New York transit officials grudgingly consider using existing track more efficiently

Now that Chris Christie killed the ARC project, which would have built another rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, Transportation Nation is reporting that MTA boss Joe Lhota is asking the different New York area railroads to do what they were supposed to do half a century ago when they were nationalized: cooperate!

What to do in the meantime?

Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan, the hemisphere’s busiest railroad station and a terminal for New Jersey Transit trains.

He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space.

Each railroad currently controls a third of the platforms, which sometimes leads to one railroad having too many trains and not enough platforms at the same time another railroad has empty platforms. The railroads also vie with each other for access to tunnels during peak periods. Lhota said capacity would be boosted if dispatchers in the station’s control room could send any train to any platform, and through any tunnel, as they saw fit.

Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.

This is very, very basic stuff – stuff that was promised decades ago when the government nationalized commuter rail, and stuff that even the most hardcore libertarians probably would have conceded was one upside of nationalization. And yet, somehow it never happened. Some cities integrated more than others, but even the more successful cities in the US still don’t coordinate schedules and fares between their mainline and rapid transit railways.

Anyway, this’ll be great if it happens in New York, but the bigger problem is that officials are only considering this after their plans to spend billions of dollars on new tunnels were shot down. This runs completely counter to the German transportation planning principle, introduced to me by Alon Levy, of Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton – organization before electronics before concrete. In other words, you should make sure you’re using your existing infrastructure efficiently, either by streamlining operations or paying for relatively inexpensive signal upgrades, before digging (very!) expensive new tunnels.

But it gets worse – not only have they made the mistake of trying to build a new tunnel first, but the Transportation Nation author implies that they might even give up the organizational efficiencies once the tunnel is built! The first hint is in the question – “what to do in the meantime?” – but then later it’s even more blatant:

The Regional Plan Association, which held the conference at which Lhota spoke, and other advocacy groups have expressed support for through-running—at least until Gateway Tunnel gets built.

So once the tunnel is built, we go back to the old, wasteful methods and take away the convenience of a one-seat ride from New Jersey to Brooklyn?! This is like saying, now that we’re in bankruptcy we should probably stop lighting our cigars with hundred dollar bills – at least until we’re out of bankruptcy!

I also found these comments from the MTA spokesman odd: “However, it would require lots of capital investment and changes to existing procedures – and we want to know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.”

It is indeed good that they want to “know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.” But the answer shouldn’t determine whether they go forward with regional rail integration – it should determine whether they fire their management and workers and hire people who can!

  • John M

    “…stuff that was promised decades ago when the government nationalized commuter rail”  Well that’s news to me!

    Yes, different *state* agencies and Amtrak took the place of bankrupted commuter railroads and the federal government formed CONRAIL after Penn Central sank like a brick, but private companies still control those lines to this day (CSX and NS to be specific).

  • Stephen Smith

    The majority of NJT and MNRR trackage is owned by either them or Amtrak, and then I believe that LIRR owns all its tracks. CSX and NS only control a minority of commuter rail trackage around NYC, afaik. Can’t blame this one on freight!

  • Alon Levy

    The federal government nationalized most private railroads in the region. The assets were organized into Conrail, and those that were passenger-primary were subsequently sold to state agencies or to Amtrak. The LIRR was never under federal control, but the commuter lines that now form Metro-North and NJT were run by Conrail until 1983. Even CSX and NS ownership is a result of the privatization of Conrail, especially on New York-area commuter lines. None of the NJT lines today is ex-B&O; the lines and potential lines under CSX and NS control used to be Erie (Port Jervis, Northern Branch) and New York Central (West Shore Line), i.e. Conrail. Basically, the feds had the chance to get their shit together until 1983, after SEPTA had already committed to unifying the PRR and Reading sides.

  • Stephen Smith

    Also: just dawned on me that you’re objection was the ‘nation’ in ‘nationalize.’ That word doesn’t mean only taken over by the federal government – it means brought from private to state (as in, government) control, regardless of the level of gov’t in charge.

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