to other lines: Grand Central-Penn Station with 2 minute dwell times at each stop adds 4 minutes to the total trip time, net of savings from no longer having bumper tracks at Grand Central. The Staten Island numbers are also net of such savings. The Jamaica-Lower Manhattan adjustment reflects the fact that, I believe, Jamaica-Lower Manhattan commuter trains with several infill stops would take 0:19, compared with 0:17 on local trains to Penn Station (also with infill).

The 3-line system

The 3-line system is a bare Gateway tunnel with a continuing tunnel to Grand Central (Line 2) and a realignment of the Empire Connection to permit through-service to the northern tunnel pair under the East River (Line 3); Line 1 is, throughout this post, the present-day Hudson tunnel paired with the southern tunnel pair under the East River.

With no Lower Manhattan service, the Erie lines and the Staten Island lines would not be part of this system. Long Island would need to economize by cutting the West Hempstead Branch to a shuttle train connecting to frequent Atlantic Branch and Babylon Branch trains at Valley Stream. The Harlem Line would terminate at Grand Central. Moreover, the weakest tails of the lines today, that is to say Wassaic, Waterbury, Greenport, and Montauk, would not be part of this system – they should be permanently turned into short dinkies.

The table below makes some implicit assumptions about which lines run through and which do not; those that do only require one turnaround as they are paired at the Manhattan end. Overall this does not impact the regionwide fleet requirement.

Total peak service under this is likely to be,

TerminusTrip timeTphFleet size
Great Neck0:3268
Port Washington0:3969
Far Rockaway0:39610
Long Beach0:40610
West Hempstead Dinky0:1064
Port Jefferson1:10616
Oyster Bay Dinky0:2534
Stamford (via NEC)0:50611
Stamford (to GCT, via Alt G)0:49611
New Haven (via Alt G)1:22618
New Canaan (via Alt G)0:4736
Danbury (via Alt G)1:1939
North White Plains0:401220
Yonkers (to GCT, via Alt G)0:2967
Croton-Harmon (via West Side)0:50611
Poughkeepsie (via West Side)1:10615
Jersey Avenue0:41610
Long Branch1:0137
Bay Head1:2339
High Bridge1:0437
Dover (via Summit)1:0037
Dover (via Montclair)1:0437
Montclair State U0:3334

This totals 379 trainsets; most should be 12 cars long, and only a minority should be as short as 8 cars; only the dinkies should be shorter than that. Off-peak, service is likely to be much less frequent – perhaps half as frequent on most lines, with some less frequent lines reduced to dinkies with timed connections to maintain base 20-minute frequencies – but the peak determines the capital needs, not the off-peak.

The 5-line system

The Lower Manhattan tunnels connecting Jersey City (or Hoboken) with Downtown Brooklyn and Grand Central with Staten Island make for a Line 4 (Harlem-Grand Central-Staten Island) and a Line 5 (Erie-Atlantic Branch). With such a system in place, more service can be run. The Babylon Branch no longer needs to use the Main Line west of Jamaica, making room for very frequent service on the Hempstead Line, with very high frequency to East Garden City.

In addition to the 379 trainsets for the 3-line system, rolling stock needs to be procured for Staten Island, the Erie lines, and incremental service for extra LIRR trains. In the table below, trip times for the Erie lines absorb the 2-minute adjustment for the LIRR trains they connect to; Staten Island lines are already reckoned from Grand Central. Dwell times for such lines are not included at all, as they are already included in the 3-line table.

The table also omits Port Jervis, as a tail of the Erie Main Line.

TerminusTrip timeTphFleet size
East Garden City0:371219
Suffern (via Paterson)0:5266
Suffern (via Radburn)0:4965
Spring Valley0:5266
Port Ivory0:281212

This is an extra 73 trainsets, for a total of 452.

Further lines

Most of my maps also depict a Line 6 through-tunnel, connecting East Side Access with Hoboken and completely separating the Morris and Essex system from the Northeast Corridor. This only adds trains in New Jersey, including 6 on the M&E system (say, all turning at Summit, roughly at the outer end of high-density suburbanization), and presumably 6 on the Raritan Valley Line (all turning at Raritan or even closer in, such as at Westfield) and 12 on the Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line (say, 6 to Jersey Avenue, 3 to Long Branch, and 3 to Bay Head). This adds a total of 37 trainsets. As a sanity check, this is really half a line – all timetables, including the 3-line one, assume East Side Access exists – and the 5-line system with its extra 73 trainsets really only adds 2.5 half-lines (the Harlem Line and 5-minute Atlantic Branch service preexist) and those lines are shorter than average.

More speculative is a Line 7, connecting the Lower Montauk Line with an entirely new route through Manhattan to add capacity to New Jersey; this is justified by high commuter volumes from the Erie lines, which under the 6-line system have the highest present-day commute volume to New York divided by peak service. On the Long Island side, it entails restoring through-service to the West Hempstead Branch instead of reducing it to a dinky, changing a 4-trainset shuttle line into a 19-trainset ((36+10)*2*12/60) through-line, and also doubling service on the Far Rockaway and Long Beach Branches, adding a total of 20 trainsets, a total of 35 for the half-line. On the New Jersey side, it depends on what the service plan is for the Erie Lines and on what is done with the West Shore Line and the Susquehanna; the number of extra trainsets is likely about 40, making the 7-line system require about 600 trainsets.

If ridership grows to the point that outer tails like Wassaic, Waterbury, Greenport, and Montauk justify through-service, then this adds a handful of trains to each. Every hourly train to Southeast that extends to Wassaic requires slightly more than one extra trainset; every hourly train to Greenport requires 1.5 (thus, half-hourly requires 3); every hourly train to Montauk requires three. Direct service to Waterbury, displacing trains going to New Haven, is slightly less than one trainset per hourly train; the most likely schedule that fits everything else is a peak train every 20 minutes, which requires 2 extra trainsets.


    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but Parisian commuter trains stop for 30 seconds at most stations, and even at Les Halles and Gare du Nord the dwell times are around 60 seconds at peak (sometimes 90-120 but that’s pretty exceptional).

  1. mdfinfer

    This really would require the commuter railroads to get on the shtick. You are proposing 1:01 for Trenton. Currently, weekend Trenton locals are scheduled for about 1:35. I see similar things throughout your tables, including the LIRR.

    Some of the area operations are so stuck in the mud, I really don’t have much hope.

    Maybe we could at least get NJT to stop buying monstrously heavy cars with no potential for quick acceleration.

  2. fbfree

    The existing fleet sizes, based on wikipedia, of the three commuter railroads is 3482 rail cars, or about 290 equivalent rail sets. What does this mean in terms of yard expansion requirements? I’m guessing that 30% overnight storage capacity would be installed at most termini, rotating cars through the central yards for maintenance.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, service expansion like this requires yard expansion, but one of the benefits of through-running is that it’s possible to site these at the outer ends of lines, where the land costs are lower.

      • adirondacker12800

        NJTransit is using the abandoned railroad land in the middle of the line.

        • Michael Finfer

          That’s not intended as an ordinary yard terminal. It’s going to be a bad weather refuge when flooding is expected in Trenton. Equipment will be moved from Morrisville to Delco so service can be maintained if the Trenton area is under water.

          • adirondacker12800

            When Gateway opens in 2052 they can look around and store cars on land that they already own and already has tracks on it.

    • adirondacker12800

      There isn’t a new railroad car lot with 3,000 new cars just sitting in it either. It will take decades to replace the fleets.

  3. Henry Miller

    Your chart shows service as low as 3tph. Why not buy 2 car trains and run 18tph instead? Sure there is a lot of unused platforms, but the service from higher frequency means you can actually attract people who make trips where driving isn’t expensive or traffic very bad. 3tph means you annoy all your customers with missed trains and they start to wonder if maybe driving would be worth the hassles. (and this in turn means you soon need 4 car trains to fill demand – a great problem to have, particularity if you have the space for 12 car trains at the platforms)

    I realize that probably needs a lot of concrete, but still I think 12tph should be consider the minimal goal for all lines that are not long distance. Make your infrastructure investments worth it.

    • Alon Levy

      Because all of these lines share very congested trunk lines. So for example New Canaan gets 3 tph, but those 3 tph share track entering Grand Central with 3 Danbury tph, 6 New Haven tph, 6 Stamford local tph, 12 Southeast tph, 12 North White Plains tph, and 6 Yonkers tph, so it’s a total of 48 tph in each direction on a four-track line.

      • Stephen S

        But wouldn’t it be a much better rider experience to have those branches be much more frequent but with a forced transfer? I’m sure there’s data out there that frequency is more strongly correlated with total transit access and ridership than # of transfers.

        • Alon Levy

          Not at this scale, no. If you look at the places where I’m proposing 3 tph, they’re all pretty far out – Danbury, New Canaan, Gladstone, Bay Head, Boonton – and so waiting 20 minutes for a train is not too onerous when the trip to the city is about an hour.

          The literature on the impact of frequency on ridership is that it depends on preexisting frequency – the impact is larger at low frequency and in urban service than at high frequency and in suburban service, for example in the two references I link to here under door-to-door trip times. It really needs to be considered together with the overall trip and access time; within the city, 10-minute frequency is weak, but in suburbs an hour out, 20-minute frequency is fine.

          • Henry Miller

            Are there other places they can go on the train that are not an hour? If the only reason to get on these trains is to get into the city then the only people taking a 1 hour train ride have already made plans around the long ride and so low frequency is acceptable. However if you can get higher frequency on a branch service you can get people to use just the branch to get places on that line. The forced transfer is annoying for those who have to take it, but in return you can capture riders who are not going as far.

            I admit to complete ignorance about NYC, so I have no idea what the situation in these areas are.

          • adirondacker12800

            There are no other places along the line, if you own a car. Suburbanites don’t take the train out of modesty or frugality, they take the train because it’s faster than sitting in traffic and finding parking. There is no traffic in the suburbs and parking is easy and free.

          • Alon Levy

            Henry: I think Adi is being too absolutist about this, but for the most part he’s right. The main benefit of through-running is not about trips from New Canaan to Metuchen (which he constantly mocks as “going to the other suburb’s CVS”) but about trips to specialized job and retail centers just on the other side of the CBD, like Downtown Newark, Flushing, and Long Island City initially, and later also Jersey City and Downtown Brooklyn. Edge city job centers that already have some reverse-commuters by train, like White Plains and Stamford, are also viable, and also Mineola if the LIRR bothers to run reverse-peak trips.

            The question is how many short trips are at all viable – things like New Canaan-Stamford (13 minutes one-way if you believe my interpolation – note that it’s unlinked in the first table, so caveat emptor) and Oyster Bay-Mineola. I think they’re viable but secondary, and with the exception of those two specific lines, all of them are on lines that would get a minimum of 6 peak trains per hour in each direction. The other lines depicted as getting 3 peak tph are either the much longer Danbury Branch or outer tails to Bay Head, Hackettstown, and Gladstone, which cannot expect substantial short traffic regardless of frequency.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I think there’s value in stopping people in the suburbs/rural areas needing to own a second car to be fair. And decent public transport helps with that.

          • adirondacker12800

            I’ll bite. There are 15 to 20 logical branches on the LIRR or NJTransit. If I live on Long Island, how many fabulous jobs are there in Newark that don’t have equally fabulous jobs in Manhattan? Or even Brooklyn or Queens? Or locally. My LIRR branch runs through Wall Street, change at Jamaica for Midtown, and goes to Ridgewood. It doesn’t go to Newark. Whoopee, I can get to Paterson without changing trains. It all works out well when it’s a blue line, green line, red line and a yellow line. It falls apart when there are a lot of lines. Except for a few exceptional trips.

          • Eric2

            “how many fabulous jobs are there in Newark that don’t have equally fabulous jobs in Manhattan”

            That doesn’t help if right now the office in Newark is hiring and the office in Manhattan isn’t hiring. The whole reason cities exist is for agglomeration effects to provide more and more diverse job opportunities, we don’t need to artificially limit those opportunities through bad transit.

          • adirondacker12800

            The point of running scores of trains into Manhattan is that there are lots and lots of offices in Manhattan with lots and lots of different employers. What exquisitely specialized high paying jobs do you imagine exist in Newark? Which is neither here nor there because my suburban Long Island train doesn’t go to Newark and I’d still be changing trains like I would do today.

          • SB

            List of major corporations with headquarters in secondary CBD in greater New York.
            Not including branch offices (which are they are many)
            Newark: Prudential Financial
            Long Island City: Altice USA, Jet Blue
            Stamford: Charter Communication

          • adirondacker12800

            How much different it working for Pru than it is for working Met Life? Or TIAA? or…. ?
            Getting to Long Island City involves using the subway. Like it does today.
            Getting to Stamford from Long Island would would involve changing trains. Unless you want to ban private automobiles there is never going to be trains from Long Island to the New Haven line.

          • Tiercelet

            “Who cares about jobs in Stamford when there are similar ones in Manhattan” is missing a key point. As a worker, what you really want is to have access to *both* pools of jobs, because a bigger supply of jobs improves your bargaining power in the labor market, which means you get to make more money, or choose better working conditions, or have more resiliency if your particular firm goes bust, etc. All without having to move. And of course similarly, more versatile transit access makes a lot more home locations viable for multiple-employed-person households.

            All other things being equal, whatever the Good Stuff You Want may be, you’re better off having a ton of it available than just enough.

          • adirondacker12800

            There seems to be good jobs in Stamford without having trains to Suffern available there.

  4. adirondacker12800

    realignment of the Empire Connection
    They just built 20 billion dollars worth of skyscrapers over it. Which ones do you want to tear down to realign things?

  5. Sean Cunneen / Alex Cat3

    As a Rutherford, NJ resident, I would be really interested in a post on how to redesign North Jersey’s (Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties) bus network to feed modern regional rail. It sounds like a pretty hard problem. As you know, the busses now either go to Port Authority directly or serve local job centers (Downtowns of Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Hackensack and malls) with little regard for rail connections. Some train stations are poorly placed with regards to the road network. It would seem to me that busses intended to connect to rail lines should usually be perpendicular to them, but in many places the most important current busses are parallel to the rail lines, but often separated by enough distance that not all current riders would walk. For instance, in Carlstadt, Woodridge and Hasbrook Heights, busses 163 and 164 run parallel to the Pascack Valley line, with the rail line being on the wrong side of the rt 17 freeway 850 meters away.

    • Alon Levy

      The short answer is that I don’t know (even mapping the existing bus network in Jersey is hard).

      The long answer is that I still don’t know but I’m going to ask people at ETA if they’re interested in picking this up; I know we have a member from the Jersey Shore who’s working on this in the context of the North Jersey Coast Line, and I will ask if it’s valuable to try figuring this out in the shed of the Erie lines.

      • adirondacker12800

        NJTransit has bus maps. Overlay buses on a road system from the Colonial era, a bus map is going to look like someone sneezed spaghetti. Unfortunately, last time I looked, the maps only have NJTransit buses on them. There are high frequency routes that don’t appear on them because they have been contracted out. The numbering system has some logic to it.
        Not particularly helpful without local knowledge or spending days analyzing bus schedules. People have made attempts.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, as I understand it, the last link is out of date because the buses keep changing and the map has not been updated? One of ETA’s backburner projects is to update it.

          • adirondacker12800

            They tweak things here and there. There are bus routes on that map that have been that route since it was stagecoaches that got suspended during the Revolution. And have the same number they got when the trolley car companies got consolidated in the early 20th Century. It’s overlaid on a detailed map that can be more useful than the NJTransit maps.
            It’s sneezed spaghetti, it’s always going to be sneezed spaghetti because New Jersey developed around the topography not a grid.

    • adirondacker12800

      If people in Bergen County hadn’t voted for people who promised them free unicorns and low taxes they might have a modern rail system. But they didn’t so they have have buses. They also have to lose the urge to file umpteen lawsuits when NJTransit attempts to upgrade things.

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