Connecting New Jersey to Manhattan, Redux

This post responds to arguments made by Brian in comments regarding how to connect New Jersey regional trains to Manhattan, in addition to the present tunnels to Penn Station; Brian argues for leveraging the Staten Island Railway, including the North Shore Branch, since a Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel should be built anyway.

In my post about the various options for connecting New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, all four alternatives I looked at featured a tunnel across the Hudson from the Hudson County waterfront to Manhattan, differing only in the location of the portals and the route used to get to the New Jersey portal. There are in principle other options, and I’d like to explain why they’re less feasible, and conversely why a connection along the lines I suggested should be one of the top two priority trans-Hudson projects, together with an additional tunnel pair to Penn Station.

First, because Lower Manhattan is the second most important business district in the region, as well as a subway hub, it deserves some connection. More than that, it deserves a connection from as many directions as possible, same as Midtown, and it deserves a connection earlier rather than later. The longer it takes to build a direct commuter rail line to it, the more it will decline in favor of other business districts, which with the exception of Midtown are much harder to serve with transit. It’s likely that if the LIRR, the Pennyslvania, the Lackawanna, the Erie, and the New York Central had all managed to build commuter lines to Lower Manhattan, instead of relying on the subway and the Hudson Tubes for the final connection, Lower Manhattan would not have lost out to Midtown so readily; Midtown would remain more convenient for commuters from Uptown Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, but not for commuters from Long Island or New Jersey.

Because of those principles, we get that a connection from the Erie lines to Lower Manhattan is critical. Once we accept that the major New Jersey lines, or groups of lines, need to be connected to both Manhattan job centers, it becomes best to gear the Lower Manhattan connection to the Erie lines, which are the northernmost in New Jersey and therefore wouldn’t intersect a Lower Manhattan connection to another line. The ARC solution of looping trains around Secaucus and connecting them to Penn Station is a fine first step but is inadequate afterward: a Lower Manhattan connection from the Erie lines would intersect the other lines at Secaucus, allowing a transfer, but a connection from any other direction would not allow a transfer from the Erie lines to Lower Manhattan.

On top of this, the cost involved in building such a connection, along any of the four alignments I proposed, is a tunnel across the Hudson, some extra tunneling on the Manhattan or Jersey City side (the farther south the alignment, the more Jersey City and the less Manhattan tunneling is needed), and of course a station in Lower Manhattan. This is quite bare-bones in the sense that any other connection to Lower Manhattan has to incur the same costs of a tunnel across water, and a Manhattan station. Concretely, this means it’s easier to tunnel from Jersey City or Hoboken to Manhattan than from Staten Island to Manhattan, and as such this would be built first, becoming the initial connection from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan.

I waver on whether this should be done before or after four-tracking the North River Tunnels. The tunnels are still extraordinarily busy at rush hour, and even state of the art signaling will only buy a few years before traffic matches the new capacity; moreover, Lower Manhattan-bound commuters can already transfer to PATH at Newark Penn cross-platform or at Hoboken, either of which is more convenient than transferring at Penn Station. On the other hand, people can also get to the southern edge of Midtown on PATH, and direct Lower Manhattan service can justify diverting some Morris and Essex trains from the mainline. It buys at most a few more years of breathing room, but it adds more destinations that can be reached by train, whereas a Midtown solution just adds capacity to an existing destination.

But, now, what of a future Staten Island connection? If a Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel is built, along the straightest alignment, bypassing Brooklyn, then it could provide a second connection from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan. This is the brunt of Brian’s comment: it would require using the bridge from Elizabeth to the North Shore Branch, which is active, and for another access point a new bridge from the mainline to Perth Amboy, but even building the latter bridge costs much less than new tunnels. Here is a map of the alignments.

The problem with using this for through-trains from the Jersey Shore and the Raritan Valley Line, the lines that connect best to Staten Island, is speed. The distance to Grand Central through either Staten Island and Lower Manhattan or the Northeast Corridor and Penn Station is about the same; the distance to Lower Manhattan is several kilometers shorter and one transfer fewer than via Secaucus, but once one connection to Lower Manhattan exists, a secondary connection would have to be justified based on demand to all job centers, of which Midtown is the biggest.

But now the Staten Island connection would have a much lower average speed. It is curvier, independently of all other considerations. The tunnel from Staten Island to Manhattan should also be lower-speed, to reduce the required bore diameter and save money. Since there is no good reason for intercity trains to use this connection – the Perth Amboy connection leads to no intercity line, and the North Shore Branch connection would require building a new junction to the Northeast Corridor, which would be both expensive and curvy – there is no reason to optimize for speed, unlike the case for the Northeast Corridor. So the choice is between one line where express commuter trains could do 160 km/h except maybe in the last few kilometers into Manhattan, and one where they’d do 100 or charitably 130.

On top of that, there are more stations in Staten Island, and also more local demand. Part of it is just bad operating practices in New Jersey – there should be more local stops in Elizabeth – but Staten Island has far more local demand, and so dropping local stops to make it easier to run express trains is less justified. As of 2000, the latest year for which the census data is readily available, Staten Island had 53,000 Manhattan-bound commuters. The relevant intermediate cities on the Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line – Newark, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Carteret, and Woodbridge – had 10,500 between them. The corresponding numbers of Brooklyn-bound commuters are 29,000 and 1,500, respectively. It makes sense to keep the current stop spacing on the trunk line between Newark and Rahway, or add just one or two stops, but it makes none to not fit a North Shore Branch service with many local stops, which would then slow down longer-distance regional trains.

While the North Shore Branch can’t be widened except with many takings, the Staten Island Railway mainline could conceivably be four-tracked to allow overtakes, and this would make it a more competitive route. But if there is money for that, there is probably money to six-track the remaining four-track gap between Newark Airport and Linden, allowing full separation of local commuter trains, express commuter trains, and intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor except for segments on which the speeds are similar (Newark-New York) or ones where traffic is low enough to fit on existing tracks (south of Rahway).

The problem is really that the North Jersey Coast Line doesn’t have enough traffic to justify two highly separated branches, one through Staten Island and one through the Northeast Corridor. The split I proposed in my regional rail posts is much smaller – trains are only split east of Penn Station, after they begin overlapping with the Morris and Essex Lines, and so it’s possible to time transfers in such a way that people from Long Branch can board any train and be at their destination with just one additional easy transfer. At most this may justify a few peak hour runs; otherwise, even if the Tottenville-Perth Amboy bridge is built, timed transfers at Perth Amboy are almost as good and avoid reducing frequency on each branch too much.

19 comments

  1. Eric F

    What about adding one or two reliever tracks to the Newark-WTC PATH line? Imagine tunneling under the current alignment where space makes such a maneuver necessary, and alongside the current alignment in other places, such as under the Hudson. You could have an express line with a local stop from Newark Airport to Newark Penn and then an express ride the final leg into lower Manhattan in about 15 minutes.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Build it for commuter trains instead of PATH trains. Frees up space the commuters would be using on PATH for local passengers. And induces demand on the commuter trains because there’s no more “change at Newark” or “change at Hoboken”

      • Brian

        I agree, I live in NJ. and commuters desire a one seat ride to Manhattan (Mid-Town or Lower) and not having the change at Newark or Hoboken is a more desirable commute than having it. Homes in good towns that have one seat ride to NYC (Summit, Morristown, Montclair, Metuchen, Madison, Chatham) are more desirable than towns that are located on lines that require the switch (Cranford, Westfield, Somerville, Ridgewood, Westwood, Emerson) to name a few. Plus, Path capacity, even with extra tunnels, will fill up as the HBLR continues to expand and as Jersey City continues to build luxury condos. Need to get the Commuters who would need to make the change at Hoboken or Newark off the PATH and directly in to NYC (Lower or Mid-Town).

        • Eric F

          The current WTC-Newark line pretty much gets a full train out of people transferring from NJT and heading to WTC, and then another full train as it winds its way through the next few stops. I’m thinking of a reliever tunnel to address this capacity problem, as well as the inefficiency of having 90% of Newark transferring riders putting up with irrelevant interim stops. If you had a zero stops alignment from existing EWR to existing WTC, your need for station investments is very small. WTC already has extra platform capacity and Newark has long platforms that can be used to stage trains. “All” you need is the alignment built and the rolling stock, and forget about expanding the interim stations for purposes of the new track. I’m thinking this is a relatively cheap way to get people quick access to lower Manhattan. How long is the alignment from EWR to WTC? If it’s ten miles, you can run a 60 mph express train over that in maybe 12 minutes or so. Wouldn’t be as comfortable as a commuter car, but it’d be quick.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Build it to commuter rail gauges and no one has to transfer, no transfer is quicker than a transfer. A commuter rail tunnel could be used by the LIRR, Metro North and SIRT trains. The once an hour Amtrak service to Washington DC. The PATH station is good for PATH trains.

  2. Brian

    Alon:

    Whether building the alignment through Bergen Arches first or Staten Island-Manhattan Tunnel first. Through routing would need to be done and connecting both of these projects would be letter, thus looping NJCL and NEC train that use this plan or running these trains up the Erie Lines as New Jersey Bound Trains.

    As for SIR Main line being curvy, the Tottenville Express goes 50 to 60 mph (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK90z-NPZo8), so I would think NJCL would make good time, if it made no stops in Staten island (using these speeds). However, I agree ending the SIR in Perth Amboy would be good, this would allow Staten Islanders a way to Mid-Town Manhattan (especially Southern Staten Islanders), access to Newark Airport, and access to Amtrak for long distance rail travel.

    One question is how expensive would the ramp be to connect the NEC to the Staten Island North Shore? In the Aldene Plan, a ramp from the CNJ Main Line was built to connect to the Lehigh Valley Line in Roselle Park, NJ. A similar ramp would need to be built with Catenary. The North Shore Line had in places sidings and small yards, so there should be run to run three tracks at places (http://www.gretschviking.net/GOSIRTNorthShore.htm).

    These alignments are to allow for NJ. and Staten Island commuters one seat ride options to Lower Manhattan and if demand allows, easier modifications for one seat ride options to Mid-town Manhattan. Then through routing on Erie Division Lines would allow for more efficient service for NJT.

    • Alon Levy

      50-60 mph isn’t really impressive. To put things in perspective, the currently allowed speed through the Elizabeth S-curve is 55 mph, and that’s a huge slow restriction that needs to be eased by moving the tracks (at considerable expense) to allow 125+. Geometrically, everything else except the vicinity of Newark and the curve toward the tunnel portal is good for 125, and that speed can actually be gotten close to with bridge improvements and such that have to be done anyway. The reason I brought up intercity trains is that on the NEC commuter trains get these improvements for free. There are advantages to using track built for HSR rather than track built for local trains.

      On top of that, you can’t really go fast in tunnels unless you build the tunnels with really wide clearances (=$$$) or use pressure-sealed trains with long noses (useless for low- and medium-speed equipment). It cuts into your speed either way, but it cuts into speed more with the SI alignment, because the tunnels are longer.

      The North Shore has some critical parts with two-track structures at stations. Look at Port Richmond Avenue, for example. It’s even worse if you try to optimize for intercity trains rather than express commuter trains.

      I looked, and it’s not as hard to connect the North Shore to the NEC as I thought. The location is a cemetery with some light industrial uses, which is cheaper and less NIMBY-prone than residential or commercial. Still, it involves a grade-separated junction onto an existing railroad and this can be dicey, especially if you’re connecting to express tracks rather than local tracks. It’s also not terribly useful to intercity trains – the curve is not that big a deal, but in conjunction with other infrastructure that’d be expensive to built or retrofit in SI, you lose too many minutes, to say nothing of precious slots for commuter trains. Express commuter trains would find it useful, but then you’re talking about rebuilding the North Shore Branch for not that many users.

      • Brian

        For Local service on the North Shore Line, the demand would need to be there. I understand in the surveys many people want it, but are the numbers there. I don’t think all of the North Shore stops would be needed. The as demand increases then there is a reason to expand the tracks and create more stations. For the NEC connection, I would only suggest looking at linking the local NJT tracks only. I know on the North Shore, the only real choke point is Port Richmond-Tower Hill Viaduct, but after this point, the line can be three tracked at least, and the viaduct is not that long.

        I would not suggest for Intercity trains use the Staten Island Route, however express regional commuter lines, I am suggesting using this route. Intercity Trains (Amtrak) would use the Hudson tunnel (Bergen Arches) to Lower Manhattan, but regional commuter trains need to be out of the way to allow these trains to run. This why I am suggesting the Staten Island Route, this would get trains off of the congested Four track alignment in Elizabeth, Newark, and two track alignment going in to Secaucus.

        To make this project attractive to Staten Island, I would have NEC trains using North Shore to make one stop in Staten Island to pick up Staten Islanders to head to Lower Manhattan (A transfer for them, but their commute times are short due to distance) and for NJCL they would make one stop before heading in to tunnel (basically replacing the Tottenville Express). Basically, I would have NJT be the express trains for SIR. If demand allows the SIR trains could go directly in to Lower Manhattan. Then I would suggest a Weekend Path Train schedule (33rd St. station to Journal Square), where the train stops in Hoboken, Engineer walks to back of train, then goes out the way the train comes, but switches to the next route.

        • Alon Levy

          Intercity trains should avoid the Bergen Arches for a different reason: they hog space at stations, and so they’d force the Lower Manhattan station to have more tracks, which is expensive. A basic four-track, two-island platform station (one track toward each of Brooklyn, SI, Jersey, and GCT) can be done with large-bore TBMs; beyond that you’re moving to cavern territory, and that’s too expensive. Better to keep them at Penn Station where there’s room and more demand anyway.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    which are the northernmost in New Jersey and therefore wouldn’t intersect a Lower Manhattan connection to another line.

    Huh? Everything in New Jersey, except the Princeton Shuttle, could in theory, go to Hoboken. The Bergen Arches are the former Erie route to their terminal in Jersey City, what is now “Newport”. The trains from the former Erie lines now switch to the former DL&W lines just west of there. That could be reconfigured to let the former DL&W line trains switch to the lower Manhattan line. There would be lots of construction but it could be done. Above ground. There would be lots of construction out in the Meadows but trains from the NEC now go to Hoboken and could use that route to get to the tunnel to lower Manhattan. Or a relatively short piece of tunnel to route the trains from the NEC over the former PRR ROW into Jersey City instead of having them make the switch onto the DL&W. Might be worth it so that the conflicts move to someplace in Jersey City instead of right at the NEC. Once you decide to build a tunnel to Wall Street, everything in New Jersey can get there, cheaply.

    • Brian

      The problem with using the PRR Jersey City route would be the Path Tubes that are there already are in the way. To build on that right of way would cause major disruptions on the PATH system and trying to find room to build (Most of the Path Stations being built under the PRR EL over Columbus Blvd). The Bergen Arches route would probably be the better of the two. The open cut allows for easy access to the construction site, DL&W and Erie Division trains can easily reach the area and NEC can reach the area using the Waterfront connection that is in place already. The only drawback to the arches is that only a three track tunnel could be built in that footprint, because the arches are only 3 tracks wide and there is a tunnel (that is used currently) to the north used by freight trains. There should be no impediments under the ground and the tunnel from Bergen Arches should be able to get under the Path tubes at Newport Pavonia.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The cut that PATH uses west of the Grove Street station is four or more tracks wide, plenty of space there to put in two more tracks, cheaply. It’s a few blocks of tunnel to get where the tunnel to Manhattan would be on any other alternative. Might have to have the portals at Journal Square but there’s plenty of space. And it would all be above ground west of Journal Square.

        The Bergen Arches don’t need to be more than two tracks wide. They aren’t going to be building more than two tracks into Lower Manhattan…. ever. If the trains headed to Newark peel off under Newport, two tracks is more than enough. It’s more than enough if everything goes to the western end of the Arches.

        • Brian

          I agree there is space at Journal Square, it is when you go east of Journal Square is where the space is confined and possibly need to move utilities. Plus, there is the Dock’s Branch that already runs under the PATH East of Journal Square, so the tunnel would have to get under that line as well. Using this alignment would cause far more headaches then Bergen Arches alignment. Plus, how would you get the Erie Division Trains in to this approach?

        • Adirondacker12800

          In a tunnel to a vast underground flying junction just like PATH has but deeper. Or to the north slightly. Or west slightly. Once you go deep enough there are no utilities to worry about. And to get under the riverbed you have to go deep. Which is one of the reasons PATH goes underground west of Grove Street. So that once you reach the shoreline of the river the trains are lower than the riverbed. The stuff between the river and 15 blocks west, except for the station, will be really cheap in the context of the whole project.

    • Alon Levy

      What I’m saying is that if you decide that Erie trains go to Pavonia and Lower Manhattan, and other trains go to Penn Station (or split), then people can transfer at Secaucus if the train doesn’t serve their destination. If instead you loop Erie trains to Penn Station and send M&E trains to Lower Manhattan, you can’t.

      • Brian

        By continuing down the line to Staten Island (using Cross Harbor tunnel), with the connections I had suggested, the Erie Division trains would turn in to NEC trains heading to Trenton and NJCL trains heading to Long Branch (through either SIR North Shore or SIR Main). NEC Trains and NJCL Trains heading to Lower Manhattan, once they drop off would go under the Hudson and turn in to Erie Division trains heading to Suffern or Spring Valley. You would have a through service route, with no trains sitting in the cavern in Lower Manhattan. SIR Trains, coming from the main line would dead end in Lower Manhattan, then turn around and head back out of the tunnel to go to North Shore Branch and make local stops there, turnaround at Arlington and headback to Tottenville. Basically, creating a wye-junction at St. George.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The trains can go to alternating terminals. The people on the Morris and Essex lines cope with it now. People all over Long Island change trains in Jamaica. If you are building the 5th and 6th tunnel into Manhattan that means you have enough traffic to be running once every 30 minutes to each terminal most of the day. In the dead of night people might be changing trains between levels in Secaucus but most of the time it will be quick cross platform transfer.

  4. Michael John

    If they want to transfer, there can be connections made at Perth Amboy and Linden between the existing NEC and the new line. Enough said.

  5. jim

    I wasn’t going to say anything on this since I think that Staten Island ought to be linked into the subway system through a tunnel across the Narrows connecting the SIR to the BMT 4th Ave Line.

    But then I noticed:

    I waver on whether this should be done before or after four-tracking the North River Tunnels.

    and would like to put the notion that (in an ideal world) it would be done between three-tracking the North River Tunnels and four-tracking them.

    A third track is desperately needed. At this point the North River tunnels need emergency maintenance during weekday off-peak hours, leading to single-tracking through the tunnels and on the order of half-hour delays. That’s not sustainable. A third track is enough for quite some time. A third track would increase trans-Hudson capacity by about 25%, which is more than enough for any planned HSR service. The capacity increase that it would provide is about what the current station can support with no change to NJT operational practices (dead-heading most of their trains back across the Hudson to/from midday storage in Jersey). And if NJT could be convinced to change their practices and store trains midday east of the Hudson, three tracks could be operated two peak, one counter-peak and permit almost as many trans-Hudson trains as ARC was to. Sooner or later a fourth track would be needed, but that’s a long way off. And a tunnel to Lower Manhattan is probably a higher priority.

    There is, of course, the practical political problem of getting a New Jersey-Lower Manhattan tunnel built. It will be a cold day in Hell before FTA funds any more NJT trans-Hudson proposals. Amtrak doesn’t care about Lower Manhattan. The MTA doesn’t care about running to New Jersey. Maybe the Port Authority could be convinced to back something like Adirondacker’s amendment to Eric F’s PATH reliever tunnels idea.

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