The Case for Rebuilding the LIRR Central Branch

Conventional wisdom in the New York region holds that the Long Island Rail Road (or Railroad if you prefer, I believe either is acceptable) needs a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville on its Main Line. Just ask the Regional Plan Association:

The Main Line between Sunnyside, Queens and Hicksville, traverses a distance of 22 miles and passes through Jamaica Station. The number of tracks on the Main Line varies from six to two. A 9.8-mile two-track segment between Floral Park and Hicksville is constrained since four branch lines merge and use the section. At Hicksville, the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk Lines merge with the Main Line. A fourth line, the Oyster Bay branch, joins the Main Line at Mineola.

This imbalance of six tracks from four branch lines feeding into two results in a bottleneck that limits the amount of
service even though the branch lines themselves have sufficient capacity for more frequent service. Today, the
railroad is forced to use almost all of the Main Line’s capacity to serve commuters in the peak-direction, meaning both tracks operate almost exclusively in the inbound directio during the AM period and then in the outbound direction during the PM commute. This handicaps the ability of the railroad to offer reverse-peak service. Plans to run even more inbound service to Manhattan once the new terminal at Grand Central is completed will only increase the pressure on the Main Line and further limit the ability to provide reverse service.

Or, if you prefer, a visual from the same report:

lirr tracks

Aside from operational concerns, many believe the Third Track project is key to reviving Long Island’s flagging economy.

The problem? Well, in a word, NIMBYism. The Third Track project would require a few minor land takings to expand the right-of-way and would result in a few grade crossings being closed more often. This predictably has the suburban residents who rely on the line for their economic livelihoods preparing to make a small sacrifice for the good of the community…oh wait. Several communities along the line (and their classic late ’90s web design, baffling since things came to a head around 2008) have been vociferously opposed to the project, getting it knocked off the last several MTA capital programs.

As large government bureaucracies–especially those scarred by the legacy of Robert Moses–do, the MTA has been trying to satisfy the demands of residents along the line to gain their approval for the project. This results in whiff-of-the-absurd scenarios involving eminent domain takings of private property not to built the track itself, but to create grade separations for all-important local roadways, lest motorists see some impact from the new trains. As a result of these added complexities, and the MTA’s usual cost shenanigans, the estimated cost of the project–less than ten miles of new track, on a mix of existing and slightly expanded right-of-way–has risen to an estimate $1.2-$1.5 billion. At a cost like that, it would be hard to blame policymakers for walking away from the project entirely, and leaving Long Island to stew in its own juices of slow economic decline.

But what if there’s another way to do it? Granted, what I’m about to propose is pretty absurd, and likely to stir up just as much NIMBY opposition as the Third Track project. But bear with me for now.

Today–and for the last century–LIRR is the dominant, and more or less the only, railroad on Long Island. But there was a time when corporate competition in the Long Island railroad market was cutthroat. One of the early competitors was the Central Railroad of Long Island, which built a line extending from Flushing in Queens through Floral Park and Garden City to Farmingdale, and then on to Babylon.There were also branches to Hempstead and the brick works at Bethpage.

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

Today, little remains of the Central. The line from Flushing to Floral Park has been almost entirely developed over. From Floral Park to a point in Garden City, the line remains in use as part of the LIRR Hempstead Branch, and the remaining stub east of the split to Hempstead station sees the occasional circus train.

The circus train in Garden City, recently.

From Garden City to Bethpage Junction, however, the line is entirely abandoned; if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was abandoned in the postwar years because the Levitts didn’t wan’t trains running through their precious development. From Bethpage Junction on, the extension to Babylon is still active, known as the LIRR Central Branch.

But here’s the thing: the right-of-way of the lost middle section of the Central still essentially exists–and it duplicates the functionality needed from the Third Track project. That’s it cutting a bare swath through Levittown in the middle of the picture below (location):

ROW Levittown

Like many other abandoned rail lines, this ROW now carries power lines. Just out of the picture to the left, the ROW passes through a golf course, then (after passing over/under a freeway) rejoins the active ROW. To the east, the ROW runs to Bethpage Junction, where the electrified Ronkonkoma Branch and the Central Branch join up on their way to meet the Main Line at Hicksville. I measure the gap at right around 7 miles, almost all arrow-straight and flat. What if it were possible to reactivate this long-lost line to accommodate the LIRR’s current needs?

modified lirr tracks

As you can see, reactiviating the Central Branch would provide an even more substantial capacity boost than the planned Third Track. Trains from the Ronkonkoma Branch–with or without its second track, though that work is included in the current MTA capital program as of this writing–would feed into the Main Line where it becomes four tracks at Floral Park, rather than traversing a three-track segment between Hicksville and Floral Park (although admittedly, Floral Park interlocking would likely need to be grade-separated). The Hempstead Branch could become a shuttle with direct service at peak hours.

As for cost? Typically, seven miles of electrified double track and a few bridges or underpasses on existing ROW really shouldn’t cost much more than a few hundred million. But let’s say the fierce NIMBYism that has undermined the Third Track project is just as prevalent in Levittown–that seems a decent bet. In that case, the MTA’s best bet would probably be to place the entire line in a trench and cover up particularly obnoxious segments (like through the golf course) with green space.

The closest parallel to that long a trench project in the US is probably the Alameda Corridor out in Los Angeles. The design-build contract for the 10-mile-long central trench cost $712 million in 1998; that would be a little over $1 billion, or $100 million per mile, today. If the costs are even remotely similar–and a Central Branch trench would arguably be a simpler project than the Alameda trench–the cost should come in well below the NIMBY-inflated costs for the Third Track project, although interlocking work at Bethpage Junction and Floral Park could add in significant additional costs.

So for less than the cost of the Third Track, LIRR could buy additional capacity and a format that might placate NIMBYs a little more. A Central Branch reactivation would certainly be thinking outside the box. There would be disadvantages–the biggest jobs concentrations served by the LIRR are along the Main Line, though Garden City has a decent number of jobs in its own right. The NIMBYism would surely still be fierce. But at this point, why not be a little trollish? Nothing’s getting done in the interim anyhow.

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Roundup #2 and Pics from Athens, NY

In addition to a couple of ongoing research projects, I’ve been spending a good chunk of my time working for TSTC writing posts for their blog, Mobilizing the Region. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up the pieces I had done over there so far, and I figure it’s time for another roundup. I’ve been told I’m potentially the most productive MTR writer ever, so here’s hoping other people appreciate my writing.

I took the opportunity in my last roundup to post a few pictures and observations from my latest trip to Schenectady, so I’ll add some more Upstate jaunt pictures to this post as well (little traditions are nice). Last Sunday, G and I took a quick trip to the Hudson River village of Athens, NY. Athens is very small but has a notable collection of 19th-century architecture, and isn’t quite as precious or yuppified as places like Hudson or Saugerties. A few pictures from the trip:

Looking across the Hudson from Athens to Hudson

Looking across the Hudson from Athens to Hudson

Former church, now not a church (perhaps used as a residence, hard to tell)

Former church, now not a church (perhaps used as a residence, hard to tell)

Large house with a very distinctive cuppola.

Large house with a very distinctive cupola.

Laneway buildings along an alley in Athens

Laneway buildings along 1st Alley in Athens. Looking north between Water and Washington Streets.

The last one of these, in particular, isn’t just a pretty picture; there’s a lesson to it. One of the very early posts on this blog was about how Hudson, NY’s exuberant mix of residential architecture can teach us about what we’ve lost by stifling creativity through zoning. The existence of extensive, large, and flexible-use buildings along alleys in a small, old town like Athens holds a similar lesson.

Contemporary planners and urbanists often hold up backyard and alleyway buildings–what are now called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)–as an easy way to add density and low-cost housing options to residential neighborhoods composed mainly of single-family homes. ADUs tend to inspire fanatical opposition among NIMBYs, so it’s worth remembering that their existence isn’t any new plot; it’s an established American tradition dating back centuries. These buildings have likely been used as stables or garages for most of their history, but also show signs of having been lived-in (perhaps by servants) at some point. There’s nothing new under the sun.

New Haven Line Penn Station Access, Faster and Cheaper

The topic of bringing trains from Metro-North’s into Penn Station on the West Side of Manhattan has been the subject of endless studies and public attention for the past 15 years or more.

Penn Station Access studies, 2002, including Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven Lines

Penn Station Access studies, 2002, including Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven Lines

Over the years, the expensive option of Hudson Line Access, which would involve an extensive rebuilding of the current, done-on-the-cheap Empire Connection, has been pushed off into the hard-to-envision future. Current plans revolve around the less capital-intensive option of bringing New Haven Line trains into Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge and the East River Tunnels. The idea garnered particular attention when it was included in the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program,  then singled out–in distinct contrast to the rest of the MTA’s capital needs–by the Cuomo administration in the executive draft of the 2016-2016 state budget, funding $250 million of the projected $1 billion cost.

And therein lies the rub. There is, reasonably speaking, no real reason New Haven Line Penn Station Access (hereforth referred to as just PSA) should cost anything close to $1 billion. Though details are sketchy, the project as currently conceived appears to involve essentially the construction of four stations in the Bronx, a short extension of third rail in Queens to close a gap where Metro-North’s M8 EMUs can’t operate…and that’s it.

2014 proposed PSA alignment, with stations

2014 proposed PSA alignment, with stations

Documentation in the initial 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program suggests that the budgeted cost for PSA was $743 million, still incomprehensibly high, but somehow also $250 million below the number included in publicity this year:

PSA capital investment breakdown

The Capital Program budgets $188 million for the four stations in the Bronx–close to in line with the $41.3 million construction cost for West Haven, the most recent New Haven Line infill station. But that’s only the second-largest section of expenditures. The program also forecasts, very confusingly, $264 million for “track and structures.” That’s confusing because the whole point of Penn Station Access is that literally no track work is required, as Amtrak trains demonstrate every day. Alon has made the case for grade-separating Shell Interlocking, where the Hell Gate Line splits off from the Metro-North tracks to Grand Central, and that should definitely be done, but there’s no indication that that’s where the $264 million is going here. Perhaps some of it is going to the planned reconstruction of Herald interlocking in Sunnyside Yard, but that’s far more necessary for East Side Access than PSA. Perhaps some of ESA’s spiraling costs are being shifted onto PSA?

The other potential scenario is that Amtrak is demanding MTA restore some additional tracks onto the Hell Gate Line. The line has a four-track right-of-way that currently carries only two passenger tracks, with stretches of a non-electrified third track for (very limited) freight service. Amtrak hasn’t exactly been an easy partner with regard to East Side Access, so there’s no reason to assume they’d make the MTA’s life easy when it comes to PSA either. In any case, unless massive levels of service are planned for PSA, there’s no reason to add more tracks to the Hell Gate Line–the existing two tracks are plenty to handle Amtrak traffic plus a few additional Metro-North trains. But the point is the public doesn’t know where this significant expenditure is going. Maybe it’s actually being spent well. Maybe there are real needs I and other transit bloggers am not aware of. Or maybe not. In the meantime, it certainly looks bad.

Speaking of service: one of the other incomprehensible things about PSA has been the vocal insistence from MTA and the Cuomo administration that service cannot begin until some many LIRR trains are diverted to Grand Central by the opening of East Side Access. Presumably, this is their way of heading off conflicts with Long Island legislators who have previously gone to war to preserve parochial geographic privileges within the limited platform slots available at Penn Station, but it’s not, well, strictly necessary.

It has become very common and fashionable for transit advocates and bloggers to call for commuter trains to run through Penn Station rather than terminating there as a solution to the station’s growing capacity problems. With the very limited exception of the joint MNR/NJT Train to the Game Service, this has not yet happened, nor do the operating agencies show any apparent interest in making it happen, aside from vague references to through-running cooperation in dense documents.

Gratuitous YouTube break, demonstrating that New Jersey Transit trains can, in fact, run through to the New Haven Line

There are genuine technical reasons that through-running is hard. While NJT’s dual-mode and electric locomotives can operate throughout the corridor, the New Haven Line’s M8 EMUs cannot operate on the 12 kV/25 Hz electrification system installed on the Northeast Corridor between Gate interlocking (on the Queens side of the Hell Gate bridge) and Washington, DC.  There are a lot more of the EMUs, and they’re much preferable to loco-hauled trains, since they accelerate faster.

That being said, the gap between the end of 12.5 kV/60 Hz electrification at GATE and the beginning of LIRR’s 750 V DC, third rail electrification–which M8s can operate over–at Harold Interlocking is less than two miles. The third rail then extends through Penn Station to the west portal of the Hudson River tunnels. From there, it’s less than a five-mile gap of NEC-style electrification to Kearny Interlocking. There, NJT’s Morris & Essex Lines split off. Since 1984, they’ve been electrified at 25 kV/60Hz–a system under which the M8s can also run.

In other words, a perfect through-running partner for PSA service already exists on the Jersey side of the river–a line on which both NJT and Metro-North equipment can operate freely. The only technical barrier is the very manageable gaps in third-rail coverage.

Gaps in M8-friendly electrification highlighted in red.

Gaps in M8-friendly electrification highlighted in red.

From some Google Maps scouting, it appears that a total of about 16 track-miles of new third rail would be required, give or take some since I don’t know exactly where various electrification standards begin and end. Estimates as to the cost of new third rail vary, but $3 million per track-mile seems reasonable, perhaps even conservative. At $3 million per mile and 16 track-miles, you’d end up with a cost of right around $50 million for the needed third-rail extensions–very, very reasonable for the capacity improvement it represents.

So for just $50 million, we can run any New Haven Line train we want through to Gladstone, Dover, or Montclair State University. There are additional costs, of course. While all three M&E Lines terminal stations (in electrified territory) have high-level platforms, relatively few of the other stops do, and M8s have no traps for low-level platforms. I count a total of 58 platforms that would need to be high-leveled on all three branches. At a cost of $5 million per platform–again, conservative–that’s a further investment of $290 million. Most likely, you could knock off $90 million of that by not bothering with the ten stations of the very rural Gladstone Branch, and you could establish skeleton express service to Newark Broad Street, Summit and Dover on the Morristown Line and Bay Street and Montclair State on the Montclair-Boonton Line without any modifications at all. And, of course, existing NJT equipment can handle any and all platforms.

So where does that leave us? Costs for a barebones proof-of-concept run-through system could look something like this:

  • $50 million for closing gaps in electrification
  • $200 million for all four Bronx stations, politically the most important part of the project
  • $200 million for high-level platforms on the Morristown and Montclair-Boonton Lines
  • Presumably up to $100 million in various signal, yard modification, and other miscellaneous costs

For those counting at home, that’s about $550 million. For that money, you’d get:

  • direct access from the Eastern Bronx to the West Side of Manhattan and job markets in New Jersey, including Newark
  • a one-seat ride from eastern Westchester and Connecticut to Newark, and vice versa
  • more efficient use of existing train slots at Penn Station–“free” capacity improvement that doesn’t detract from any other line’s service
  • proof that running through Penn Station is both technically and politically feasible.

This vision of PSA and through-running at Penn Station might not be the highest priority we can dream about, but it is likely the most easily achievable. Given ESA’s ever-accumulating delays, PSA might not happen until 2025 if it has to wait for the other project. What I’m offering here may be barebones, but it offers the opportunity to make an innovative, somewhat important project happen far faster than otherwise planned.

Of course, this is the US, and more specifically the Tri-State region, so the real barriers aren’t technical but political and bureaucratic. With Albany and Trenton both mired in scandal, and a New York gubernatorial administration that for some reason seems determined to sandbag PSA, this kind of a scheme is unlikely to come to pass. Getting the various railroads involved here to work with each other is notoriously difficult, and given that Amtrak owns much of the infrastructure involved, heads would probably need to be knocked at the federal level (paging Senator Schumer…) The attitude from government so far has largely been to out-spend fundamental organizational problems (something that can be send of many, many aspects of transit in the NYC area), but let’s try for something better. In an era of fiscal constraint, low-investment, high-impact sure sounds nice, doesn’t it?