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?

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