On Penn Station South

There’s an article in the New York Times by its architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, making a forceful case for the Gateway Project’s necessity. Like nearly all transit activists in New York, I think new Hudson tunnels are the top infrastructure priority for regional rail; like nearly all transit activists, I groan at Amtrak’s proposed budget, now up to $16 billion (but unlike most, I think that it should not be built unless costs can be brought down – I’d peg their worth at $5 billion normally, or somewhat more in a crunch). I would like to explain one specific piece of scope in Amtrak’s plan that can be eliminated, and that in fact provides very little transportation value: Penn Station South.

Like all proposals for new Hudson tunnels, Gateway is not just a simple two-track tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station. No: the feuding users of Penn Station all think it needs more tracks. The rejected ARC proposal had a six-track multilevel cavern, and Gateway has Penn Station South, a proposal to demolish an entire block south of Penn Station and build seven additional platform tracks. The cost of just the real estate acquisition for Penn South: $769 million to $1.3 billion, at today’s prices. Trains using the preexisting tunnels would have to go to the preexisting Penn Station tracks, which I will call Penn Classic; trains using the new tunnels could go to either Penn Classic or Penn South, but the junction is planned to be flat. For illustration, see PDF-p. 12 of a press release of the late Senator Lautenberg, and a clearer unofficial picture on Railroad.net.

As a result of this proposed track arrangement, train services would initially suffer from the capacity limitations of flat junctions. Like Penn Station’s tracks 1-4, Penn South would be terminal tracks. This means that the only service possibilities are as follows:

1. Schedule all through-trains, such as Amtrak trains, through the preexisting tunnels.

2. Do not schedule any westbound trains from Penn South or any eastbound trains entering the preexisting Penn Station tracks: for example, no westbound trains from Penn South in the morning peak, and no eastbound trains entering Penn Classic in the afternoon peak.

3. Schedule around at-grade conflicts between opposing traffic.

Option #2 is impossible: Penn South has 7 tracks. If trains can enter but not leave in the morning, there will be room for 7 trains entering in the morning, a far cry from the several dozens expected. Option #1 is the better remaining option, but is ruled out, since Amtrak wants to use the new tunnels for its own trains. This leaves option #3, which restricts capacity, and complicates operations. Thanks to Amtrak’s imperialism, taking over regional rail projects for its own ends, Penn South has negative transportation value relative to just building new tunnels to Penn Classic’s tracks 1-4 (the transportation value relative to doing nothing is of course positive).

I emphasize that the negative transportation value of Penn South comes entirely from Amtrak’s involvement. The same infrastructure, used by passenger rail agencies that were more interested in providing high-quality public transportation than in turf wars, would have positive transportation value. However, as I explained to Kimmelman, this positive transportation value is low, and does not justify even the cost of real estate acquisition, let alone that of digging the station.

Briefly, as can be seen in the diagrams, the interlocking between the two new tunnel tracks and Penn’s eleven terminal tracks – tracks 1-4 of Penn Classic, and all of Penn South – is exceedingly complicated, which would limit approach speed, and not provide much flexibility relative to the number of tracks provided. This is to a large extent unavoidable when two approach tracks become eleven station tracks, but it does lead to diminishing returns from extra tracks. This is one of the reasons it’s easier if trains branch: it’s easier to turn 12 trains per hour on two tracks than to turn 24 on four (although both are done in Tokyo – indeed, the Chuo Line still turns 27 tph on two tracks).

Avoiding large crunches like this at urban terminals a benefit of through-running. This is hard to realize initially unless the new tunnel is what I call ARC-North. It’s still possible to through-run trains, pairing the new tunnels with the southern pair of East River Tunnels and the old tunnels with the northern pair, but it requires a lot of diverging moves at interlockings, limiting speed. Penn Station plans should be built with a long-term goal of simple moves at interlockings, to (slightly) increase speed and capacity and reduce maintenance needs.

However, it’s still possible to square the circle by requiring trains to turn fast on tracks 1-5 of Penn Station (track 5 splits to a terminating end and an end that runs through east of New York). Tokyo would be able to turn a full complement of 24 trains per hour on these tracks. Most other cities would not. However, as somewhat of a limiting European case, the RER A turns a peak train every 10 minutes on single track at Le Vésinet-Le Pecq, the next-to-last station on the Saint-Germain-en-Laye branch; Le Pecq has two through-tracks (also hosting a train every 10 minutes) and one terminal track. See map and schedule. This does not scale to 24 tph on four tracks; somewhat tellingly, those trains do not continue to the terminus, which is a three-track station, implying turning 12 tph on three tracks is problematic. The RER E turns 16 tph at the peak at Haussmann-Saint Lazare, a four-track city terminus, pending under-construction extension of the line to the west, which would make it a through-station.

If we accept 16 tph as the capacity of new Hudson tunnels without new Penn Station tracks, then the question should be what the most cost-effective way to raise future capacity is. An extra 9 tph, the equivalent of the difference between 16 tph and the 25 tph that the current tunnel runs and that Amtrak projects for Gateway, is within the capabilities of signaling improvements and better schedule discipline. Again looking to Paris for limiting cases, the combined RER B+D tunnel between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles runs 32 tph, without any stations in the tunnel (the RER B and D use separate platforms), while the moving block signaling-equipped RER A runs 30 tph on its central segment, with stations (as do the S-Bahn systems of Berlin and Munich). The RER E was planned around a capacity of 18 tph, but only 16 tph are run today. 18+32 = 50 = 25+25. France is not Japan, with its famous punctuality: French trains are routinely late, and as far as I remember, the RER B has on-time performance of about 90% based on a 5-minute standard, worse than that of Metro-North in its better months.

More importantly, dropping Penn South from the Gateway plan saves so much money that it could all go to through-running, via a new tunnel from tracks 1-5 to Grand Central. This is about 2 km of tunnel, without any stations; in a normal city this would cost $500 million, the difficulty of building in Midtown canceling out with the lack of stations, and even at New York construction costs, keeping the tab to $2 billion should be doable. The 7 extension is $2.1 billion, but includes a station; an additional proposed infill station at 10th Avenue, dropped from the plan, would’ve $450 million, giving us $1.6 billion for about 1.6 revenue route-km, rising to 2.3 km including tail tracks – less than a billion dollars per kilometer.

At $2 billion, the premium over $1 billion of impossible-to-cut real estate acquisition costs is down to $1 billion. It’s unlikely the construction cost of Penn South could be just $1 billion, without general reductions in city construction costs, which would enable the Penn-Grand Central link to be cheaper as well. Each Second Avenue Subway station is about a billion dollars, and those stations, while somewhat deeper than Penn Station, are both much shorter and narrower than a full city block. The result is that building a Penn-Grand Central link is bound to be cheaper than building Penn South, while also providing equivalent capacity and service to a wider variety of destinations via through-running.

One difficulty is staging the tunnel-boring machines for such a connection: building a launch box involves large fixed costs, especially in such a crowded place as Midtown. One of the reasons Second Avenue Subway and the 7 extension are the world’s most expensive subway project per kilometer is that they’re so short, so those fixed costs are spread across less route length. The best way to mitigate this problem is to build the link simultaneously with the new Hudson tunnels. The staging would be done on Penn’s tracks 1-4, whose platforms would be temporarily stripped; the construction disruption involved in the tunnels is likely to require shutting those tracks down anyway. Depending on the geology, it may even be possible to use the same tunnel-boring machine from New Jersey all the way to Grand Central.

This doesn’t save as much money – the Penn-Grand Central link is extra scope, with its own costs and risks. However, unlike Penn South, it is useful to train riders. Penn South allows terminating trains at Penn Station more comfortably, without having to hit the limit of large-city terminal capacity; the Penn-Grand Central link creates this capacity, but also lets riders from New Jersey go to Grand Central and points north (such as Harlem, but also such more distant commercial centers as Stamford), and riders from Metro-North territory go to Penn Station and points west (such as Downtown Newark).

Normally, I advocate unbundling infrastructure projects, because of the tendency to lump too many things together into a single signature plan, which then turns into political football, a sure recipe for cost overruns. However, when projects logically lead to one another, then bundling is the correct choice. For example, building an entire subway line, with a single tunnel-boring machine and a single launchbox, usually costs less than building it in small stages, as is the case with Second Avenue Subway. New Hudson tunnels naturally lead into a new tunnel east of Penn Station, regardless of where this tunnel goes; and once a tunnel is built, its natural terminus is Grand Central.

56 comments

  1. anonymouse

    The thing is, each train is going to have a more or less fixed total time that it’s going to have to spend letting passengers off in NYC. With a given number of trains going into NYC, you’re going to need roughly the same number of platforms. But those platforms can all be at one station, or they can be at multiple stations, maybe just one at each station even. And the latter is more useful partly because of the better geographic coverage and partly because of the efficiency benefits of through stations over termini, especially when the latter involve trains slowly crossing through large complex interlockings. Part of the problem at NYP, by the way, is that a train can take well over a minute to cross through the interlocking, because trains are long and the speed is so low, and remodelling it by removing some flexibility might actually help things.

  2. EJ

    So, you’re proposing that the Gateway tunnel just skip Penn Station and connect to the East Side Access station under GCT? That actually seems to make a hell of a lot of sense.

    • Alon Levy

      No… it’s an interesting possibility, but Penn Station service is too important – two Manhattan stops rather than one, West Side access, easier transfers between the old and new tunnels, etc. What I’m proposing is a tunnel to Penn Station, continuing onward to Grand Central. Call it Alt G-lite, since Alt G had an extra railyard thrown in next to West Side Yard, which is unnecessary if there’s through-running.

    • Steven Harrell

      Also, it’s my understanding that Alon’s Alt G-lite plan calls for a connection to GCT’s existing lower level, not the ESA station. Hence through running to Metro North, not the LIRR. Correct?

        • EJ

          How buildable is that? There’s some pretty big buildings in the area, and GCT’s lower level isn’t that far beneath the street level. I feel like they could have *probably?* connected the ESA tunnels to GCT’s low level, but they didn’t, so now that deep cavern is there, and it would seem like it would have a lot more operational flexibility if it had a connection to New Jersey.

          As to my earlier question, (now, I’m just some guy on the internet and don’t have any projected demand figures for NJT access to GCT), but given current traffic volumes, it feels like it might be more efficient to not try to serve both Penn and GCT with the same trains and just run dedicated trains to GCT, and possibly further into long island and/or up the New Haven Line.

          • Alon Levy

            ESA is less flexible than the lower level of GCT, because it leads to lines that already have access to Penn Station. I’m not even sure it’s easier to build – it’s deep, and 3% grades are required to get from there to Penn Station. The lower level is pretty deep as it is – 60 feet below ground level, comparable to the depth of the 7 trains at Times Square. It’s possible for the TBM to go even deeper in between Grand Central and Penn Station, which would be useful for avoiding building foundations during the turn between Park or Madison and 31st.

          • Nathanael

            “How buildable is that? There’s some pretty big buildings in the area, and GCT’s lower level isn’t that far beneath the street level. ”

            Breaking out of GCT lower level from the south, the first issue is running through the Oyster Bar. After that, one of the four IRT tubes is just a bit too low and would have to be carefully managed. After that, there are more than enough blocks for the tubes to dive downward under the building foundations before they have to turn west. The big buildings in the area don’t have that many basement levels. They’re also pretty old so they mostly don’t have deep piles under them.

          • Joey

            Nathaniel: the food court is a non-issue. The lower level tracks already extend below it.

  3. Chris

    How would through-running tracks be hooked up to GCT? Would they have to demolish the food hall on the lower level? Or would it hook up to the ESA tracks?

    • Alon Levy

      The lower level tracks are below the level of the food court, so the tunnel connecting to them would pass under the food court. The question is how much shoring up work is required at the food court for this connection. If the food court has to be closed during construction, then honestly, no harm done – the food is terrible anyway.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Food is very subjective. They manage to make the rent, payroll etc., someone likes it.

      • anonymouse

        I believe the lower level already extends at least as far as the food court. There is also a loop track behind the food court, between the upper and lower levels. I believe the intention back in the day when they built GCT was to eventually continue the lower level tracks somewhere further south if the terminal electrification got expanded into a full suburban electrification.

        • Nathanael

          In order to break out the south end, you’d probably have to demolish part of the back end of the food court in order to get a shallow enough curve from the loop track to the tracks exiting to the south. I don’t think it’s a huge loss.

  4. johndmuller

    As you say, Alon, your proposal is much like ARC Alt G lite; I think that Amtrak’s longer term plan is probably more like ARC Alt S Heavy. Personally, I like connecting NYP & GCT (upper), and I hope that they do it, but from Amtrak’s point of view, there are more reasons to build a third East River tunnel than a dicey north-south tunnel to GCT. I figure that Amtrak is going for the Penn South stuff in part to add the extra (and hopefully longer and wider) platforms to thereby up the capacity of NYP at least somewhat, while they get ready to send another tunnel across Manhattan into Queens and on to whatever the future holds in Connecticut. I think that they might consider this to be the preliminary step in the HSR project – creating a new HSR station in NYC, along with its own more or less separate route through Manhattan. That it might help out NJT, the LIRR and maybe even MN, would be a fringe benefit; going to GCT is much more of a local issue and if anyone is going to propose it, it will have to be those RRs, or the local governments involved. Personally, I’d be happy enough with one or two MN trains an hour from the Hudson Division going down the Empire Connection into NYP.

    It doesn’t seem unreasonable that both Alt G and Alt S be moved forward for serious consideration. The whole breaking out of GCT issue is sure to be prickly and could use as much political, financial and engineering lead time as possible. If, and it seems likely to happen, a new tunnel is going to be built under 31th St., now is the time to start talking about how it should be four tracks instead of two tracks, so that the option of doing both variations is kept open from the beginning.

    I suppose that it is possible for one or both of the existing east-west tunnels could be re- or multi-purposed with a swing north to GCT (upper), thus enabling some Alt G action without messing with the new 31st St. activities. I think that there are 3 tracks under 32nd St. on the NYP side; perhaps that 3rd track could be recruited to go north to GCT (instead of ending or whatever does happen to it) either in addition to an Alt G or as part of it.

    • Alon Levy

      Amtrak’s Vision proposal includes going to Grand Central. It’s a stupid connection for intercity trains – as you say, it’s a local issue – but Amtrak has imperial ambitions.

      The problem with Alt S is that it would saturate every line from the east, requiring odd service patterns. There are 8 tracks heading into Sunnyside from the east: two NEC tracks, two Port Washington Branch tracks, and four LIRR Main Line tracks. Right now, there are four tracks to the west, to Penn, but ESA is adding another two. Alt S would make that a symmetric 8. In this case, symmetry is unwarranted; to use all those tunnels to Manhattan to their full capacity would require saturating the PW Branch with ~24 tph at the peak and the Hell Gate Line with another ~24 tph. There’s no demand for this traffic, and moreover, scheduling so many trains on Hell Gate is dicey because commuter trains are supposed to make multiple stops in the Bronx while intercity trains are supposed to skip them all at speed.

      Alt G does not have this problem. It doesn’t add tracks to an existing link, but creates a new link, which means that the entire calculation of capacity changes. My longer-term proposal, including the Grand Central-Fulton-Staten Island tunnel, is symmetric at Grand Central Classic (four Park Avenue Tunnel tracks to the north, two Penn-GCT and two SI-GCT tracks to the south), but that’s fine, because Grand Central’s traffic is at the limit of two tracks inbound. Trains would thin out in the Bronx because of the split between Metro-North’s three lines, so no branch would be forced to carry so many trains as PW and Hell Gate would under Alt S.

      The third track under 32nd Street isn’t really useful as a hook to GCT, for a bunch of reasons:

      1. It only goes part of the way – if I’m reading the track map correctly, it ends midway between 6th and 5th Avenues. Extending it would require widening the tunnel, at which point you might as well build a new tunnel.

      2. It’s a single track; Penn-GCT is likely to have very high demand, requiring two tracks (but not four, since it would be asymmetric at Penn, where there’s less room for all those trains from the east to turn than at GCT).

      3. The third track points to the same platforms at Penn as the two tracks that go all the way to Long Island; using it requires making a lot of diverging moves at interlockings, limiting speed.

      The issue of which tracks at Penn should point to which tunnel is nontrivial, and it took me multiple years and several posts to get it right. When I wrote my initial pair of posts on The Transport Politic, I didn’t know any of this yet; I implicitly assumed ARC-North, with the Penn-GCT link connecting to one of the existing pairs of East River Tunnels, forcing all commuter traffic from Long Island to Penn Station to use just two tracks. The only way that works is to dedicate the southern (low-numbered) tracks to the new Hudson tunnels and the GCT link; the middle tracks to the existing Hudson tunnels and the 32nd Street tunnels; and the northern tracks to the Empire Connection and the 33rd Street tunnels, with many 33rd Street tunnel LIRR trains turning at Penn rather than continuing to the Hudson Line, since there isn’t enough Hudson Line demand to saturate two tracks.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The Lexington Avenue Subway carries more passengers than any other subway/el system in the country. It gets crossed by the Flushing line at Grand Central. What place in the country would be better to put an intercity station?

        Project out 2% per year passenger growth on the New Haven line. In 2040 or so it’s reached capacity and Amtrak needs a tunnel from North White Plains. I lean towards a causeway to New Haven instead.

        The New Haven Railroad had delusions of grandeur. In the East 130s, 8 tracks are visible on the satellite images. Plenty of space, which the government already owns, to put down local and express tracks. Or even local, express, intercity and freight tracks. Amtrak runs two trains an hour now, Metro North wants to run 6, someday. Double that, 16 trains an hour with four tracks in the Bronx should be doable.

        • Alon Levy

          Penn Station is better, because it doesn’t require intercity trains to clog a valuable piece of commuter rail infrastructure. The Penn-GCT link could work with intercity trains if they let people ride between the two stations for free; but GCT-Harlem could not, because intercity trains wouldn’t stop in Harlem and commuter trains would, and the speed difference would reduce capacity. I think a lot of people generally misunderestimate Harlem’s role as a bottleneck – at all other trunk stations, there are more platform tracks than access tracks.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If it’s part of a system stretching to Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and Boston it’s going to be filled with intercity trains.

          • Alon Levy

            Right, but the intercity trains to those cities can stop at Penn Station. In fact, most of them have no reason to go to Grand Central and points north, since there’s asymmetric demand (much more to Philly, DC, the Southeast, and the Midwest than to Boston). It’s the regional trains that should be making two CBD stops instead of one.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The intercity passengers want to go to Grand Central for the same reasons the regional passengers want to go to Grand Central.

          • Fbfree

            True, but the service is more important to regional trains on the margins: Regional trains carry more passengers, regional passengers are more sensitive to time savings in town, and intercity through trains have passengers that are sensitive to the longer dwell time of IC trains.

          • Ryan

            And intercity rail passengers also tend to have baggage, they tend to show up an hour before their train departs, and they tend to want to mill around the station.

            Grand Central has room for baggage handling and it has room for intercity passengers to hang around and it even has room for things like first-class lounges and employee lounges and back-office operations space, to say nothing of its world-record holding number of superfluous terminal tracks.

            Most importantly – Penn Station has none of those things, least of all space, and regional commuters feel the crunch every day. Getting intercity passengers out of Penn Station might not help in a vaccuum but relocating all Amtrak operations and freeing up all that space sure would – and with Grand Central sitting right there to absorb all the back offices and bag handlers and gilded lounge space at zero cost to the station or its current users in terms of space, there’s frankly a much better case to be made that the only place Amtrak trains ought to stop in New York is on the East Side rather than on the West. (Of course, nobody would advocate dropping Penn from the schedule the same way people advocate against building a new station or against moving Amtrak to GCT – but it certainly should be a second-tier stop instead.)

            Harlem’s absolutely a solvable problem, the link ought to be built with four tracks so hogging slots won’t be a problem (and frankly there’s no point in building it with just two tracks since the demand for four is already there and the cost of adding more tracks is marginal), and there’s plenty of places north of New York that would factor into intercity demand on a GCT link – the single-track Empire Connection is probably woefully insufficient for much more than Hudson Line Penn Station Access if and when that service gets running. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect a full compliment of service to Montreal/Toronto/Upstate NY to be utilizing the Empire Connection at the same time as a full regional rail schedule.

          • Alon Levy

            First, checked baggage doesn’t happen on modern intercity trains. Even showing up an hour in advance is rare, especially on systems with flexible tickets (e.g. Shinkansen) – if the train comes every 10 minutes, that’s the longest anyone’s going to wait.

            Second, the Empire Connection is mostly double-track, and should be fully double-tracked, independently of any intercity rail needs.

            Third, there is no point in building a four-track Penn-GCT link. It’d be a reverse branch: the link itself would have four tracks, but Penn and GCT would only have two access tracks each with which to feed it. The Harlem issue is well north of the link: the existing Harlem-125th Street station has four platform tracks, and the Park Avenue Tunnel has four access tracks. This means that if intercity trains use the Park Avenue Tunnel, and skip Harlem (otherwise they’re not really intercity trains anymore), then either regional trains using the same track pair have to start skipping Harlem as well, or capacity will drop.

          • Eric

            An intercity station on the East Side would further strain the Lexington Ave line beyond its capacity. Both because of the passengers getting on/off the train, and because the convenience of being near the intercity station would spur more development. Better to keep the intercity stop at Penn, which has 14 subway lines stopping within a block of it – enough to fill any conceivable demand.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If your suburban train station has half hourly or hourly service and the intercity train you want has half hourly or hourly service there’s a lot of loitering around.

            An intercity station on the East Side relieves crowding on the Lexington Avenue line. Many of the people who now use the subway to get to Penn Station would walk.

          • Eric

            “Many of the people who now use the subway to get to Penn Station would walk.”

            On the contrary, to get from GCT to Penn you have to take the S/7 to Times Square, and then the 1/2/3/A/C/E south, not the Lexington. Not only would a GCT intercity station NOT take those riders off the Lexington, but it would add tons of riders who get off the intercity at GCT so the Lexington is the only north-south route they can take.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If you can walk from the intercity platforms to your hotel or office you don’t have to get on the subway at all. To get on the shuttle you have to go through the turnstiles, with your luggage, even it’s just a breifcase and a small carryon. If you can walk from the intercity platforms your boss tells you to take the train instead of hailing a cab and going to LaGuardia.
            It’s one of the reasons why East Side Access is important. All those Long Islanders clogging the shuttle or the E will just walk from the LIRR station.

          • Eric

            It’s a general principle when building a new subway line that it causes parallel lines to have less traffic (because people switch to the new line), and perpendicular lines to have more traffic (because riders of the new line want to transfer). Here we’re talking about an intercity line, but the same idea applies, that a GCT stop will lead people to transfer to the subway at GCT, which will further burden the Lexington.

            On a totally different note – this thread led me to imagine a new subway line going on a diagonal directly from Penn to GCT. From there it could maybe continue across the East River to Northern Blvd or something. As we know, subways built with TBMs are not limited to the overlying street grid.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If you are getting on the Lex at 86th Street to get to Penn Station you’ll be getting on the Lex to get to Grand Central. Without using the shuttle or the 7th Ave. Or competing with the people on the West Side for space in Times Square or Penn Station. Or on the intercity platform. If they are currently getting on the subway at Grand Central to get to Penn Station ( and not taking a taxi to LaGuardia because getting to Penn Station is a PITA and the current trains are so slow ) they don’t get on the subway at all.

            If the LIRR goes directly to Grand Central most LIRR passengers don’t have to get on the subway at all. If Metro North goes directly to Penn Station Metro North passengers don’t have to get on the subway at all. If NJTransit goes to Grand Central too. If all three go to Wall Street suburbanites aren’t transferring to the subway in Midtown or PATH in Newark or Hoboken. Most of them don’t have to get on the subway at all. If there is an intercity station at all three many of the intercity passengers don’t have to get on the subway at all….

            ….. and if Brooklyn and Jamaica are served by intercity trains people don’t have to schlep all the way into Manhattan…

          • Eric

            Yes, making everyone go to Penn forces people to take extra subway trips on the 123ACES. And guess what? That’s not a problem because those lines have extra capacity. Lexington doesn’t have extra capacity.

          • Adirondacker12800

            How does making people use Penn Station to get to the 7th Ave line to get to Times Square so they can use the shuttle to get to Grand Central so they can get on the Lex keep people off the Lex?
            By the time it happens one would hope the Second Avenue subway will have reached at least 125th so the overcrowding won’t be as bad.

          • orulz

            Thinking tangentially on the subject of regional rail, and how to get the New York political machine behind it.

            If the Empire Connection were double tracked, and connected to the northern tracks of Penn Station, then many LIRR trains could be made to turn onto this connection. Build a new station on the West Side Line in the vicinity of 41st street. This is a part of the IRUM plan that could easily be incorporated into your Regional Rail ideas. This could also have an obvious connection with the infill station on the 7 line extension. But these are just ideas on paper, with no political willpower behind it – and plenty of institutional inertia preventing it from happening. How to break the logjam and get it done?

            NYC does not necessarily do rational transportation planning very well. This much is clear. So, the answer is to exploit the greatest strength of the NYC political machine: make it into a massive real estate scheme.

            How? Combine it with the planned Port Authority bus terminal into a massive redevelopment effort on a scale equal to or larger than Hudson Yards. The potential would be huge because of the number of one-seat commutes that would be possible. The PABT would bring commuters from New Jersey; the Hudson Line can bring commuters from Westchester and further Upstate; the LIRR->Empire connection can bring commuters directly from Long Island; the 7 subway station at 41st and 10th provides the connection to the city itself through transfers to other subway lines and its link to Grand Central.

            You would have to choose one of the PABT alternatives that puts the terminal west of 9th avenue. This brings the PABT closer to the West Side Line and new 7 subway station. Incidently, this also has the greatest redevelopment potential since it opens up an enormous superblock just a block west of Times Square for redevelopment. Through-running between MN and LIRR is a big plus to developers of such a project, since it would give all of Long Island direct access to this new area, and the new station on the 7 line is important too since it provides the connection to the Subway and Grand Central.

            NJ bus commuters get somewhat screwed in the process since their terminal moves further from Times Square, but I doubt the NYC real estate machine would mind too much.

          • Alon Levy

            The big problem: 10th/41st is “already developed,” in Bloomberg’s parlance. It’s not very intensely developed, but these real estate schemes never happen in active residential areas, because the locals take exception to them and protest furiously. The big redevelopment projects and proposals are in areas that are not residential, or mostly not residential: Manhattanville, Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, Willets Point, Sunnyside Yards.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If the Empire Connection were double tracked, and connected to the northern tracks of Penn Station

            It connects to the southern tracks and always will.

            , then many LIRR trains could be made to turn onto this connection.

            Metro North trains can use it to go back and forth between the New Haven Line and the Hudson line.

            Build a new station on the West Side Line in the vicinity of 41st street

            Why? Metro North riders who want to get to Grand Central can already do that. LIRR riders who want to do that will be able to any decade now. And someday far far in the future NJTransit riders.

            The PABT would bring commuters from New Jersey;

            Only if you build a dedicated bus tunnel. Bus tunnels have less capacity than railroad tunnels. Many many bus routes in New Jersey stop at the railroad station. It makes much more sense to use the railroad to haul those people into Manhattan.

            7 subway station at 41st and 10th

            Is nearly useless for suburbanites.
            Taking the subway one stop from Grand Central or Penn Station to get to Times Square is a shorter trip except for the few people on the Hudson Line. It makes the trip for people going to Penn Station from the Hudson Line longer.

          • orulz

            You’re forgetting that this is a real estate scheme first and transit improvement second. Its is not meant to ease anybody’s commute to existing employment centers. It is meant to create a fantastic development opportunity in the vicinity of a new major transit hub with one-seat access to a whole bunch of places. If Hudson Yards can be what it is planned to be with only a station on the 7 Subway, imagine what developers could do here.

            The primary transit benefit of this is to break the ice regarding through running! Get seriously moneyed developers behind the through running idea and it will happen a lot sooner than it is currently planned to (…which is never.) All technical issues (over-running vs. under-running third rail and such) are easily solvable.

            Plus, once the institutional roadblocks to through-running agreements are resolved, that opens the door for more such agreements, namely NJT-LIRR.

            A secondary transit benefit would of course be to provide the impetus for building the 7 station at 10th Ave/41st St.

          • Adirondacker12800

            .) All technical issues (over-running vs. under-running third rail and such) are easily solvable.

            If you believe what is on Railroad.net the third rail shoes on M7/M8 cars can run on either type of third rail.

            Plus, once the institutional roadblocks to through-running agreements are resolved,

            NJTransit and Metro North already run trains through. 12 Sundays a year during football season.

            Metro North is going to argue with itself over running New Haven Line trains through to the Hudson Line and vice versa? There are umpteen different ways they can do that.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So lets do it. I’m on at a Long Beach branch station that runs through to Suffern. And I want to go to Elizabeth. I get to change at Jamaica instead of Penn Station. Unless the Trenton line and the Port Washington are the run through arrangement. I get to change at Woodside. Assuming the train from Long Beach and the train from Port Washington stop in Woodside. If the LIRR is running 60 trains an hour not all of them need to stop in Woodside. At the peak of the peak not all of them need to stop in Jamaica either. LIRR riders can change at Valley Stream between trains to Grand Central and trains to Penn Station. ( yes they need to reconfigure Valley Stream. ) Rinse repeat for each set of branches you pair up.
            And they are running empty trains to the end of the line in the reverse direction. When a problem on one side of Penn Station isn’t stopping trains from running to Penn Station.

  5. TheEconomist

    I have a lot of respect for Alon and everyone else here, but Alt-G was and remains a pipe dream. How many of you have seen a masonry house being underpinned or jacked up? Do you know how much it costs? In most soils and conditions it would be a job costing 6 figures. And that assumes that the occupants of the house move out. Do you think Metro-North, the subways or LIRR (whenever ESA is completed) will move out so that construction can proceed uninterrupted? If you have to make sure that the occupants of the house can live there while you do the digging, we are easily talking 7 figures (and frankly I am not aware of anyone ever done that). Now multiply that thousands of times — that is what Alt-G is doing to Grand Central. Is it possible from an engineering viewpoint? Yes, it is! It is just very, very expensive. If we assume that Grand Central is 100x100x15 times larger than your typical house we get a factor of 150,000 more in terms of volume. At $100,000 (the low end of the house estimate) this still means $15 billion to just underpin, jack up and build the missing stuff under Grand Central (I will be modest — this is a crude calculation, so I will assume that this amount of money allows you to deal with everything, from the shuttle tracks to the 4/5/6 tracks to the auto tunnel that exists for a small section of Park Avenue South to the ESA, the ESA tail tracks, the ESA venting facilities and the buried ESA TBM shield). At this point you are $15 billion back before you have even gotten to the portion that can be dug with TBMs. Then you still have some similar but much smaller mess to deal around where these tracks will get into Penn Station — again underpinning multistory buildings, some with 2-3 basement levels before you even get to dealing with the thorny issue of the surrounding subways. Alt-G cannot be built for any reasonable amount of money we as a country/state/city be willing to spend on it.

    I am not disagreeing that connecting the two stations would be a wonderful thing. We all agree on that point. The cost is just too damn high.

    • Joey

      Underpinning isn’t usually used for bored tunnels (which this would absolutely be). Measures have to be taken to avoid subsidence on the surface, of course, but it’s nothing like cut-and-cover construction.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Then there’s gonna a really steep block long section of track between the deep tunnel and the shallow platforms.

        • Joey

          True, but most of the ramps can be under streets, and if you’re only running EMUs, then grades up to 3.5% or so are a non-issue.

          Threading around the 6th Ave and Broadway subways might be a bit of a challenge. NYCSubway.org seems to think that the existing 32nd and 33rd St tunnels are below the subway, but based on the elevation profile I think that’s unlikely. Probably the BMT and PATH tracks are above the tunnels and the IND tracks are below. Which works out ok – the tracks can start descending rapidly as soon as they cross 6th Ave.

          • Adirondacker12800

            at the Grand Central end. The concourse is at 43rd Street. Supposedly so that if some day the city insists on rebuilding 43rd Street it can tunnel through Grand Central. Ya have to get from the platforms on the lower level under the Flushing line and then deep enough under the Lexington Ave line within a block or two. Or shore up Grand Central so the platforms can be lowered. It’s one of the reasons why NJTransit was proposing a twin of East Side Access under Madison Avenue.

          • Joey

            I thought that was a resolved issue. My recollection is that the flushing line would be a tight fit but doable, and that Park is wide enough for another pair of tracks if minor modifications are made to the Lex Ave line. There’s a diagram of this somewhere I can’t find.

          • TheEconomist

            I will throw an admittedly half baked idea that I wonder why nobody is talking about. I would be curious to hear feedback.

            Alon and many others are big believers in through-running. The existing stations are just a big mess that is quite difficult (but I am not claim impossible) to solve to allow for through-running (in fact through running NJT-LIRR is quite technically feasible with the current Penn, just not organizationally possible due to turf wars and politics). How about a new deep bored tunnel from NJ passing somewhere close to the north of Penn and a bit west of GCT and exiting to the surface somewhere in the Bronx? The tunnel will involve two bores which will generally be close to each other with an exception of somewhere in the Madison/5th avenues where they will space apart to the point of 80 ft. In that location you build the station with one(!) 12-car+engine island platform. Then through-run everything from NJ to Westchester and Connecticut. Based on what I have read on this blog, 3 minutes per train at the platform, 20tpa in each direction is possible. These will all have to be commuter trains, you cannot have long distance passengers board in 3 minutes (at least not in the US), but Amtrak will still have the old Penn for their trains where they will be able to take as much time as they need as all these pesky NJT trains will be gone (or only a small number left).

            Why are there no proposals along this line? Why is it such a big deal to have a new station? Why are we so married to using the old stations and having connections to them? London has so many of them. Why do we have a problem with new ones even when they would solve the myriad of issues plaguing the extensions of the old one?

            Something along these lines has the major advantage of not disturbing the existing arrangement until the first train is ready to go, minimizes the number of station caverns (and their size) which as we know from ESA/SAS are the most expensive part, uses TBMs which as of now is the only way to build any tunnel in NYC, and requires no expensive launch box because you start it in NJ. Also no branching and no switches and interlockings means you can get to the station at high speed for high throughput. The disadvantage is that the tunnel is long, but the tunnel is relatively cheaper to costs associated with stations, especially doing construction in stations which still operate at close to full capacity. Note that both ESA and ARC had the feature of not disturbing the existing operations at all. Same is true for the proposed Penn South. I guess politically one cannot close the existing infrastructure during construction as there are no redundancies.

            I do not believe that this will cost much less than $15B, but why is Penn South on the table and this is not? Politically I get it, NJ does not want to pay for infrastructure to be used by NY and vice-versa, and Amtrak has no job building a something it cannot use itself (they need the long dwell times, that won’t change any time soon). But why are not people not limited by politics not looking into something like this?

          • Joey

            The biggest reason to use existing stations is that constructing underground station caverns is expensive. Boring the tunnels themselves isn’t terribly expensive, but once you add caverns to the mix the costs can go up quite quickly. In this post, Alon mentions $1b/station for SAS, and that’s just for two track subway stations.

          • Nathanael

            When they looked at Alt G, they found that thetunnels could be threaded under the Lex and over the 7 coming out of GCT, followed by a sharp ramp downwards; I forget how it gets through the remaining tunnels, but the rest were considered easy. Only one of the Lex tubes was a problem.

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