New Rochelle-Penn Station Regional Rail

Last week, the MTA again floated proposals for connecting Metro-North to Penn Station once East Side Access comes online and frees track space currently used by the LIRR. The New Haven Line is to be connected to Penn Station via Northeast Corridor trackage that only Amtrak uses today, with four new stations in the Bronx. The new station locations include one near Co-op City, a dense middle-class housing project that is underserved by transit, and three more neighborhoods that are inconveniently between the 5 and 6 or on the wrong side of a freeway. In sum, it is a positive development.

However, since the New Haven Line already has a Manhattan terminal at Grand Central, this project involves splitting the line in two in its inner section. Thus, frequency will be cut in half, unless there is extra service added north of the merge point at New Rochelle. At the peak, this is not a very big problem, since the New Haven Line runs 20 trains into Grand Central between 8 and 9 am every weekday; although this is misleading since most stations are only served by a small subset of these trains, it is not difficult to have trains make a few more stops to restore the existing frequencies.

The problem is off-peak service. The current pattern is one train per hour serving stations north of Stamford and running nonstop between Stamford and Harlem-125th, and two Grand Central-Stamford locals per hour in the weekday off-peak and one on weekends. While poor by any international standards, the service afforded to the lower New Haven Line is tied for best in the US with just a handful of lines with half-hourly off-peak service. Splitting frequency in half would be a disaster for such service, to say nothing of not being useful to regional riders in the Bronx. Moreover, adding service just so that it can be split south of New Rochelle is counterproductive: the greatest need for frequency is close to the center rather than in the suburbs, because the shorter the trip time, the more pronounced the effect of a long wait time is.

I claim that the best way to compromise on frequency under the current service paradigm is to run short-turning trains terminating at New Rochelle, with timed connections. Since some passengers prefer a one-seat ride, half the local trains should serve Penn Station and half should serve Grand Central. In other words, frequency should be split among the two Manhattan destinations, but each branch should have a short-turning train connecting with the other branch’s trains. Express trains should make a station stop at New Rochelle with a reasonable connection from the local trains, but should otherwise only serve one destination. Then, Grand Central is the better destination for express trains, since it minimizes interference with intercity trains.

The alternative is to turn New Rochelle-Penn Station into a modernized regional rail line, run somewhat independently of the rest of Metro-North, with through-trains from the rest of the New Haven Line only at rush hour. Maybe select few off-peak trains, no more than 1 per hour, could extend to Stamford. This requires a change in paradigm; it cannot be done with the current staffing levels or turnaround times, but since it’s a service expansion, it’s plausible if unlikely that the union will accept reduced staffing, in line with best practices.

I envision the following scenario for modernized regional rail:

– Trains go from New Rochelle to Penn Station and beyond, to New Jersey. Through-service to the Hudson Line via the Empire Connection avoids agency turf battles but is less useful for passengers. They can hook into existing services and go all the way to Trenton and Long Branch, or provide new service and only go as far as Newark.

– Minimum off-peak frequency is one train every 15-20 minutes, or perhaps 30 late at night. 10 is aspirational, if the service proves popular.

– Fares are integrated with local transit. This means intra-city trips cost the same as subway or not much more, and in either case, transfers to the subway or the buses are free. If people can ride trains and a ferry from Tottenville to Wakefield on one fare, people should get to ride direct from Co-op City to Penn Station on one fare.

– Trains make stops that interface with other transit options. A Sunnyside stop meeting with the LIRR is a must. In addition, if the grades permit, there should be a stop in Astoria meeting the subway, and perhaps one in Port Morris, so that the trains can offer fast frequent service between Queens and the Bronx. Perhaps there should also be a restored station meeting buses from City Island.

The Sunnyside stop has value no matter what: for one, it allows trains to Penn Station to also work as Grand Central trains, making the transferring process easier to implement. The other extra stops are not really useful unless commuter rail is made an attractive option for local trips – in short, an S-Bahn or RER rather than a traditional American commuter service.

I hope to discuss compatibility with modernized intercity trains tomorrow. Although half-hourly service is so infrequent there is no real interference with intercity trains, more frequent service could pose problems. This is not an issue if Amtrak is not modernized: the speed limit south of New Rochelle is at most 160 km/h and even that is only between the Hutchinson River and Pelham Manor, with 100-110 km/h on the rest of the line. Thus the only speed difference between regional and intercity trains comes from making station stops, and a glance at existing schedules shows that when the top speed is 130-140 km/h trains lose about 1.5 minutes per stop. Of course high-powered noncompliant trains lose much less time, but for the purposes of running punctually on a shared line, the M8s are good enough. Losing 6 minutes from the four planned station stops is not a problem even with the proposed peak frequency, once one remembers that most peak trains are not going to stop in the Bronx at all.

26 comments

  1. jim

    Running through to New Jersey can’t be done at peak if this is a new service terminating at Newark: there isn’t tunnel room. Running through on the Empire Connection avoids inter-agency turf battles, but not intra-agency turf battles; MTA is not a monolith, despite appearances.

    Running through on the Empire Connection does raise an intriguing possibility: New Rochelle to Spuyten Duyvil with timed transfers at the ends to both the New Haven line and the Hudson line. There used to be a spur from the Spuyten Duyvil bridge into the Metro-North station. It’s been ripped out, but where it was can still be seen. It could be restored (and the bridge re-double tracked) fairly cheaply. Such trains can’t be too frequent, since there’s a capacity issue with the Empire Connection tunnel: single track, mile long, 15 mph. But 15-20 minute service should be doable.

    Metro-North has also been looking at Hudson line connectivity into Penn Station. One could kill two birds with one stone.

    • Alon Levy

      Bleh, you’re right about rush hour capacity. Probably the best way to do it then is to make it into a New Rochelle-Newark line off-peak that’s extended to Jersey Avenue and Stamford at rush hour. Or just have it hook into the existing local NJT trains and run a mixture of lightly modified M8s and Comets.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Slap an ALP46 ( or an ALP45 if you want to do something odd like run Waterbury to Raritan ) onto anything you wanna slap onto it. Worry about using MUs when Amtrak converts to 60Hz.

      • David Alexander

        New Rochelle-Newark line off-peak

        As somebody that recently had to endure the fake 2 tph service on the NEC between Penn Station and Rahway, I’d argue that if we’re sending this train down to Newark, it may be best if we leveraged this local service to at least supply supplemental service to the Newark Airport station. While Penn Station isn’t that bad of a place to wait for a train, Newark Airport station despite the restrooms and weather protected waiting areas isn’t as ideal…

  2. Chris G

    Those at MNRR i’ve spoken to have indicated that the east side move off of some New Haven trains is partially to open up slots in the currently maxed out Park Avenue tunnels during peak times for Harlem line expansion.

    I would think a shuttle between New Rochelle and Woodlawn would allow to make up the lost frequency between the two stations. Also, getting rid of the ancient stupid rule that New Haven trains can not pick up passengers on “Harlem Line” stations will help frequency changes become more tolerable.

    In my mind one of the real issues with all of this is the different railroads and technologies in place in the NYC Metro area. This needs to be cleaned up.

  3. anonymouse

    I think alternating between GCT and NYP with the connecting shuttle makes sense for the Stamford locals. As for the New Haven expresses, there’s already 2 tph for a number of hours during the weekend, and it’s not implausible to see a switch to mostly 2 tph off peak for New Haven trains, so a similar alternation can be employed there. And the existing timetable allows for transfers from an express to the following local at Stamford, so it might be possible to avoid the extra stop at New Rochelle by having the express and the following local go to different terminals. The big question is how the demand will be split between the two branches, which is what will ultimately determine the level of service on them. The IND initially had a beautifully symmetric service pattern on their beautifully symmetric subway system, until they figured out where the demand really was and rearranged the service to be less beautifully symmetric but more actually useful.

    And of course, in an ideal world, the connecting shuttle from NYP would be an NJT train that continues to New Jersey (possibly operated by MNR on the segment from NYP to New Rochelle). Fortunately, there is precedent for that with the football trains, and to some extent in NJT’s willingness to lease their rolling stock to other agencies. Even one or two such trains per hour would be a big improvement. Another possibility would be extending the third rail about 4 miles from the tunnel portal through Secaucus to the junction with the Morris and Essex lines, and running the M8s out to the 25kV territory as NJT services, but that would require a lot of high platform upgrades which NJT hasn’t done yet.

  4. jim

    There’s a world of difference between a new service running through to Newark and a service that substitutes for (or supplements) an existing NJT service. If the MTA wants to run a new service on Amtrak owned and operated tracks, through Amtrak owned and operated tunnels, stopping at Amtrak owned and operated stations, it just has to coordinate with Amtrak (and pay trackage fees — and maybe rent some space at Newark to sell tickets from). There is no agency turf battle to fight. But if MTA wants to run a service through into NJ which in effect becomes an NJT service, there’s a major set of issues to coordinate (with the unions involved, too, I suspect), not least of which is who pays what costs and who receives what revenue.

    • Alon Levy

      The simplest thing to do with crew is to have crews change at Penn Station, as is done at Gare du Nord on the RER B. Revenue sharing is much harder, of course.

      • anonymouse

        Yeah, the basic model of operation would have the train arrive into NYP, where the crew is changed to an MNR or NJT crew as appropriate, just like is currently done with the New Haven-Secaucus trains. You don’t even need fare coordination, just have NJT sell MNR tickets and vice versa. NJT already does (or did last time I tried) sell SEPTA tickets through to Philadelphia. There’s precedent for all of this here, it’s just a matter of making it happen, which is mostly getting the stations built and getting enough new trains to run the service.

  5. Walter

    “Revenue sharing is much harder, of course.”

    It’s harder when Metro-North can’t even figure out revenue sharing among it’s own lines; New Haven Line tickets are only supposed to be valid on the New Haven Line, while Harlem and Hudson Line tickets are interchangeable. A true regional commuter rail system would probably need it’s own multi-state agency instead of the MTA/CDOT/NJTransit split we currently have.

    As for New Rochelle, the small yard adjacent to the station could be cleaned up and modernized to service M8s between runs.

    • anonymouse

      Which is why we don’t need to require revenue sharing. Just charge for a ticket from Greenwich to Penn and Penn to Newark. You could even have them come out of the machine as two separate pieces of paper. As long as the passenger at Greenwich can buy that ticket to Newark, I doubt they’d care too much about the details of just how their fare is calculated, or where the money goes, or who operates the train, or what color that train is.

      • jim

        No, the passenger doesn’t care. The railroads care and they’re the ones that have to agree, not the passengers.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Passengers in New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford and New Rochelle already can buy tickets to Newark. Tickets to Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton, Trenton, Cornwells Heights, Philadelphia, New London, Providence, Bay Bay Boston… at the Amtrak TVMs.

          • Adirondacker12800

            And when you are trying to get to Boston is a ticket to Grand Central top on your list of priorities? You can’t book a flight to Rome at them, they don’t dispense coffee, the ATMs around the station don’t spit out tickets, the coffee vending machines don’t dispense payment vouchers for the parking garage, none of them will let you return your Redbox rental. It’s a minor annoyance that there’s two sets of TVMs in the station.

          • Alon Levy

            There’s only one set of TVMs at the station – the MBTA doesn’t have any.

            And at Penn, it’s more than a minor annoyance, because the concourses are separate. The subway connects to the lower concourse (at least, the IRT does), so riding Amtrak or NJT requires running across a busy commuter terminal, with luggage, in order to get to the upper concourse and get my ticket. That’s the situation that they’re proposing to fix with $2 billion for Moynihan, where it could be done at zero cost with shared TVMs and shared departure boards. I get that airports frequently have separate boarding pass printers (but not everywhere – e.g. I think at Nice one machine works for all airlines) and almost always separate departure boards per terminal, but not every airline practice is worth emulating. Airlines also treat passengers like Basil Fawlty treats hotel guests.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So you buy it in a cafe. It means clueless people can’t buy Amtrak tickets at a much higher price instead of MBTA tickets. You can’t get coffee from the Amtrak TVM and you can’t return you Redbox DVD to the TVM or the cafe, It’s a minor annoyance.

            You can get to the IRT from the upper level, or used to, I haven’t been in that part of Penn Station in a long time. There’s an entrance to the subway at the bottom of the staircases leading to 32nd and 7th, the big one at the main sign for Pennsylvania Station. Neat little way to get to the east side of 7th too, connects to the subway entrance tucked into the Hotel Pennsylvania on the northeast corner of 32nd.

            They’ve closed passageways over the years and changed fare control, it may not be there anymore. You and your porter with your luggage on a hand truck used to be able to get all the way to an Erie train in Jersey City.

          • Alon Levy

            At least from the southbound local platform, the exits are to the street and to the lower concourse. And, what’s more, the street exits are to 34th, from which it’s easier to access the lower concourse than the upper concourse. I want to say that the subway access from the upper concourse nowadays involves going through the lower concourse, but I don’t remember anymore; you can get off the train at any staircase, so I usually end up getting directly to the lower concourse.

            Not having a TVM, or having separate TVMs, is more than a minor annoyance when the lines for some but not other tickets are too long. Or as at Penn Station it takes a few minutes to get from the nearest access point to the nearest TVM that works for you.

        • anonymouse

          Passengers in New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, and New Rochelle can also buy tickets to Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Atlantic City, and so on. None of which are actually served by Amtrak, yet Amtrak somehow managed to work things out with NJT. And when the ACES service was running, it was operated by NJT but the ticketing was done through Amtrak. And on the West Coast, there’s actually a local commuter rail line that serves as an Amtrak Thruway bus, with some passengers having Amtrak tickets and others having regular commuter tickets. And there’s also the fact that Amtrak tickets are accepted as valid fare on SEPTA regional rail from 30th Street to Suburban Station, saving you the trouble of buying a separate ticket. There’s all kinds of precedent for through ticketing, without any kind of agency merging or fare integration, which is not strictly speaking necessary for easy travel through NY Penn, whereas through ticketing is necessary to save passengers a long walk through the station complex to the appropriate ticket machines, and then a long wait at said machines. An LIRR (or MNR) to NJT transfer would actually not be too bad this way.

    • Alon Levy

      Is there actually a yard near New Rochelle? I don’t see one on Google Earth.

      But why not maintain the M8s at Sunnyside, which already hosts LIRR trains, or maybe buy Port Morris yard space?

      • anonymouse

        There’s a small maintenance of way yard just north/east of the station on the east/south side of the tracks, I think it’s big enough for one or two tracks, and would be a decent layover spot for the trains to NYP. I think one of the yard tracks even has wire.

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