Regional Rail for New York: What Can Be Done Now

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota recently proposed to through-route commuter rail lines in the New York area, as was proposed in the past by the RPA, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, and more recently myself. Lhota proposed other, less flashy ideas for integration, including better track sharing at Penn Station and lengthening platforms to accommodate 10-car trains. Although a network that looks like my proposal should still be the goal for the next 20 years, there are several things that can be done in the very short run. None is do-it-tomorrow immediate, but neither does any require very difficult modification of equipment or organization or significant infrastructure investment. Most should not require extensive studies.

Note that this is not a wishlist of the most important commuter rail reorganization projects in the region. Many of those reorganizations do not have anything to do with interagency integration, and are therefore not included. Only projects that are very cheap and would come from or benefit integration are on this list.

1. Integrated ticket machines at Penn Station. This requires the physical tickets on New Jersey Transit to look like those on the LIRR and Metro-North (and thus some modifications to the fare barriers at Secaucus and Newark Airport), and some reprogramming of ticket machines, but no change otherwise. Ideally a ticket from (say) Hicksville to Newark should cost less than the sum of tickets from Hicksville to New York and New York to Newark, to encourage reverse-peak traffic, but strictly speaking the discount is not needed. Amtrak and commuter rail machines should also be integrated, though the physical tickets can still be different if switching over is too hard.

2. Integrated concourses at Penn Station. This means treating the upper and lower concourses as belonging to all three railroads. This requires Amtrak to give up its single-file queuing and accept that people already can walk around and get to its trains from other railroads’ turfs. Trains should be announced on all concourses, and all access points to a platform should be clearly signed with the next train’s type and schedule.

3. Timed transfers. Although a clean integrated timetable is impossible, because trains interline on some inner segments to increase capacity, a partial version is still possible. What this means is that, with hourly off-peak service on each branch, Morris and Essex trains should arrive at Penn Station just before the hour, as should one of the several hourly trains on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor, and then two or three branches going to the east (say, to New Haven and Port Washington, and on one additional LIRR line for service to Jamaica) should leave just after the hour, with the tightest connection done cross-platform. This would make trips from New Jersey to JFK and from Long Island to Newark easier, and the choice of services to participate in the system should be consistent with even spacing on interlined trunks.

4. Modification of rolling stock. Metro-North’s M8s can run under 60 Hz catenary and third rail, but unfortunately not 25 Hz catenary; as lower frequency requires a larger transformer, modifying the trains to run on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor may be too hard in the very short term (though not in the medium and long terms). However, NJT’s ALP-46 locomotives and Arrow EMUs can run on 12 kV 25 Hz and 25 kV 60 Hz catenary, and thus modifying them to run on Metro-North’s 12 kV 60 Hz catenary is easy, allowing them to run from the NJT network to the New Haven Line. Unfortunately, because locomotives accelerate more slowly than EMUs and the Arrows are quite old, they do not have very good performance for short-stop service, for which through-running is the most useful.

5. Voltage change on the Northeast Corridor’s New Jersey side to 25 kV 60 Hz. This voltage change was done to the Morris and Essex lines and much of the North Jersey Coast Line. It is somewhere on Amtrak’s wishlist of projects, but I do not know how high it is. This allows M8s to run through, ensuring the better rolling stock is available for the service that needs it the most. It may possibly be bundled with Amtrak’s installation of constant tension catenary south of New Brunswick to reduce costs. Since this eliminates the need for 25 Hz transformers in the future, this meas future NJT rolling stock would be lighter.

6. Depending on 4-5, rolling stock sharing along interlined services. In practice this means M8s on local Northeast Corridor services, which would also allow adding and serving infill stations in New Jersey (for example, more regular service to North Elizabeth, and perhaps a station at South Street in Newark), and Arrows and locomotives on express services from Penn Station and New Jersey to New Haven.

7. Platform raising on the North Jersey Coast Line and the Morris and Essex lines, if service using M8s rather than Arrows is desired. Because of the voltage, it’s actually easier for M8s to serve the Morristown Line other than their inability to serve low platforms: it would only require 8-21 km of reelectrification rather than 88-101. The Morris and Essex lines also have a more inner-suburban distribution of ridership than the Northeast Corridor Line, which gets most of its ridership from more distant stations, and this makes them in one sense better-suited for through-service. (In another sense, the Northeast Corridor is better, since it serves downtown Newark, a secondary CBD that draws some commuters from suburbs and boroughs east of Manhattan.)

It is my belief that all of the above, possibly except #5 and #7, are feasible within months or at worst a very small number of years, and would not require additional environmental work. Even #5 and #7, which are more expensive, are still close to two orders of magnitude cheaper than a full through-running plan with new tunnels serving Lower Manhattan.

The medium term is more expensive – perhaps an order of magnitude less than the full program rather than two – and would include further modernization, allowing full through-service on every line and more efficient equipment utilization. It can also assume friendlier regulations, which a snap integration cannot, and this in particular means better rolling stock in the future and higher speeds even with existing rolling stock. Clockface schedules and frequent off-peak service would allow planning infrastructure repairs and upgrades around specific schedules. For example, the current local Stamford-Grand Central schedule is 1:06, but an express train I recently took from New Haven came to Grand Central more than 10 minutes ahead of schedule, suggesting excessive padding; minor upgrades should allow an M8 to do Stamford-New York in an hour minus turnaround time making local stops, and more ambitiously New York-New Brunswick in 45 minutes minus turnaround time.

Lhota can’t do much in the long term, because this requires an enormous investment into concrete, a political decision and a longer-term one than Lhota’s term as MTA chair. However, he can both implement the above seven points within his term, and also set in motion various work rule reforms and small-scale capital project planning and apply for the requisite FRA waivers to permit the medium-term reforms to succeed.


  1. anonymouse

    On the rolling stock front, the immediately-solveable problems are, for the most part, already solved. NJT’s ALP-46s already run on the New Haven Line (it’s not the voltage that’s the problem but the bridge at Cos Cob). The 11kV Arrows used to run on 12.5kV/60Hz power on the North Jersey Coast Line when it was electrified at that voltage. They only switched to 25 kV a few years ago once they get enough ALP-46s (and presumably needed more power). Also, in the short term, it might be possible to fit automatic voltage switches to the Arrows. There are persistent rumors that they are designed to accomodate this. Since they have the hardware in the transformers to switch voltages, they just need some kind of motor to do it automatically on the fly, rather than manually in the shops. The Arrows, btw, have pretty outstanding acceleration (they have three-phase AC traction packages installed during a midlife 90s overhaul) and thus are actually a pretty good choice for lines the the Morris and Essex.

    Other miscellaneus comments: on the West Coast, LA’s Metrolink already has ticket machines that can sell tickets for Amtrak (as well as Coaster), and can try to figure out connections for you for combined Amtrak-Metrolink trips, so there’s definitely precedent. A “pulse” at NY Penn has a few operational benefits too, in that building a schedule around it makes it easier to single-track through the North River Tunnels. #7 on the list is obviously a desirable goal, but it’s been a long, slow process, and I see it as more of a medium-term thing than short-term. If they really needed to do it, they certainly could (just look at the LIRR and the preparations for the double deckers). Finally a voltage/frequency change for the NEC is not necessarily easy. There are likely clearance issues in the North and East River Tunnels, though it might be possible to leave a 25Hz or 12.5 kV/60Hz island just for that. I’m not sure that there’s anything that still runs into NYP that relies on 25 Hz. And ni the short term, it would only be logical that new constant-tension catenary be ready for 25 kV if and when that ever comes to the NEC.

    • Alon Levy

      For some reason, I thought the necessary clearance grows less than linearly with voltage, so that there is practically no difference between 11-12.5 kV and 25 kV. (Either way, it should be 60 Hz; for intercity service, where every kilogram counts, the weight difference between 25 Hz and 60 Hz transformers has nontrivial performance consequences, and when Amtrak replaces the Acelas it will want at least single-frequency, if not single-voltage.)

      The Cos Cob bridge is a problem, but Amtrak’s locos go through it all the time, coasting through it. It may not be possible to do this on a train that stops at Cos Cob and Riverside, but then again trains running ALP-46s shouldn’t be stopping at Cos Cob and Riverside anyway, leaving that for Arrows and M8s.

      To make things easier, apparently NJT has or had plans for an Arrow IV, which presumably is going to have the same performance as the Silverliner, while also running under all the voltages

      • Richard Mlynarik

        European standard EN 50 119 specifies 150mm/100mm static/dynamic air gaps between structures (bridges, platform canopies, buildings, tunnels, etc) for 15kV AC and 270mm/150mm for 25kV. I don’t have 12.5kV numbers. (“Static” is with the catenary at rest, “dynamic” subject to train, wind and other loads.) So about a five inch difference between 15 and 25kV. (US national and per-state regulation will be different and all over the map.)

        • Richard Mlynarik

          PS re “clearance grows less than linearly with voltage”:'s_law
          Too much information way off topic is never enough.
          (And of course the couplings between standards, regulation, engineering, physical models, and physics are only approximate at every level.)

      • anonymouse

        The problem at Cos Cob isn’t getting the train across the bridge, its getting the train across the bridge without the pantographs snappig off. I believe at least the Metro North MUs have height limiters in the pantographs to keep them from overextending and breaking. I’m not sure that any of the other MUs do, and I’m not sure it’s going to be reliable enough to just ask drivers to lower pantographs while going over the bridge, because some driver is inevitably going to forget how long his 12-car MU train is and raise them too early. Which is less of a hazard with locomotives.

        • Alon Levy

          But the ALP-46s are locomotives.

          That leaves us with the Arrows. We can either pretend the Arrow IVs will be Cos Cob-compatible or modifiable to be Cos Cob-compatible (but even that is medium-term), or post signs along the tracks indicating when it’s safe to raise the pantograph based on train length. It’s the same as the signs on platforms on the subway as well as commuter trains telling drivers where to stop when their train has 6 cars, or 8 cars, or 10 cars, etc.

          • Adirondacker12800

            automate it. The FRED/EOT/ETD can detect it’s passed the “safe to raise the pantographs” just like the head end of the train detected the “lower the pantographs” indicator.

          • Sascha Claus

            … or post signs along the tracks indicating when it’s safe to raise the pantograph based on train length.

            Why not simply put up mileposts every chain, furlong, ¼/½/¾mi, 100m or whatever distance and let the train driver determine when the end of the train has passed the “raise pantograph” sign? Works fine here, with raising pantographs as well with raising speeds. You don’t want to accelerate if the end of the train is still in the slow zone,
            how is this done in the US?

  2. jim

    1. Cross ticketing requires that the two railroads have some way of compensating each other, which, in turn, requires accounting system changes. All IT changes take longer than you think, even after you adjust your thinking for the fact they take longer than you think. So that’s not a question of months.

    It’s easier to cross-sell between Amtrak and a commuter railroad when Amtrak operates the commuter railroad.

    2. Agree. Can be done in a matter of weeks once there’s agreement.

    3. Cross-platform transfers would be a problem. One needs to guarantee that the two trains will be assigned to (opposite sides of) the same platform. DB does this by scheduling platforms in the timetable: the 08:57 to Hannover leaves from platform 3, it left from platform 3 yesterday, it will tomorrow and every day until the fall timetable kicks in; but DB achieves a level of schedule discipline that seems beyond the reach of North American railroads. I’m not sure that the Penn Station control room can handle a bunch of ad hoc constraints on a few dozen trains a day.

    If there’s good information on all trains in all concourses and much improved wayfinding within Penn Station, then transfers between platforms shouldn’t be too difficult.

    5. I don’t know how fast this can be done. It should be bundled with the catenary upgrade, but that’s going to be measured in years rather than months.

    • Roland S

      That’s an easy one… Hire Germans to run Penn Station. 🙂

      I’m waiting to see whether Lhota’s plan has legs. If it does, then this combined with the Caltrain project could finally be the stick to push through some much-needed reforms at FRA.

  3. Christian

    How about a MAP!

    As far as I can tell there is no NY Metro area map that shows all the rail lines (Subway, NJT, LIRR, MN, PATH, HB light rail, etc)

    • Adirondacker12800

      stuffing a 25 foot by 25 foot map into your pocket isn’t particularly easy. Folding it would be problematic too.

  4. ant6n

    Only in New York do transit maps have to be geographically accurate. The rest of the world uses tube maps just fine. Ever seen the transit map of Tokyo? Anyway, this is a red herring.

    A full system transit map is essential for system integration, and the size is not an issue
    a) maps are posted at stations, and there the size doesn’t really matter (in many large cities you can find full system street maps posted in subway/bus stops)
    b) maps can be made smaller down to foldable size by making it abstract. The network information is still preserved.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Go ahead, create a map that is useful to someone in Port Jervis, someone in the Bronx and someone in Montauk. Make it small enough to fit on the wall of a station entrance. While you are doing this make it useful to someone in Bay Head or Wassaic or New Haven.

      • Alon Levy

        Boston manages to put both the intercity MBTA lines and the subway on one map. And it’s even reasonably geographically accurate within Boston and Cambridge.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Port Jervis to Montauk is similar to Portland Maine to New London Connecticut. Go ahead make a map that’s useful to someone in Port Jervis and someone in the Bronx and someone in Montauk. Something that represents a trip from Bay Head to Wassaic and at the same time gets you from the Museum of Natural History to Times Square. That can be printed on one sheet of paper that folds to fit in your pocket.

          • Adirondacker12800

            I’m able to cope with the concept of using two maps, at different scales. Here’s a list of the local stations you would pass using the most local routing on a trip between Wassaic and Bay Head. Cram all of that onto a sheet of paper along with all the other lines going into Manhattan.
            Tenmile River
            Dover Plains
            Harlem Valley – Wingdale
            Appalachian Trail
            Croton Falls
            Golden’s Bridge
            Tilly Foster
            Lake Mahopac
            Bedford Hills
            Mt. Kisco
            Mt. Pleasant
            North White Plains
            White Plains
            Mt. Vernon West
            Mosholu Parkway
            Bedford Park Boulevard-Lehman College
            Kingsbridge Road
            Fordham Road
            183 Street
            Burnside Avenue
            176 Street
            Mt Eden Avenue
            170 Street
            167 Street
            161 Street- Yankee Stadium
            149 Street-Grand Concourse
            138 Street
            125 Street
            116 Street
            110 Street
            103 Street
            96 Street
            86 Street
            77 Street
            68 Street-Hunter College
            59 Street
            51 Street
            Grand Central-42 Street
            Fifth Avenue
            Times Square
            Herald Square
            23rd Street
            14th Street
            9th Street
            Christopher Street
            Grove Street
            Journal Square
            North Elizabeth
            Perth Amboy
            South Amboy
            Little Silver
            Monmouth Park
            Long Branch
            Asbury Park
            Bradley Beach
            Spring Lake
            Point Pleasant Beach
            Bay Head

          • Nathanael

            It’s not so hard, Adirondacker, the trouble is that it has to be done individually for each map. The rule is to zoom in the inner areas and turn the outer areas into simple lines with dots.

          • Nathanael

            The problem in NYC is actually the broken transfers within the subway system, and the fact that nobody’s figured out how to represent local and express service coherently.

            Representing these things takes up a hell of a lot of map real estate, which leaves less room for the “outer lines”.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If it’s not so hard ( or useful ) why hasn’t anyone done it in the past 100 or so years?

      • Christian

        London manages to have a map that at least shows the tube and inner suburbs, why is there always this immediate “It can’t be done!” attitude in NY?

        • Adirondacker12800

          Port Jervis, the northwesternmost station on NYC’s commuter rail is as far from Montauk the easternmost station, as Paris is from London. Manhattan to Montauk is roughly as far as London to Birmingham. Or you London map would stretch from Birmingham to Calais. Roughly…

          • Christian

            Mr. NO!

            I am well aware having lived in both cities. Hence INNER SUBURBS. The complexity past the inner suburbs is generally just a single line, no real need for more detail.

            Instead of just saying no, No, NO lets try to think of how something relatively easy to do could help the public.

          • Adirondacker12800

            surprisingly, people in New Jersey have no expectation of needing to locate the Long Island Rail Road stations in New Jersey. Similarly Long Islanders have no expectation of stumbling across a NJTransit station. Neither of them expect a subway station. Metro North Riders.. silly them don’t expect either NJTransit or LIRR stations to crop up in the middle of Westchester or Fairfield counties. Or the subway. It’s absolutely Gawd Awful that someone might have to look at two maps to get somewhere.

        • Alon Levy

          To be perfectly fair to New York on this one matter, London has longer interstations on the Tube, and exurbs that are a lot closer-in.

          But there’s a limit to fairness. New York-area commuter rail has long interstations once you go past Hicksville or so. Something like this, including the other railroads on a similar scale, could work.

          • Peter Brassard

            As a start eliminate the Hudson DMZ. An integrated map that incorporated both sides of the Hudson that’s equally weighted doesn’t really exist. General parameters could be within the confines of Staten Island, Newark, Paterson, White Plains, Stamford, and Nassau County.

          • Nathanael

            …heh. And as I suspected, it leaves out the weirdness like the broken transfer at Bleeker Street and some of the bizarrely complex semiexpress-routings on the B division lines. Those are what make it hard to make such a map, so leaving them out makes it look easy!

    • Alon Levy

      A lot of the medium-term things are not directly related to through-running, including new rolling stock (read: regulatory reform), higher off-peak frequency, clockface scheduling, service on the Northern Branch and West Shore Line, and such. More relevant to through-running are:

      1. Raising the Cos Cob Bridge; this is concrete, but it’s on Amtrak’s Master Plan wishlist and is only a few hundred million. On top of that, done right it could replace two short, sharp curves on the approach with a long, gentle curve, making it HSR-ready.

      2. Properly grade-separating the Kearny interlocking, which currently single-tracks M&E trains wishing to use it.

      3. Getting more omni-voltage EMUs.

      4. Performing track upgrades and improving reliability to allow short-turnaround clockface schedules and more timed transfers (e.g. at New Rochelle) assuming a specific interlining pattern.

      5. Sunnyside Junction.

      6. Commercial TOD around existing major near-Manhattan stations, such as Jamaica, to create more demand for trains in the reverse-peak direction, which through-trains necessarily are half the time.

      7. Fully integrated, mode-neutral fares (including with local buses, the subway, and PATH), which de facto means using the same smartcard for everything regionwide.

      • Nathanael

        I really do think that re-electrification needs to happen sooner rather than later, because there are *four* separate electrification schemes, and that’s just too much to handle in a single locomotive or EMU, let alone a dual-mode with a diesel engine. Personally I’d push the 25Hz out of NY and NJ first: that mostly requires substation replacement, and little rewiring (most of the rewiring is being done already). Then I’d get rid of the oddball Metro-North third rail: yes, it’s “safer” than LIRR third rail, but whatever. Convert it to overhead 60 Hz whereever possible. Then it’s time to come for the LIRR….

      • Michael John

        What would you consider to be the existing major near-Manhattan stations besides Newark, Stamford, Hicksville, Jamaica, and White Plains? And I suppose Phase 3 involves the new tunneling?

        • Alon Levy

          Ideally, as soon as reasonably possible. For minimum damage the big reduction in staffing should be done at the same time as an expansion of employment – either a period of very high economic growth (as in Japan in the 1980s) or a period of rapid expansion of rail, such as the opening of new HSR in the Northeast or going to very frequent off-peak service on commuter rail.

  5. lpetrich

    How feasible would it be to change the AC frequency on the NEC from 25 Hz to 60 Hz? Is it something that can be done partially: 60 Hz on one part and 25 Hz on another? I ask that because it may be difficult to do it all at once.

    As to multiscale maps, that’s a good idea, and I’ve seen some such maps — an overall map and a map of some central area.

    This issue of map geometry reminds of a paper I recently come across: A long-time limit for world subway networks – arxiv:

    Its authors find that subway-train systems converge on having a core of crisscrossing lines surrounded by more-or-less radial lines with some branching. They didn’t discuss why the systems’ designers have converged on that geometry, though one can speculate. Avoiding congestion? Bringing service to additional areas? They also did not look at suburban systems, but they have lots of branching and only a few central-area lines.

    • Adirondacker12800

      It already is 25Hz on some sections and 60Hz on other sections.
      It was 25Hz between Washington DC and New Haven with the electrified branches around Philadelphia and from Rahway NJ to South Amboy NJ. Metro North reelectrified at 12.5kV/60Hz, NJTransit reelectrified the Morris and Essex lines at 25kV/60Hz and Amtrak installed electrification between New Haven and Boston at 25kV/60Hz. NJTransit, Amtrak and MARC can run under all of them. SEPTA’s new Silverliners should be able to use either frequency and Metro North’s new M8s should be to use either voltage… so yes they could progressively switch over to 60Hz.

    • Alon Levy

      I’ve been meaning to write about that paper forever. The Cliff Notes version of what will almost certainly be a tl;dr post is that it comes from a high fixed-to-variable cost ratio; this makes the question of why subway networks look the way they do equivalent to the question of why cities have CBDs surrounded by residences rather than the reverse.

        • Alon Levy

          tl;dr = too long, didn’t read. Originally something that you say to a very long comment, but now an adjective (“this is tl;dr”), and used in constructions like “tl;dr notice” for a very short summary of a long post.

    • anonymouse

      One problem with just switching frequency without switching voltage is that in many cases you need some extra substations here and there, because the higher frequency means more impedance over the length of the wire between substations. It’s not a whole lot more, but if the system is already at its limits, it could be a problem. Also, I suspect that Amtrak’s frequency converters get power from all three phases of the commercial grid, while a commercial-frequency system will have each substation connected to only two phases, and there is always going to be an unbalanced load on the phases, which the local power grid may or may not be able to handle.

    • Nathanael

      It can absolutely be done partially. The greatest benefit would come from moving the change point incrementally southward from Metro-North territory. Unfortunately the next step would be the Hell Gate, East River Tunnels, and Penn Station minimum, which is a large chunk to bite off all at once. It would probably require some complex work due to the low overhead clearances, too.

  6. Nathanael

    Amtrak’s ticketing will be *massively* easier to integrate after they switch to “e-ticketing”, which is supposed to happen this year (going over budget and behind schedule of course — don’t major IT changes always do that?).

  7. Nathanael

    OK, so fuller comments on your comments:
    (1) Good idea, far more expensive than it appears. If you can get proper accounting arrangements set up between Metro-North, LIRR, and NJT, Amtrak will be the easy one.
    (2) Oh my god yes. The current situation is unbelievable.
    (3) Unlikely to happen unless the politics change to allow through-running, in which case just do that!!!
    (4 & 5) It seems like the correct sequence is this:
    A. Immunize the signal system in Penn Station, East River Tunnels, North River Tunnels, and Sunnyside Yard so that 60 Hz won’t interfere with it. This should be done during interlocking renewal which is now happening.
    B. Retrofit or replace the Arrows so that they can switch voltage on the fly.
    C. Rewire everything from the Hell Gate Bridge through to New Jersey as necessary to make sure the physical wire is ready for 12.5kV 60Hz. I’m assuming there isn’t enough clearance for 25kV 60 Hz, and Metro-North already uses the 12.5kV standard.
    D. Build the necessary substations to supply Penn Station, Sunnyside, the Hell Gate Bridge, East and North River Tunnels, etc., with 60 Hz.
    E. Move the frequency changepoint to New Jersey.
    F. Convert the section from the tunnel portal to Newark to 25kV 60Hz.
    G. Start the through running.
    H. Finish converting the NJCL to 60Hz.
    I. Finish converting the NEC from Newark to Trenton to 60 Hz.

    Then new equipment for NJT can forget about 25Hz, an important goal.

    The next problem in the conversion of the whole NEC to 60Hz is the section supplied by the Safe Harbor Dam. But before dealing with that, I’d extend the 60Hz up the Empire Connection, initially using M-8s for service (and ordering new dual-mode overhead / diesels for Amtrak, which would come in handy anyway). Then I’d start designing long-term plans to re-electrify LIRR and Metro-North with AC overhead
    (far fewer substations on those long runs).

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