I Gave a Talk About Through-Running

The ReThink NYC online panel earlier today was strange in a lot of ways: in delivery, in tone, in emphasis. Perhaps the full slide deck will be uploaded and I will be able to more easily point this out. For now, look at my slides; they’re a very condensed version of this post, criticizing the Empire State Development report saying that through-running at Penn Station is impossible.

The technical issue is that as you can see, my slides are a Beamer PDF. The version that I delivered was line-by-line, as is the norm for math presentations; you can click through to see what it means and why every presentation I upload on this blog is modified to be slide-by-slide and therefore has “2” in the file name. Everyone else was on PowerPoint or Google Slides, with centralized control; I took control for my portion, which was not designed around having an assistant who I tell “next slide please” periodically, and the system wasn’t as responsive to my clicks as I’d hoped.

The tone issue is that somehow I was the least offensive person on the panel. Moderator Sam Turvey was complaining that the MTA called the panel a private event as a reason not to send anyone to attend; I just stuck to some technical critiques, even with my background of calling for people to be fired here and on Twitter. I’m not sure how that came to be. But I somehow was the most polite person to the decision makers, I think, and that’s always jarring, when within the Transit Costs Project team I’m the least polite and least charitable (why should I be charitable to $2 billion/km subway builders?).

And then there’s the emphasis issue. I was trying to give a 10-minute technical primer about the value of through-running and suggest one way of doing so (in practice, more like 15 minutes – everyone ran over). There are some differences between my concept and ReThink’s that I think are worth going over:

  • On the level of crayon, I think through-running at Penn Station should connect to Grand Central (similar to the old Alternative G from the early 2000s). ReThink prefers pure East River through-running, I can’t tell whether via the existing tunnels or via a new two-track tunnel (called Alternative S in the 2000s, S standing for Sunnyside), which you can see one version of on Tri-State’s generally excellent report on the subject.
  • My conception of commuter rail is a predominantly urban service, using infrastructure that can then also be used for secondarily important suburban service. I wrote the linked blog post after seeing some discussion on Twitter, without realizing what ReThink was planning; next day, they told me about their conception of commuter rail as a system for decentralizing employment to suburban centers.
  • I think much more about non-crayon issues like junctions, high platforms, electrification of tails than do other advocacy organizations. That’s what I mean by electronics before concrete: fix the surface issues before or during construction of tunneled megaprojects.
  • I’m pretty rigidly against expansion of the footprint of Penn Station. It’s unnecessary (see for example this post), and so expensive it should only be done if absolutely critical; it’s fine to make compromises on platform amenities to avoid such expense. ReThink is against the full demolition of the block south of Penn Station but is open to moderate expansion of the footprint, as is Tri-State.
  • I’m openly YIMBY. I think Penn Station is the best place in the United States to put new commercial skyscrapers – the area is very well-served by mass transit, and the commuter trains are underfull by the crowding standards used to determine subway service. I see fully recovered rail ridership where I live and where I last lived and slower but noticeable corona recovery in New York. ReThink… all I’ll say is that they’re not YIMBY.

And none of this was really discussed. I can’t tell if it’s because everyone ran over, or because audience questions had a different focus, or because some of the other panelists were more critical of the plans to redevelop the area around Penn Station than of the technical merits of different paradigms of rail service. In a way, that kind of advocacy space is the wrong space to decide technical matters like Grand Central vs. no Grand Central through-running, but it might be useful to introduce the options and go over some pros and cons.


  1. Tom the first and best

    Good points on through-routing Penn Station.

    The use of 1970 for the pre-through routing map of Paris in your slides, when the Linge des Vincennes was diverted from its historic terminal at Gare de la Bastille into the tunnel to Nation that was effectively RER a stage 1 in December 1969, is a minor issue in the scheme of things but something I am unable to refrain from being pedantic about.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I picked 1970 because frequent service only began on the line when it was electrified and connected to Nation. The maps I’m using as a base depict lines by frequency, so the 1965 map doesn’t show the line at all.

      • Tom the first and best

        That makes sense. It was long overdue for electrification and other upgrades before the RER work, so low frequency isn`t really a surprise.

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