Why Long Island Should Get An HSR Spur

Having looked into why high-speed rail from New York to Boston should go through Providence, I want to explain why it should go through New Haven, rather than through any of the fanciful Long Island routings proposed most prominently by the Penn design group. Like Hartford, Long Island should have high-speed trains use the LIRR Main Line, but at medium speed rather than high speed, and with careful consideration to the much more important needs of commuter rail.

Although the LIRR Main Line shares one characteristic with the New Haven-Springfield line, namely that it is very good for 160-200 km/h but bad for 300, the reasons are subtler and less geometric. The most visible is NIMBYism. Even increasing the traffic of existing LIRR trains raised the ire of some suburbs along the Main Line, which opposed the three-tracking project (since canceled due to budget shortfall) on the grounds that extra train traffic would reduce quality of life and that eminent domain would be required. This is not Caltrain, whose local residents do not know what electric trains sound like; this is Long Island, which has lived with these trains for generations. Introducing HSR is asking for trouble.

Of course, the same could be said about any suburb that HSR needs to pass through. Connecticut is full of NIMBYs, just like Long Island. The reasons usually given for avoiding the existing Shore Line are that it’s too developed and has too much local opposition. But those are present on Long Island, and are worse because of the higher population density. For examples, compare Westport and Cos Cob with Brentwood and Farmingdale. The LIRR offers multiple straight rights-of-way, but all are going to have the same speed limits as heavily upgraded and modified tracks on the Shore Line – 250 km/h in the better parts, and 200 in the worse parts.

The Penn design proposal is not even the best Long Island proposal, for three reasons:

1. It insists on proceeding from Penn Station to Jamaica on the Lower Montauk Line. If a connection from the line to Penn Station opens, it’ll be far more useful for local rail, while intercity rail can use the Main Line. The difference between appropriating a Manhattan-accessible Lower Montauk Line for HSR and replacing the Lexington Avenue Line with a truck tunnel is one of degree, not kind; in both cases, local passenger rail is the most valuable use of the infrastructure.

2. It departs from the Main Line to use the Hempstead Branch (necessarily eviscerating commuter service) as well as abandoned tracks through endless residential suburbs, full of urban grade crossings. The Main Line has grade crossings and would need to be four-tracked, but the local NIMBYs actually supported grade separation, and multi-tracking at least could be sold as the local transit improvement project that it is.

3. Last and worst, it sharply veers north after stopping at Ronkonkoma, along a curve whose radius judging by the alignment map is around 900 meters (=150 km/h if superelevation and cant deficiency are set at normal HSR levels, or 170 km/h at cutting-edge levels). Then it crosses the Long Island Sound at its widest, so that it adds more than 20 kilometers to the New York-New Haven route length over the Shore Line, all at medium speed.

A route similar to the Penn design route but using the more feasible Main Line alignment would be 9 minutes slower than the optimal Shore Line route – 41 versus 32 minutes – with stops at Jamaica and Hicksville, enforced by unfixable track curvature near the stations. But in addition to the extra travel time, fixing the alignment through New Rochelle, Darien, and Bridgeport is far cheaper than a long undersea tunnel. A better Long Island route would follow the Main Line to the end and tunnel near Greenport, trading deeper waters for shorter tunneling and a route length comparable to that of the optimal Shore/I-95 alignment, so it could achieve a comparable trip time. But even that’s unneeded: it’s 15 km of deep tunneling, whereas if one is willing to slightly compromise on trip times, the only Connecticut tunneling required for a Shore Line fix is 3 km in Bridgeport.

The other problem is what to do about commuter service. The Providence Line’s traffic level is low enough and its average interstation is long, allowing a blended plan. Shared tracks between New Rochelle and Penn Station would see more commuter traffic, but intercity trains would go slower anyway, and there is more room for four-tracking. The Ronkonkoma Branch’s 10-minute peak service requires at least one overtake between Hicksville and Ronkonkoma and probably two, in addition to four-tracking the Main Line; this is feasible, but less than optimal, and the overtakes would have to be constructed in more constrained locations than those available on the Providence Line. East of Ronkonkoma commuter service may need to be cut, but this is less of a problem on account of its low traffic. On the other hand, the Main Line west of Hicksville is not a problem with four tracks, and neither is the New Haven Line – express commuter trains could weave in and out.

On the benefits side, offering Long Island service to Boston that doesn’t go through New York is better than not doing so. However, the difference in benefits with New Haven, while positive, is smaller than it seems. The New Haven Line has almost as much ridership as the LIRR Main Line, and Stamford is a bigger edge city than Mineola and Garden City. On top of that, since the optimal LIRR option connects to the Shore Line in the far east of Connecticut, there is no hope for service to Hartford except on legacy track. On balance, the advantage of the LIRR option is just service to Jamaica, a larger draw than those smaller cities and suburbs, but there the time saving is the smallest.

On top of that, does such a small benefit really justify the cost? Having some high-speed trains run through to Jamaica, Mineola, Hicksville, and Ronkonkoma at lower speed requires re-electrifying the LIRR with catenary, which is a fraction of the cost of all those urban grade separations and 1-2 order of magnitude cheaper than an undersea tunnel and land connections. On a similar note, since half an undersea tunnel is of no use, it’s harder to break construction into small chunks if it is necessary, putting it at a disadvantage against a route consisting of cutoffs and modifications of the existing line. The route of 1834 may work now that we can build tunnels, but the cost structure favors that of 1846 and 1852.

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35 Responses to Why Long Island Should Get An HSR Spur

  1. DingDong says:

    Alon,
    This is a great blog, but this post is hard to follow. I hope this is a helpful criticism, but it seemed like in each paragraph you were switching subjects, without really giving much warning.

    For example, in the second paragraph you write “the reasons are subtler and less geometric.” Reasons for what?

    Is the post about why HSR should go through New Haven. That seems to be what the title and first sentence suggest, but then the final 2/3 as I understand it are about why the PennDesign’s routing across Long Island Sound is a bad one and you seem to be suggesting crossing LIS near Greenport which would totally skip New Haven. In any case, didn’t the PennDesign tunnel come across Long Island somewhere in Milford — so PennDesign would go through New Haven?

    Perhaps what you are saying has little to do with New Haven. Instead are you arguing (1) avoid LI entirely (2) if you are going to cross Long Island Sound, do it near Greenport? And the reasons you give are that tunnels are expensive and slow and that Long Island Nimbys are somehow worse than Connecticut ones?

    Sorry, maybe I’m being dense.

  2. Joseph E says:

    Alon, your posts almost always would benefit from visuals. I know you don’t have time to draw schematics, but if you already have these ideas on a map, could you give us the link? Without an intimate knowledge of Long Island, I find I need to go look around on Google’s maps to figure out what you mean.

    • Zmapper says:

      Seconded. While I know where most of the locations you talk about are, sometimes it is hard to follow along from 2000 miles away.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Map; the route I was obliquely referring to in the post is the purple one.

      • jim says:

        Purple has problems coming too close to Plum Island (which is quarantined) and Fishers Island (which is owned by excessively rich folks).

        • Alon Levy says:

          Bleh, you’re right. But another version veering slightly northwest would have the same advantages and disadvantages, if somewhat higher costs coming from a long continuous underwater segment.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            If it’s in a tunnel who on Fisher’s Island, is going to know that there’s a train running 200, 300 feet under the high tide mark?

          • jim says:

            Preconstruction there’ll be people wandering about in ugly workboots boring holes to see what the geology is like down where the tunnel will go.

            During construction there’s a possibility that there will need to be some seafloor work to stabilize the stuff that’s being bored through. The reason that the Sound is shallower along that alignment is that it’s the terminal moraine from the last glaciation.

            In either case, it’s Plum that’s the deal-killer. You really don’t want to inadvertently create an escape vector for the pathogens that are investigated there.

          • DingDong says:

            According to Wikipedia and other slightly more reliable websites, the animal disease center on Plum Island is being closed down and an EIS is being prepared on the island’s sale by the government.

  3. jim says:

    Let me cavil at your points (1) and (2).

    1. If a connection from the line to Penn Station opens, it’ll be far more useful for local rail, while intercity rail can use the Main Line. That gets causation wrong. Any connection would be something like ARC Alt. S which was dropped from consideration fairly quickly because it offered no advantage to NJT. LIRR prefers the 33rd St tunnel which leads to the LIRR platforms without other trains crossing. The only way a 31st St tunnel (which would surface in Queens around the LIC Yards) gets built is if the best HSR route to Boston is via Long Island and HSR needs the Lower Montauk. HSR would need the Lower Montauk because the Main Line between Jamaica and Woodside would be choked with LIRR traffic once ESA opens. All the trains which currently run along the Atlantic Branch into Brooklyn will run along the Main Line into Grand Central. And some more trains will be added. Intercity rail would have to arm-wrestle MTA management to get slots between Penn and Jamaica on the Main Line. The Lower Montauk, though, can be rebuilt to be HSR-primary. That doesn’t mean that local rail won’t use it once it’s built, just that it won’t get built for local rail.

    2. The point of running via the Hempstead Branch and a rehabilitated Central Railway RoW is that it bypasses the unfixable Hicksville and Bethpage curves on the Main Line as well as the junctions with the Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson Branches (if the Main Line is four-tracked, there’ll need to be flyovers at those junctions). The abandoned RoW doesn’t run “through endless residential suburbs, full of urban grade crossings.” It’s in total 6.64 miles and most of the suburban roads don’t cross it. The suburbs were mostly built before the RoW was abandoned. There are three big highways cross it and there’s been some encroachment, but the highways and encroachments can be tunneled under and the rest, if made necessary by NIMBY opposition, trenched. Running along the Hempstead Branch doesn’t eviscerate commuter service. There’s currently only 4 tph peak direction at peak. Rebuild one or two of the three Garden City stations to permit overtakes at them and coordinate schedules between HSR and LIRR: problem solved.

    As far as I can see, there are only three practicable ways of running HSR between New York and Boston: (1) north from NYC to the I-84 corridor and then greenfield along I-84 to I-90 and thence into Boston (basically the Vision west of Hartford and Penn Design east); (2) use the existing Shore Line while fixing or bypassing as many of its problems as possible (Levy); (3) through Long Island and cross the Sound as far east as possible, thence greenfield through Connecticut to the upgraded existing RI line (PennDesign as modified by Levy). None of these are very satisfactory. The first is very expensive and there are major problems getting from NYC to the I-84 corridor which the Vision assumes away. The second never gets very good times between New York and Boston and requires a lot of work be done on active lines. Building upgrades while 175 trains a day are whizzing past represents considerable schedule and cost risk. And there’s the problem of wrestling schedule slots from Metro-North The third likely produces the fastest time but it isn’t cheap and the new tunnels across the East River and the Sound represent massive risk.

    • Alon Levy says:

      You deserve a much more detailed response, but, superficially, what I say in point 1 can still be shoehorned into the current political structure, in the same way ARC was. The existing route is much better for intercity trains (the line is straighter, built to higher standards, and has four tracks); the Montauk Line is better for commuter rail expansion into Manhattan (underserved neighborhoods). The LIRR should want Montauk regardless of HSR, since a new tunnel pair, or a hook from the line to the existing tunnels, should be much cheaper than the ESA cavern, though it of course does not have the political muscle of Long Island behind it. The ARC concept here would be to build infrastructure that’s useful just for commuter rail, but that gets commuter trains out of intercity trains’ way.

      As for point 2, the Hicksville curve is a legitimate reason, but that doesn’t explain the sharp curve from Ronkonkoma to the ROW they use to go north. It compels a Hicksville stop, but it’s not all that terrible. Bethpage is worse because it’s not near a station, but there’s really no hope of going at full speed in that segment anyway because of the surrounding population density. In addition, there’s an S-curve from the Main Line to the Hempstead Branch, which requires a fair number of takings to fix, not to mention grade-separate. Let’s just say the difference in time between the Main Line and the Central Branch is much smaller than that between the Stony Brook-Milford tunnel and the Greenport-Groton tunnel, coming from a 25-km difference in route length.

      Commuter service could be accommodated with overtakes, but with difficulties. It would require elevated construction at a place that’s a lot like the Caltrain corridor, only more urbanized – the tracks look as developed as the hardest parts of the Caltrain corridor, south of Redwood City, though the blocks next to the Garden City itself are more like the easy parts of Caltrain, near Hillsdale. A bigger deal is that there would have to be a more difficult junction, taking trains to both the local tracks of the Main Line and to the express tracks; the alternative, making Hempstead trains run express and Port Jefferson trains run local, seems unsatisfactory, and would also be politically difficult. At this point it would look like a freeway, not the most community-supported kind of infrastructure.

      • Michael John says:

        I have read the Penn Design HSR reports. Here is a list of what they plan from NY-New Haven:

        Guideways and Track Elements:
        East edge of Manhattan to end of tunnel Tunnel
        to Floral Park Junction Tunnel
        Floral Park Curve Tunnel
        To Garden City and Clinton Ave Tunnel
        Meadowbrook St. Pkwy to rejoining LIRR (trench sectioRne)tained Cut (Trench)
        Suffolk County Line Retained Cut (Trench)
        to Ronkonkoma Retained Cut (Trench)
        Major north turn under Holbrook Tunnel
        to SUNY Retained Cut (Trench)
        Tunnel land approach (to water edge) Tunnel
        Long Island Sound Tunnel (under water portion) Tunnel
        Tunnel to rejoin NEC Tunnel

        Right of Way Acquisitions:
        Along LIRR branch to Jamaica
        Jamaica Station
        Meadowbrook St. Pkwy to rejoining LIRR (trench section)
        Suffolk County Line
        Farmingdale/Rt. 110 Station
        to Ronkonkoma
        Ronkonkoma/MacArthur Station
        to SUNY
        SUNY/Terryville Station
        Follow NEC to New Haven

        And as for the stations on Long Island, they’re mostly either underground in a trench or at grade! Jamaica is elevated though.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Ah, so that’s why it’s so expensive.

          To be fair, with Penn Design’s ideas of how much infrastructure to build, there would be a lot more tunneling under any New Haven Line proposal – at the very least in Darien (my view is that if takings and an el over US 1 can’t be done, then they should just take the hit on travel time and lose about 45-60 seconds to a curvier I-95 routing there), and probably also in Westport, Fairfield, and Stratford.

  4. DingDong says:

    Putting aside HSR, is there any reason Amtrak cannot or should not extend some Empire Corridor trains (or even Regionals that otherwise terminate at NYP) along to Hicksville, with a stop at Jamaica for Airtrain to JFK? I realize there are capacity issues on LIRR and there is the third rail v. cantenary thing, but are these really insurmountable? It seems for all the reasons you advocate a LI HSR spur, we should at least start with some intercity service—and given the tracks and stations are already there, it seems like it should not be all that costly.

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      No reason why an Amtrak train, with the right locomotive, couldn’t go to any LIRR station.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I believe the third rail used by the dual-mode locos on the Empire Corridor is LIRR third rail, for non-revenue moves to Sunnyside.

    • jim says:

      For Hicksville there are capacity issues on the Main Line. If and when the third track is added, Amtrak service could be considered. Even so, given the difference in the LIRR and Amtrak fare structures, it’s not clear that offering a higher-priced single-seat service against an established lower-priced two-seat service will attract riders.

      But as Adirondacker points out dual mode locomotive led trains can go anywhere on the LIRR. There aren’t capacity issues on the Montauk Branch, for example. Summer weekend Empire Service extensions to the Hamptons might do well. With some care, rolling stock that would normally sit overnight in Sunnyside could sit overnight in Montauk. A single-seat ride would replace a three-seat ride or, with a stop in Yonkers or Riverdale, an impossible ride. The Amtrak service could stop selectively: Jamaica, the Fire Island ferry stations and some of the Hamptons (the longer platforms).

      The service would still need to be sponsored and subsidized by New York State, though, and that’s probably the major reason it doesn’t happen.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        2016 or so the Cannonballs will be a two seat ride for anyone on Metro North. Amtrak doesn’t have to provide it, if you believe the rumors flying around about the express service to Atlantic City, there’s going to be some very nice cars available soon, the MTA could run it. The MTA could run the Cannonballs to Poughkeepsie right now if they wanted to….. well except that there isn’t capacity in Penn Station on Friday afternoons…

        • jim says:

          Adirondacker,

          What’s the story with the LIRR dual-modes? The last I heard, which was some time ago, they were having major maintenance problems. Not necessarily a problem with the locomotives themselves, but more that the LIRR shops didn’t know how to deal with them and there being so few of them weren’t terribly motivated to learn (MTA management failure, quelle surprise). Have things improved?

      • anonymouse says:

        Amtrak would also need to be able to turn the trains around somewhere, or else would need more cab cars, which they simply don’t have, because the existing ones are already all used on the Springfield shuttle and Keystone trains. And the last time Amtrak ordered new cars for the Northeast Corridor was nearly 40 years ago. So basically, potential turf wars aside, Amtrak would still need to order more cab cars specially for this service, or, in an ideal world, order some EMUs for the Keystone trains and/or DMUs for the Springfield shuttles and free up the cab cars for this sort of thing.
        Of course, for the cost of nothing, they could get a through-ticketing arrangment with the LIRR and just sell Amtrak tickets for the existing LIRR service to Montauk.

        • jim says:

          There’s a wye at Montauk. There’s also a locomotive runaround track.

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          Have to find DMUs that can go to the high level platforms in New Haven and low level platforms north of there. Or build high level platforms all the way to St. Albans Vermont.

          • Nathanael Nerode says:

            I believe high-levels are planned between New Haven and Springfield as part of the current upgrades.

            Actually, high-level platforms are proposed throughout Vermont (every train in Vermont has to stop at high-level platforms somewhere), but as usual freight doesn’t like it.

        • DingDong says:

          It does seem odd that Amtrak doesn’t offer more through-ticketing with local services. I don’t see why you should not be able to buy a ticket from Manassas to Montauk on amtrak.com. This fits in with the low-cost improvements to the existing rail network that Alon advocates, and the reason it hasn’t happened, I imagine, is part of the failure to cooperate among jurisdictions that Along often bemoans.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            The LIRR foamers are unhappy about…..everything…. last thing on the MTA’s website, from 2008, is that the mean time between failures is improving.

  5. The MTA seems only to implement small changes. They have not made more aggressive changes in order to get more support of all modes of public transportation. The public transport must be accessible, convenient, reliable and frequent. Public transport must also be simple and direct so that a person can get to their final destination. Here on Long Island, the LIRR however seems to have two classes service for their commuters. One type service is at electrified stations. These stations in most cases offer the criteria of convenient, reliable and frequent service. This type also offers simple and direct so that a person can get to their final destination. The second type is train service from non- electrified stations. This train service from these maybe reliable, but is sometimes not convenient because it is not frequent as electrified stations.
    To bring better train service to non- electrified rail lines access to Penn Station for the LIRR. Better access to Penn Station means the start of train service from Metro-North Upper Hudson Division to Penn Station and continues onto the Long Island Railroads Upper Port Jefferson Branch after a change of crews. This type of train service is similar to Amtrak Baseball Special which operated between Albany and Shea Stadium Station, on the LIRR Port Washington Branch.
    This would give the Long Island Railroads Upper Port Jefferson Branch more direct through train service to a Manhattan Railroad Terminal. At present the LIRR Upper Port Jefferson Branch, only offers two peak round trips and some holiday service through service to Penn Station. This year they have modified their direct train service to Penn by offering one round trip on a modified weekend schedule during bad weather on Monday –Friday.
    All commuters have to remember that the Eastside Access to Grand Central is for electric trains; the Long Island Railroads’ non-electric lines commuters who live near the Upper Port Jefferson Branch, would have to ether drive and park their car at an electrified station or change trains probably at Jamaica to get the same destination. This defeats the purpose of having fewer cars on the road and not making the MTA’s two commuter railroads more efficient.
    If you want more detailed information please read about proposal by Metro-North, to operate beach trains to Long Island using dual mode train sets. See New York Times Articles 1991-1993. One such article is entitled “‘back To the Beach”. Metro-North did not go through with this at the time, because they said it not generate enough passengers to cover the fare. Also See Newsday July 1991 article for more info on Albany and Port Jefferson Station train.
    This interstate train service between Metro-North and the LIRR, would give Long Islands sport fans better access to trains to Yankee Stadium at Metro-North’s Yonkers Station.
    Let’s find and spend public dollars wisely for all commuters who use our railroads and improve service.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I completely agree about the need for through-service, but if it goes through Penn Station, it needs to be electrified.

      That said, the cost of electrifying the entire LIRR and the Upper Hudson Line is a couple hundred million, which is an order of magnitude off the cost of ESA.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        You only need electric trains between the Upper West Side and Sunnyside. Hitch the cars to an ALP45 until the electrification happens.

        • Joey says:

          Let’s keep those 33t/axel monstrosities as a last resort when possible..

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            and wait until you are collecting your pension to ride one of them.

          • Alon Levy says:

            They have $8 billion for ESA but spending $500-ish million on systemwide electrification will wait until we collect pensions?

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            One of the first big projects the consolidated MTA announced, in 1968, was to bring the LIRR to the East SIde. And to Wall Street. They started digging holes for the East Side soon afterwards and according to WIkipedia, finished the East River Tunnels in 1972 Around the same time we were being promised 4 hour trip times between Boston and DC. You could run an ALP-45 from Poughkeepsie to Montauk for a few miles of catenary. To run an MU you have to spend billions. Which is going to happen first?

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