TransitCenter’s Commuter Rail Proposal

Last week, TransitCenter released a proposal for how to use commuter rail more effectively within New York. The centerpiece of the proposal is to modify service so that the LIRR and Metro-North can run more frequently to stations within the city, where today they serve the suburbs almost exclusively; at the few places near the outer end of the city where they run near the subway, they have far less ridership, often by a full order of magnitude, which pattern repeats itself around North America. There is much to like about what the proposal centers; unfortunately, it falls short by proposing half-hourly frequencies, which, while better than current off-peak service, are far short of what is needed within the city.

Commuter rail and urban ridership

TransitCenter’s proposal centers urban riders. This is a welcome addition to city discourse on commuter rail improvement. The highest-ridership, highest-traffic form of mainline rail is the fundamentally urban S-Bahn or RER concept. Truly regional trains, connecting distinct centers, coexist with them but always get a fraction of the traffic, because public transit ridership is driven by riders in dense urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods.

A lot of transit and environmental activists are uncomfortable with the idea of urban service. I can’t tell why, but too many proposals by people who should know better keep centering the suburbs. But in reality, any improvement in commuter rail service that does not explicitly forgo good practices in order to discourage urban ridership creates new urban ridership more than anything else. There just aren’t enough people in the suburbs who work in the city (even in the entire city, not just city center) for it to be any other way.

TransitCenter gets it. The proposal doesn’t even talk about inner-suburban anchors of local lines just outside the city, like Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Hempstead (and a future update of this program perhaps should). No: it focuses on the people near LIRR and Metro-North stations within the city, highlighting how they face the choice between paying extra for infrequent but fast trains to Midtown and riding very slow buses to the edge of the subway system. As these neighborhoods are for the most part on the spectrum from poor to lower middle-class, nearly everyone chooses the slow option, and ridership at the city stations is weak, except in higher-income Northeast Queens near the Port Washington Branch (see 2012-4 data here, PDF-pp. 183-207), and even there, Flushing has very little ridership since the subway is available as an alternative.

To that effect, TransitCenter proposes gradually integrating the fares between commuter rail and urban transit. This includes fare equalization and free transfers: if a bus-subway-bus trip between the Bronx and Southern Brooklyn is covered by the $127 monthly pass then so should a shorter bus-commuter rail trip between Eastern Queens or the North Bronx and Manhattan.

Interestingly, the report also shows that regionwide, poorer people have better job access by transit than richer people, even when a fare budget is imposed that excludes commuter rail. The reason is that in New York, suburbanization is a largely middle-class phenomenon, and in the suburbs, the only jobs accessible by mass transit within an hour are in Midtown Manhattan, whereas city residents have access to a greater variety of jobs by the bus and subway system. But this does not mean that the present system is equitable – rich suburbanites have cars and can use them to get to edge city jobs such as those of White Plains and Stamford, and can access the entire transit network without the fare budget whereas poorer people do have a fare budget.

The issue of frequency

Unfortunately, TransitCenter’s proposal on frequency leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it’s out of incrementalism, of the same kind that shows up in its intermediate steps toward fare integration. The report suggests to increase frequency to the urban stations to a train every half an hour, which it phrases in the traditional commuter rail way of trains per day: 12 roundtrips in a six-hour midday period.

And this is where the otherwise great study loses me. Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Flushing are all right next to subway stations. The LIRR charges higher fares there, but these are fairly middle-class areas – richer than Rosedale in Southeast Queens on the Far Rockaway Branch, which still gets more ridership than all three. No: the problem in these inner areas is frequency, and a train every half hour just doesn’t cut it when the subway is right there and comes every 2-3 minutes at rush hour and every 4-6 off-peak.

In this case, incremental increases from hourly to half-hourly frequency don’t cut it. The in-vehicle trip is so short that a train every half hour might as well not exist, just as nobody runs subway trains every half hour (even late at night, New York runs the subway every 20 minutes). At outer-urban locations like Bayside, Wakefield, and Rosedale, the absolute worst that should be considered is a train every 15 minutes, and even that is suspect and 10 minutes is more secure. Next to the subway, the absolute minimum is a train every 10 minutes.

All three mainlines currently radiating out of Manhattan in regular service – the Harlem Line, the LIRR Main Line, and the Port Washington Branch – closely parallel very busy subway trunk lines. One of the purposes of commuter rail modernization in New York must be decongestion of the subway, moving passengers from overcrowded 4, 5, 7, E, and F trains to underfull commuter trains. The LIRR and Metro-North are considered at capacity when passengers start having to use the middle seats, corresponding to 80% of seated capacity; the subway is considered at capacity when there are so many standees they don’t meet the standard of 3 square feet per person (3.59 people/m^2).

To do this, it’s necessary to not just compete with buses, but also directly compete with the subway. This is fine: Metro-North and the LIRR can act as additional express capacity, filling trains every 5 minutes using a combination of urban ridership and additional ridership at inner suburbs. TransitCenter has an excellent proposal for how to improve service quality at the urban stations but then inexplicably doesn’t go all the way and proposes a frequency that’s too low.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    Half hour service is what St Ives, population 10,000 plus a bunch of tourists gets.

  2. adirondacker12800

    Metro-North and the LIRR can act as additional express capacity, filling trains every 5 minutes
    All of you are imagining things. They can use very frequent service in Jamaica or Newark. They don’t.

      • adirondacker12800

        They let suburbanites use Newark or Jamaica to get to Newark or Jamaica. To either get there or change to the subway to get someplace not-Madison-Square-Garden. Or even a bus!

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, I do wonder whether the LIRR count at Jamaica is pure O&D or also some transfers. And a hefty share of the O&D would be airport travelers.

          • adirondacker12800

            Your view across Sutton Place is showing. There are lots of places in Queens, to work, that aren’t at the airports. There are lots of places in Queens not the airport and not-work too.

  3. Eric2

    “any improvement in commuter rail service that does not explicitly forgo good practices”

    This line has the flavor of a no true Scotsman argument – maybe you should specify which practices you have in mind? For example “maximum new riders per dollar spent”

  4. Eric2

    “The in-vehicle trip is so short that a train every half hour might as well not exist, just as nobody runs subway trains every half hour”

    It depends how long the non-train trip takes. If the train takes 10 minutes and the subway/bus takes 40 minutes, it’s always worth taking the train because worst case trip time will be identical to the non-train, and average trip time much better. Of course this is an extreme case, but even in less extreme cases scheduling one’s trip can make a fast train attractive even if relatively infrequent.

    • Henry Miller

      The 10 minute train might be an option, but before we can state that we need to examine the other options – the big elephant in the room is why not buy/drive a car and leave when I want. If the 10 minute train ride came every 5 minutes the car is much less compelling.

      Half hour frequency can get a few environmentalists and cheap people along with the poor/disabled, but the vast majority will still prefer to drive if possible. (realize we are talking about New York where traffic levels make people who prefer to drive accept bad service anyway)

      Note, people generally have a total time budget of about half and hour to get to work. The 40 minute bus/subway is this not acceptable even if it came every minute (magically avoiding all the things that make that level of service hard/impossible). Remember on top of that 40 minutes you need to get from your front door to the stop/station, and then from the stop/station to work.

      • Eric2

        Not really the topic here, but many people people do accept travel times over half an hour, because 1) half an hour is an approximation of what the average person tolerates, not a hard limit; 2) many people accept longer commutes because they have no choice or simply to earn more money, 3) perhaps most relevant here, I think transit commuters are willing to accept somewhat longer commutes than drivers because they can use the trip time semi-productively rather than focusing on driving.

  5. bensh3

    So I really can’t tell at all where TC affirmatively suggested half-hourly frequency in the report. The “12 round-trip trains in a 6-hour period” seems like a reference to Table 1, which in context looks like the expected frequency after Grand Central Madison opens. Recommendation 6 on report page 51 pretty clearly states there should be “a goal of providing service at NYC stations at least every 15 minutes during the day.” The half-hourly mid-day test frequencies in the regression model was also not prescriptive, but for convenience and presumably to show the marginal frequency gains.

  6. Phake Nick

    I remember about 20 years ago, chairman of Hong Kong KCR company (public-owned) proposed a “time value fare system”, aka West Rail Line which is a newer, faster rail system, should be priced higher to reflect the value of time it can saved for its user, compared to other older and slower rail infrastructure. It eventually become the fare basis of Hong Kong’s West Rail Line and Ma On Shan Line, now the Tuen Ma Line.

    For example, at the time it was determined that bus from Tuen Mun to Hong Kong Islands take 80 minutes and cost HK$18.8 or US$2.4 in fare, but the new rail can shorten the trip time by 34 minutes to 46 minutes, and according to survey of residents in the area, their time worth about HK$0.2 or US$0.025 every minutes, hence it’s deemed acceptable and competitive to charge residents there HK$6.8 or US$0.85 more for rail trip between the two places, at around HK$24.4 or US$3.25.

      • Phake Nick

        MTR and KCR were, and still are making profit from carrying passengers, hence their focus is how to maximize this profit instead of minimizing the cost. Although it’s argued that the approach didn’t work out due to initial less than anticipated level of ridership. But the fare structure still remain even into now that the operation have been transferred to MTR

        • Alon Levy

          BVG was breaking even on the U-Bahn before corona. And not that Japan has interagency fare integration, but JR East doesn’t charge you more to ride the Tokaido Main Line than to ride the Keihin-Tohoku Line.

          • Phake Nick

            I am not trying to say they are doing good, but they have different priority in decision making process. It’s just profit maximization, and those other bus lines aren’t run by MTR themselves so even if it cost the bus company more to operate those service those are burning other people’s money and wouldn’t cost MTR anything except for the oppoturnity cost of lost revenue due to those passengers not riding and paying rail fare. They do not see the higher fare as “disincentivizing people”, rather they think higher fare will make them having a bigger profit from the same set of passenger.

            Another defense they have for the high fare is that the capital cost they paid to get the money to fund the West Rail Line construction had a interest rate of 7.9%, and even with the fare they were expecting an Internal Return Rate of “only” 6% of the capital investment put into the rail line, thus they consider the proposed fare already a concession to passengers

            After West Rail Line opened, when the ridership was lower than expected initially, KCR do tried to blame relevant government authority for not cutting enough buses as a reason why their ridership underperform, despite the high fare have been identified as one of the cause, with another cause being at that time the line failed to enter city center and have to rely on transfers that involve long walking corridors. KCR at the time urged government to make bus company cut more buses so that their West Rail Line with higher fare can get more passengers.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Which I think is a good argument for speeding up existing service.

        But also price differentiation is good so it’s difficult.

        • Basil Marte

          No, in urban transit price differentiation is not good. Purely as a matter of UX, the best possible option is for people to have (paper) monthly passes that make the whole system available, any route, any time. Setting the marginal price of everything to $0 drops that entire facet of the problem out of the calculation, letting people plan their routes solely by time (and comfort). There are only a handful of ways where it makes sense to break this (by a few coarse geographic zones, and providing e.g. day passes to shorter-term visitors).

          To make an analogy, it is almost unheard of for urban transit to have separate travel classes, the way long-distance trains and airlines have different classes in the same vehicle.
          (Tangent: for instance, MÁV-Start trains between Budapest and Szeged have (checks notes) IC 1st, IC 2nd, gyorsvonat (lit. “fast train”) 1st and gyorsvonat 2nd class, because MÁV doctrine says that “IC” simultaneously means a sparser stopping pattern / faster average speed, and a higher onboard amenities level, and mandatory seat reservation. When clockface schedules were introduced, and there turned out to be neither space for nor adequate difference between hourly separate IC and gyorsvonat trains, they fought tooth and nail against merging them this way.)

          • Matthew Hutton

            Yeah that’s fair. Probably only intercity where it makes sense.

          • Phake Nick

            Premium class on urban rail have become increasingly common around Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, both in form of a separate train, and as premium train cars in the same train as others, especially during commuting hours. For example Tobu Railway have TJ liner at Tobu Tojo Line. JR East is now extending the platform of Chuo Line near Tokyo from 10-cars to 12-cars to allow them adding 2 premium cars on 10 cars train.

          • Sassy

            More urban transit should have separate travel classes. It’s obvious that not everyone values the onboard experience the same way.

            Some people want enough space to pop open their laptop and a can of beer. Some people want enough space to play phone games or doomscroll. The person who wants to use their laptop would be unsatisfied if they only have enough space to use their phone. The person who would only poke at their phone anyways would benefit more from lower fares and/or lower taxes so they can use their money for things they actually care about.

            The obvious solution to this mismatch is separate travel classes on urban transit.

          • Basil Marte

            “Yes, but.” Outside urban transit, i.e. with trip lengths above 30 minutes, it is not expected that there would be many, or any, standees, and in some cases regulations explicitly forbid operation with standees. In that case, each “seat with legroom and laptop perch” takes the floorspace of perhaps 1.2-1.5 barebones seats. At break-even pricing, there is sizable demand for this, thus travel classes do exist. (The policy of what to price this option for is an entirely separate question from the question of feasibility.)

            However on subways and buses, (unlinked) trip lengths of 10-15 minutes are typical, and even shorter than that is very common. In this regime, lots of people are willing to stand (as is reflected in subways commonly using longitudinal seating; buses with 2+1 are less common), thus additional seats-with-legroom take the floorspace of perhaps 3-5 standees. At break-even price, and given the existence of substitute modes (e.g. private cars), the niche for this is so small that most agencies decide it’s not worth bothering with. (Now, if an urban service never gets a meaningful number of standees, that is a separate matter, and probably something has gone wrong.)

            I suppose there is a remote possibility of introducing a 2nd/4th class split, i.e. seating (presumably transverse) vs. no seating. (The current reserved seat policy would carry over straightforwardly: pregnant women and blind people can use 2nd class with 4th class tickets. Likewise, wheelchairs and prams are not charged for being large.) The problem with this is peaky demand for 2nd class. Its size and pricing would have to be matched so that there’s rarely any overshoot even during demand peaks; at first guess, the stable solutions once again are in the region where <10% would use 2nd class (and taking <30% floorspace). Hence most agencies not bothering. Though quite why they settled on the weird idea of selling a heterogeneous product, a first-come-first-served seats+standing mix, is not obvious. It does automatically create some demand management.

          • jack

            Phake Nick’s two examples (of Hong Kong and of Tokyo/Osaka) are important but also contain a vital distinction, which is that when offering a class/price differential, to make that differential based on comfort rather than speed. The Hong Kong example is of the latter: pay more money to arrive sooner. The Tokyo/Osaka example, however, is that you pay an extra fare for a reserved seat reservation, guaranteeing a minimum level of comfort (to read, drink your beer, take a nap, etc). If you don’t buy a seat reservation you can still board the train for the base fare, no issue.

            I am not sure if regular travelers in the New York area would respect a “reservations only” first-class train car for regional rail, and would love to see data/experiments/surveys on the topic.

  7. df1982

    This is perhaps a prompt for a different thread, but: Alon, how exactly would you structure fares for public transport with a future NY regional rail service? As I see it, the options would be:

    – A concentric zone system, with NYC as Zone 1, and the other zones fanning out to New Haven, Montauk, Trenton, etc.
    – A Swiss-style block-zone system: with the zones being something like: NYC, Long Island, Connecticut, Westchester, North Jersey, South Jersey.
    – Distance-based fares (no zoning).
    – A flat fare for the whole region.

    • adirondacker12800

      “the whole region”, for metro New York is 200 miles/300 km wide.
      LibertyBus’ website says the whole island of Jersey is one zone.

    • Sassy

      The region is too big for one flat fare to make any sense. NYC Subway service region is already flat fare though, even if it is oddly big for it.

      A concentric zone system could work, but would make circumferential service further out, or integration with other cities’ rail networks more difficult. Maybe not important concerns, but what does a concentric zone system really get you in the age of transit cards?

      That leaves a Swiss style block zone system, or a distance based system with an NYC flat fare zone.

      • Lee Ratner

        The New York is flat fare because the further ends of the system are poorer than the stations in Manhattan or Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods near Manhattan. Making it non flat fare would punish the poor.

        • df1982

          Well, historically, it’s flat fare because a decision was made a hundred+ years ago that it was more efficient to control fare entry only, rather than at both ends, and the system could be profitably run with all riders throwing in a nickel (then a dime, then a token).

          Since the subway companies were private entities, I doubt equity issues played a role at all in their decision-making. Neighbourhood affluence was also a lot more granular back then, so impoverished Lower East Side residents making short trips around Manhattan were effectively subsidising middle-class riders making long commutes from then semi-rural Queens.

          What we have now is simply institutional inertia from that period.

    • Alon Levy

      I kinda like block zones, if only because concentric zones don’t make a lot of sense when there is no way to get between Long Island and the rest of the region except via the city. (Arguably it means the two systems are equivalent and concentric zones just act as an ersatz 9€ or 49€ pass, letting people with an intra-LI monthly pass use it when traveling within equivalent suburbs elsewhere.)

      • adirondacker12800

        They don’t travel in other suburbs. “Other suburbs” are 60 kilometers away and have the same chain stores there are closer to home.

    • Henry Miller

      I would do flat fares, on a monthly family pass. The time it takes to get across the city means that few people will do it very often, and so you can ignore that. Most people will restrict the majority of their trips to a block centered around where they live. The monthly pass means that there is no friction about using transit and so you just go when you feel like it, this in turn increases how useful transit is for you and so you politically help make transit better.

  8. df1982

    I obviously agree that the NY region is too big for a single flat fare, just threw the option in there for good measure (although Melbourne has a flat fare for an area roughly 100km across).

    I tend to favour concentric zones. If it makes circumferential travel cheaper, this is a good thing, as it takes the load off of the radial lines. But to be honest there are no circumferential rail lines outside of NYC and I doubt any similar bus service is heavily patronised. There’s also no reason why it can’t co-exist with similar zones for Philly or New England, touching at the zone boundaries (German Verkehrsverbünde do this). An integrated ticketing system across the whole Northeast Corridor would be the dream.

      • df1982

        It has two zones, but a Zone 1 ticket costs the same as a Zone 1+2 ticket, so in effect it is a flat fare with a small discount if the entire trip is made in Zone 2. The trams also have a fare-free zone in the CBD proper, but trains and buses don’t.

        The big problem with this (apart from subsidising longer journeys through revenue from shorter trips) is the fare cliff as soon as you leave the boundary of the metropolitan area, when ticket prices suddenly rocket up to three or four times what they are just on the inside of the boundary.

  9. Lee Ratner

    What would be considered the inner ring suburbs of New York? All of Nassau County or just the parts of Nassau County adjacent to Queens? Same with West Chester and northern New Jersey. All of it or just the suburbs immediately adjacent to the borders?

  10. Reedman Bassoon

    The London Tube has nine zones, so you are required to “badge in and badge out”. The “downtown” zones 1 and 2 have a special weekly fare available that is great for tourists. The tricky/painful item is that Heathrow is zone 5 on The Tube and Gatwick requires train access, not Tube.

    BART is also a distance-based system with entrance and exit ticketing.

    • Matthew Hutton

      In London the simplest and mostly best is to just pay with contactless and then it’ll cap the fare automatically on a daily or weekly basis.

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