The subject of regional rail in the metro area comes up from time to time. Regional rail is a great idea in theory; there should be no reason why the metropolitan area’s rail network is physically connected, yet is separated and rendered operationally inefficient by three agencies guarding their turf. However, there are several issues with running regional rail using today’s infrastructure.
A lack of intermediary stations
One of the main features of regional rail, from Paris’s RER and London’s Crossrail to the Center City tunnel in Philadelphia, is multiple, widely spaced stops in central areas. Using multiple stops instead of one stop has two benefits; one, it reduces congestion on other transportation networks, since less people need to make last-mile trips on other networks, and the ones that will remain will be shorter than they were before. The other benefit is a reduction in dwell time at the existing center city train station; now that people have multiple options instead of being forced to get off at the terminal, it now takes less time for people to get on and off trains at the terminal, allowing for more throughput due to decreased dwell time.
The current commuter rail system has a lot of these issues. Penn and GCT are the only center-city stations, and the overwhelming majority of passengers get off at these stations. As a result, the subway stations serving Penn and GCT serve 45 million to 46 million passengers annually, making them the second and third busiest stops in the system (if you count the Eighth and Seventh Avenue stops at Penn as one station). The lines serving these hubs are overcrowded during the rush, as people heading downtown from Penn crowd onto Seventh Avenue trains, people heading to Midtown from Penn rush onto the E, and passengers from Grand Central overload the maxed-out Lexington Avenue line. Future commuter rail expansions are not going to ease this burden; East Side Access will only serve to overburden the Lexington Avenue line even more, and Penn Station Access will do the same as well. Regional rail would be hard to implement with today’s infrastructure; previous studies for East Side Access have ruled out multiple stops along the 34th St tunnels for NJT and LIRR trains, so dwell times at Penn would remain high, reducing throughput. To make matters worse, the rolling stock itself is not conducive to short dwell times; the two-door per car layout is not good at letting passengers in and out quickly. BART has similar capacity issues on its two-door trains, even though they are much shorter, and is planning to replace them with three-door trains to speed up service.
Inappropriate rolling stock: interoperability
The trains currently in service all run on different power supplies, making interoperability today somewhat difficult. No one currently has all-electric rolling stock that can run on all voltages in the regional rail network. NJT has the most compatible rolling stock, since its electric stock can run on 12.5 kV 25 Hz, 12.5 kV 60 Hz, and 25 kV 60 Hz; they can run on MNR’s New Haven Line, but nothing else. Metro-North has stock running 12.5 kV Hz 60 Hz and 25 kV 60 Hz, but the East River Tunnels and North River Tunnels are electrified at 12.5 kV 25 Hz, meaning that current electric rolling stock can’t run into Penn. The rest of the electric rolling stock on Metro-North and the LIRR run on 750 V DC third rail, but even stock between these two agencies is not compatible; Metro-North uses over-running third rail while the LIRR uses under-running third rail. Theoretically, M8s on the New Haven Line can be run on both types of third rail, but in practice there is not much of a chance or need to do so in operation; the Hell Gate Line splits off before the transition to over-running third rail, making it unnecessary to accommodate both over and under-running third rail at the same time. The only other link between Metro-North and the LIRR is through the Empire Connection, which isn’t electrified, so the use of trains that can switch between over and under-running on demand is mainly for flexibility purposes.
Low likelihood of replacing inappropriate rolling stock
There is also little likelihood that new electric-only rolling stock with appropriate layouts will be ordered for the sake of interoperability. Aside from the M3s and M3As, all three rail operators have electric fleets that are new and could stand another two or even three decades in service, and are thus unlikely to need replacement anytime soon. Replacing them early would not work very well; as the MNR and LIRR are the only two commuter rail operators that use third-rail power and are also the two biggest commuter rail operators in the nation, selling their fleets would be virtually impossible. The M3/3A replacement orders are not nearly big enough to justify multi-voltage trains either; due to the lack of clearance for transformers in the 63 St tunnel to Grand Central, ordering multi-voltage trains would require splitting the M9/9A contract into a multi-voltage and single-voltage train, increasing costs for relatively small benefit. So electric-only through service is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future.
The picture is much rosier when it comes to diesel-operated service; both MNR and the LIRR have expressed interest in replacing their old, unreliable diesel locomotives, with either DMUs or new diesel locomotives. It just so happens that NJT recently received a new reliable diesel-electric locomotive, the ALP45-DP, that can switch between modes on the fly and handles 12.5 kV 25 Hz, 12.5 kV 60 Hz, and 25 kV 60 Hz. This would be a significant upgrading from the existing diesel fleet of the MNR and LIRR; currently they can only handle being on electric mode for about ten minutes, to get in and out of the city, and belch fumes on the rest of their trips. The ALP45-DP would be able to operate at high speeds in both modes and transition easily, and would be able to operate anywhere on the regional rail network; making them third-rail compatible with a similar seamless switch between modes would allow them to maintain electric operation on all electrified track in the region. Coupled with new double-deck cars ,like the Bombardier Multi-Levels, that are able to run across the regional rail network, and the basis for a new regional rail network could be forged from existing diesel services. Such a network would be relatively barebones, and could look something like this:
With seven terminals on either side of Penn Station, running two trains an hour from every terminal to the other would result in 14 TPH in both directions. If Gateway, the LIRR Third Track, and East Side Access were completed, that would result in an additional 24 TPH on both sides of Penn, giving more than enough capacity to run this service while still leaving 10 TPH on either side for additional service in New Jersey and Long Island. All this would require is an investment in the rolling stock required, and a small capital improvement; under this plan, the Maybrook Line would be reactivated and two stops would be added so that diesel services on the Harlem Line could access the New Haven Line and Penn Station. This wouldn’t be absolutely necessary, but would become more urgent as the tracks into Grand Central approached capacity.
This provides a lot of additional service to stations that my not see that much of it currently, particularly out in Greenport and Montauk. However, this doesn’t solve a big problem with the commuter rail network; it’s still not particularly good at distributing passengers throughout the core, instead dumping passengers into just two overcrowded transfer hubs. Eventually, as the capacity from East Side Access and Gateway is used up, a more comprehensive plan will be required, to be described in the next post.