The other day, transit activist Corey Best asked me to take a look at the ReThink NYC proposal for commuter rail. He gave me his own brief critique, but as I looked at it, I realized I wanted to write up a longer critique. ReThink NYC offers a complex and ambitious plan, and like all complex and ambitious plans, it has good, bad, and ugly elements.
A Call for Regional Rail. ReThink NYC finally puts an official voice on something transit activists like Alon Levy and myself have been calling for, for a long time: truly unified regional rail through the NYC region. Alon Levy’s plans and mine might differ on the specifics, but we agree on the generalities: through-running regional rail in the region’s core. Whether we call it “S-Bahnen”, “réseaux express régionaux”, “crossrails”, or some other thing hardly matters; what is important is an understanding of commuter rail as a sort of super-metro that interfaces with the intercity railroad network.
ReThink NYC quite explicitly calls for a trunk line across the city, following the existing Northeast Corridor route, and even more importantly, recognizes Penn Station as a through station instead of a terminal, pointing out the unnecessary scope creep of “Penn Station South”, and advocating instead for terminus stations outside of Manhattan proper. This is a major step forward — an understanding that three commuter rail fiefdoms in the region does more harm than good.
Penn Station. Let me just quote from the website:
“At Penn Station, eastbound trains would now use the southern half of the station and westbound the northern half, regardless of operator. Moynihan Station, to the west of Penn, which had been originally proposed only for Amtrak, would be open to all operators. To make this possible and to optimize the new through-running service patterns, track and platform locations would need to be adjusted. Through-running makes it possible to have fewer tracks with wider platforms, solving the platform overcrowding issues and the train capacity issues that Penn Station South was designed to fix.”
ReThink, in other words, has solved Penn Station’s congestion problems in exactly the same way Alon Levy has: by making it an open-access through-running station.
A Radical Rethink of LaGuardia. This is perhaps the best-thought-out part of the plan. The New York region suffers from severe air congestion; JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Airport are all overloaded, and there isn’t a convenient fourth airport to ease the traffic burden. Here, instead, we see LaGuardia swallow Rikers Island whole, massively increasing runway and terminal space.
But it gets better! LaGuardia’s second major problem is its physical disconnect from the New York transportation network. AirTrains solve this problem for both JFK and Newark; here the airport’s entire front door is moved across the East River, into the Bronx’s Port Morris neighborhood, currently underutilized post-industrial badlands. ReThink NYC essentially re-orients LaGuardia’s current main terminal as internal facilities, moving all major ingress and egress access to a significantly more convenient location at Port Morris, along with infrastructure like airport hotels and a new main convention center. This facility would be served by the trunk line as well as a 2nd Avenue Subway extension; an internal AirTrain would link this new main terminal, the old main terminal, and new gates for handling larger aircraft on Riker’s Island. Indeed, one readily suspects that in this new configuration, the old LaGuardia terminal building would become its primary international terminal, with the new gates offering plenty of space for domestic flights.
Extending the Second Avenue Subway along the Dyre Avenue Line. While the SAS is supposed to be extended “somewhere” into the Bronx, nobody knows quite where, exactly. The Dyre Avenue Line, the last remnant of an old interurban route that ran to White Plains, was originally planned to be the SAS’s Bronx leg, and ReThink NYC resurrects that idea. This gives the SAS someplace to go to besides the transfer to the 3rd Avenue line (4/5/6) at 125th Street in Harlem.
A General Thriftiness. Perhaps the most admirable part of this plan is that it tries to reuse existing infrastructure as much as possible. An old Port Morris branch is resurrected to shift Hudson and Harlem line services onto the planned trunk; the original SAS-Dyre Avenue plan is resurrected; a loop track at Secaucus is used to link the Bergen County lines to the trunk line. There is a certain grand simplicity in the proposed setup that is hard to ignore.
A Lack of Engineering Expertise. There is just no way that all 26 New York commuter rail lines can fit into a single trunk line, much less one constrained to four tracks at three points (i.e. at the North River + Gateway tunnels; the East River tubes; and the Hell Gate Bridge) and shared with major intercity services. Philadelphia’s Center City Commuter Connection, used by SEPTA — cited as one of the inspirations of ReThink NYC — is said to be at capacity as-is with four tracks linking together what are, in practice, 14 commuter rail lines sorted into seven line pairs. (The Cynwyd Line terminates at Suburban Station.) Even if we admit that signalling improvements can boost throughput — say as high as 50%, which would provide space for ~10 line pairs — this trunk line is still one completely separate from the intercity alignment. To put it bluntly: Putting all 26 New York commuter rail lines into a single 4-track trunk requires more slots than that trunk can physically provide.
In a way, this plan seems dimly aware of that fact. Nowhere is it suggested that service to Grand Central be abandoned, replaced with service through this trunk; instead, it seems that trunk service is meant to be an augment to normal Metro-North service terminating at Grand Central, and Hoboken and Atlantic terminals likewise remain important NJT and LIRR secondary termini.
Limited Service Integration. SEPTA’s regional rail lines, Paris’ RER, Germany’s S-Bahnen, and London’s Crossrail programs all fully integrate every service feeding into their respective trunks. A rider, for example, from Doylestown can catch a train straight through to Thorndale; someone from Drancy can catch one through to Lozère; someone from Maidenhead can catch one through to Romford. But this is not done in the ReThink NYC proposal: LIRR trains just end at Secaucus; NJT ones at Port Morris. In the end, a Rutgers student still cannot catch a single train to see her boyfriend at Stony Brook … or go to a conference at Yale, for that matter.
Some of this can be blamed, to some extent, on different electrification paradigms. NJT and New Haven lines are under catenary; MNRR and LIRR ones are third-rail. But this blame game is really of limited use. Equipment that draws power from multiple sources is de rigueur on international European routes. The original Eurostar, before HS1 was opened, had both catenary and third-rail pickups. ReThink NYC still has an Elektronik vor Beton vor Organisation mindset — the fiefs are still there, just not as sacrosanct.
Storage Space. This is something Corey drew my eye to. ReThink wants to move Sunnyside’s storage space elsewhere, mostly in flood plains. “And we all know how that turned out in Sandy,” he reminds me.
Essentially, ReThink moves NJT storage space to Port Morris, and LIRR space to the Kearny (Kearney?) yards just past Secaucus. But … where would Amtrak storage space be? Under the greensward he proposes at Sunnyside? In the current LIRR storage yards? (But that would require a reverse movement at Penn Station, eating all that capacity we worked very hard to create!) And of course, Corey is dead right these proposed facilities lie in floodplains.
To my mind, though, they are emblematic of a bigger problem, namely the fact that ReThink never follows through on its stated project. It creates the trunk line but doesn’t take the next step of merging the commuter rail networks that feed into it. If it did, it would be able to place storage facilities much further afield — for example, on the part of the old PRR yards near Newark Airport that, to this day, remains vacant. Total service integration allows trains to be stored in small yards that only store capacity needed for one line, instead of that needed for every line; at this point, only Amtrak needs storage space in the city proper.
Here, then, Amtrak can be split into two storage universes. Trains heading north and east can be stored in Hudson Yards (remember, the LIRR doesn’t need them anymore!); south and west, in a smaller Sunnyside facility (remember, NJT doesn’t need it anymore!). This way, Penn Station remains a through facility, even though lots of services terminate in it. Interestingly enough, ReThink’s Port Morris connection makes even more sense for Amtrak, freeing up the West Side Line for commuter rail — allowing Empire Corridor trains to terminate in Hudson Yards — than it ever would for MNRR’s Hudson Line.
Reverse Branching: A Problem Only Made Worse. One of the biggest capacity constraints on the current subway system is the Queens Boulevard spine, or rather, the reverse branching issues that spine creates in Manhattan. Every one of the four B division Manhattan trunks has a line from the Queens Boulevard spine; this constrains slot allotment for every service in the system. The Queens Boulevard spine is actually the most significant of a pervasive problem in the New York subway: reverse branching is everywhere.
In linking together the A, Q, and T up the Dyre Avenue line, ReThink NYC unwittingly made a bad problem worse. (Incidentally … I think they mean the C? The A is already long enough.) By tying together routes from three Manhattan spines, combined with the Queens and Brooklyn reverse branchings, the Midtown capacity reduction becomes exponentially more significant — and calculable. The 2 and 5 reverse branch from the White Plains Road spine as well, something which extending SAS up the Dyre Avenue Line actually solves, but the ReThink NYC principals seem to be completely unaware of.
A Lack of Interest in Other Proposals. Nowhere in ReThink NYC will you find any mention whatsoever of the West Side Service. Or East Side Access. Or Triborough RX (which would take half of Hell Gate’s capacity in its current form). This, despite the fact that ESA has been under construction for the past decade, and the infinitely easier to build West Side Line is already well-advanced in its study process.
For the principals at ReThink, others working on the same problem, some of whom have worked out much more extensive solutions on their own time without any major grants … hmm, grants, how do you get those? … may just as well be invisible, or worse, enemies. Which brings me to the #1 biggest problem of the ReThink plan —
Hostility Towards Potential Allies. There are a lot of people working on the problem of fixing New York’s transit, and the climate is better than San Francisco’s (where BART is a cancer), but ReThink seems to be trying to claim a fief of its own. Where Alon Levy and I differ, or where we critique the Regional Plan Association or NJ Transit or Amtrak, we do it out of a sense of fair criticism … all of us want, at the end of the day, the best system possible.
ReThink NYC presents itself as the solution, instead of a solution, or even a part of a solution. Corey Best informs me that ReThink is openly hostile of the RPA’s or Alon Levy’s efforts in this area … and this is a problem. Because ReThink is not the solution. It doesn’t solve everything, and in some ways makes some things worse even as it makes other things better. And while I applaud principal Jim Venturi’s design goals — trying to do as much as possible with the infrastructure we already have — the ReThink plan really does fall short in some key areas, particularly Organisation and Beton.
While things like “LIRR and MNRR shouldn’t be their own silos within MTA”, or “NJT needs to be folded into MTA”, or “PATH needs to be folded into the New York Subway” aren’t sexy — they don’t offer pretty renders, and carry connotations of hard work, especially the kind of hard work that I, as somebody who’s never even organized a party, have literally no idea how to do or even where to begin — they are necessary, and still need sections of any formal plan dedicated to them. It’s a shame ReThink goes for the pretty over the efficacious.
There’s a lot to like in ReThink NYC’s proposal. There are certainly nits to pick, too, some of which I may or may not ever write about. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a bad plan or a bad proposal. But it is a design-centric proposal, a proposal developed by people who are urban designers, and the lack of input from competent passenger rail engineers is palpable.
At the same time, though, it is a start. It isn’t the be-all end-all — in fact, not even close to it. Most observers agree that, at minimum, 8-12 trans-Hudson tracks (excluding PATH) are needed to meet demand; the North River Tubes + Gateway offer between 1/3 and 1/2 that. ReThink NYC does more with existing assets than most, but because it doesn’t make the big ask — new lines or new tunnels, it is constrained in what it can do.
At the end of the day, it creates a shared NJT/LIRR trunk — but it doesn’t solve any of the bigger issues. A start, but one that leads towards the next sets of issues to solve: those of actually unifying New York’s welter of agencies and of increasing transhudson capacity.