Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why NY Penn Station Needs A 3rd Track, Not A 4th

Why NY Penn Station Needs A 3rd Track, Not A 4th

How to Add a 3rd Tunnel under the Hudson at ½ the Cost

By Robert W. Previdi on February 23, 2013             Email:

Twitter: @BobPrevidi


Penn Station, and the NJ Transit commuter are both like the Rodney Dangerfield of transportation – neither gets any respect.  Penn is – by far – the largest transportation facility in the nation.  Penn Station moves twice as many people as the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartfeild-Jackson International, and nobody knows it.  The station manages over 500,000 passengers a day according to Amtrak and has needed to expand capacity under the Hudson River for some time now.  The reason it hasn’t is the cost for constructing a new tunnel at this location is very high.  Too high for Governor Christie who canceled NJ Transit’s Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project in 2010, but it was even difficult for the Pennsylvania Rail Road when they built the original tunnels back in 1910. 

There is an alternative approach; if we rethink how Penn Station is use, eliminate trains originating or terminating their trip at Penn station, and implement a practice known as “through routing,” we can then maximize the use the station’s existing infrastructure by taking advantage of the location of the LIRR’s West Side Yard and build just 1 new tunnel instead of 2.  This would allow us to achieve the stated goal of doubling capacity under the Hudson River for half (½) the cost of the ARC project or Amtrak’s Gateway project, both estimated between $13 to $14.7 billion dollars. 

Some Background

For a nation that is so auto dependent, how Penn Station became such a large force, I have no idea.  According to Amtrak in the spring of 1976 there were a total of 661 weekday train trips.  Today there are 1,248 - a 90% growth rate.  Amtrak has already captured 75% of the airline market between Boston and Washington, and they expect overall travel demand at the station will double by 2050.  Most of this is NJ Transit and LIRR passengers who make up 95% of the station’s ridership.    

Penn Station tunnel portals in NJ and NJ Transit Passengers at Penn Station

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy gave us another reason to consider as nature displayed just how vulnerable the Hudson River tunnels are.  Amtrak and NJ Transit were knocked out of service as the tunnels were flooded for two weeks causing havoc for Amtrak and NJ Transit Rail Commuters.  Having only two-tracks under the Hudson River makes it real difficult to operate.  There is no margin for error.  Even on a normal day in the peak morning and evening peak rush hours every train slot is taken, and every train is packed.  The slightest problem gets magnified very quickly and can spread delays all along the entire Northeast Corridor. 

For years planners and politicians have attempted to fix this problem but it has proven to be difficult and costly, partly because of the terrain that must be crossed, which includes the NJ Meadowlands, the Palisades and the Hudson River, and partly because of the way we use Penn Station today.  At the core of the problem is a 10 mile long stretch from Newark, NJ to Penn Station, NY.  Most of the Northeast Corridor has 4 tracks, but in this particular area, at the Northeast Corridor’s most critical peak load point, there are just 2 tracks (1 in each direction).   In “Conquering Gotham” an historical review of the PRR efforts to build these tunnels and be the first railroad to reach Manhattan, author Jill Jonnes examined in great detail the difficulties the Pennsylvania Rail Road faced in designing a solution to cover these 10 miles.  

Former PRR President Alexander Cassett considered many options, including a path that is now used by the Staten Island Expressway, Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Gowanus Expressway.  He also looked at an 8 track bridge at the current location of the tunnel that could have eventually been expanded to 14 tracks. According to Jonnes it was ultimately the French advances in traction power that gave Cassett the confidence to build a tunnel in the least obtrusive way maneuvering into a plot of land that they had purchase between 7th/8th Avenues and 31st/33rd Streets in Manhattan.  They wanted to secure their franchise position in NYC - quietly - before going public about their plans.  Today we still rely on those same two tracks and tunnels.  Can you imagine if the George Washington Bridge had just 2 lanes – 1 in each direction? 
Courtesy of Amtrak
Click To Enlarge

Lessons Learned From Failure of ARC – Can’t Cost Too Much

In 2009, NJ Transit started construction on Access to the Region’s Core, a project that would have covered those 10 miles with 2 new tracks and 2 new tunnels under the Hudson River, plus a 6 track addition to Penn Station under Macy’s Department Store.  This ambitious project was cancelled in 2010 by NJ Governor Christie citing a poor design and an excessive $13+ billion cost, which could not be guaranteed.   

The lesson to be learned from the ARC project’s demise is that the project became too large and its $13 billion cost too expensive.   We must be careful about how we design Amtrak’s replacement project, Gateway which now projected to cost nearly $14.7 billion.  Amtrak is working hard trying to solicit input from all users, so there is still time to influence this design and bring the costs down to something Trenton and Washington can live with. 

Maximizing Penn Station
Most people have no idea that Penn Station is served by only 2 tunnels under the Hudson River while there are 4 tracks under the East River.  In the morning rush hour 48 trains can be scheduled from Long Island, while only 24 can be scheduled from New Jersey.  If we can reorganize Penn Station and consider the role the West Side Yard plays, we can maximize its use and reduce the cost of the next new tunnel under the Hudson.  

In the late 1980’s the LIRR built the West Side Yard which reduced the amount of unnecessary train trips from Penn Station to Long Island after the morning rush hour that were to going to park for the day until the evening rush hour.  Today the West Side Yard captures 2/3rd of LIRR morning rush our trains in.  Having the West Side Yard for the purposes of planning the next tunnel is like having a 3rd tunnel under the Hudson into NJ already in place. 
Click to Enlarge

If we line up how trains enter and leave the station there are  2 inbound and 2 outbound under the East River tunnels, while the Hudson River has 1 inbound and 1 outbound.  The West Side Yard captures LIRR trains in the morning rush, and feeds trains into the station in the evening rush.  This eliminates the need for and outbound (NJ bound) tunnel in the morning, and inbound (NY bound) tunnel in the evening rush.  Then we need just need 1 additional tunnel under the Hudson and we can still achieve the goal to double capacity from NJ to NY in the morning and NY to NJ in evening rush hours.  The key to this is implementing this plan is to utilize a standard practice of “through routing” trains at Penn Station which would require an overhaul of current operating practices, including how passengers use the station. 

Through Routing Penn Station Operations

Through-routing is not a term typically used by the public – it is a technical term that means trains pass through a station, as opposed to “terminate.” Today, many LIRR and NJ Transit trains (not all) terminate within Penn Station, and then head back in the direction they came from.  This back and forth movement causes congestion within the station that could for the most part be eliminated - if all commuter trains simply passed through Penn Station onto terminals at the far reaches of the metropolitan region such as;  Trenton, Suffern, Port Jervis, Stamford, New Haven, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and Montauk.  

Through-routing has been successfully implemented in London, Paris and Philadelphia and other cities, and there are some great advantages from a passenger’s point of view.  NJ Transit service would reach JFK Airport, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and the US Open, and LIRR & Metro North trains would serve Newark Liberty Airport, Met Life Stadium and the Prudential Center.   

Adding a 3rd tube under the Hudson would allow planners to use the West Side Yard as it was intended, to park trains during the day, and we can balance the operating plan evenly among the four trunk tunnel lines that would operate through Penn Station.  The additional tunnel and track would need to reach all the way back to Newark to relieve the congestion and add the capacity needed to manage 24 trains in the peak (8:00-9:00AM) hour.  At Penn, each of the four trunk lines could be assigned 3 exclusive use platform tracks for commuter trains, (5-7 and 13-21) while Amtrak can have 5 exclusive use platforms (Track 8-12) for Northeast Corridor service, while the Empire Service, along with Metro North’s Hudson Line could use tracks 1-4.  This would give each commuter train a platform dwell time of 8.5 minutes. 
Picture by: Willy Previdi
This schematic shows Penn Station and its relationship to the 4 tunnels from Queens, 2 tunnels from NJ, and the proximity of the West Side Yard and potential 3rd track from NJ. 


In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) implemented a similar service plan when they opened the Center City Commuter Tunnel in 1984.  SEPTA through routed the operations of two old competing railroads (the Pennsylvania and the Reading) and it has been successfully providing service for 28 years.  Passengers rarely notice on the platform at Suburban Station that train crew’s change – a vestige of the old railroad operations when trains terminated at either Suburban or Reading Terminals.  To the public the details of through routing may appear a simple mundane, but how we staff such an operation, and move the trains around has huge implications and relatively smaller, but not insignificant capital costs.  

To implement through routing there needs to be upgrades to signal and power systems, train equipment, as well as operating procedures and where trains will be stored.  Also Penn Station’s mezzanines and concourses would need new way-finding signs as track assignments would be comingled between what are now segregated LIRR and NJ Transit concourses.    

However, these changes to Penn Station are a relative low price to pay when compared to the savings of constructing just 1 new tunnel under the Hudson River instead of 2 which ultimately could save billions (with a capital B) of dollars – and reduce the project cost by half (½). 

Ridership Studies

Ridership studies performed by NJ Transit Ridership clearly show that the need for additional rail service is only in the peak rush hour direction (inbound toward Manhattan in the morning, and away from Manhattan in the evening).  The reverse peak ridership demand does not justify building the second tunnel under the Hudson River.      

With the West Side Yard and through routing in place, not only can we avoid building the 2nd new tunnel under the Hudson River, we can also eliminate adding the 6 new tracks at Penn Station.  According to former MTA Capital Program President, Mysore Nagaraja, who was in charge when the 2nd Avenue, #7 extension and LIRR East Side Access projects began construction said, “Eliminating the 6 track station could save another $2+ billion.” 

Conclusion - Less Can Be More

Penn Station is our nation’s busiest and most successful transportation facility and we should pay attention to its needs.  If the answers provided cost too much – then we need to be flexible in finding an answer.  I believe there is an answer available if we rethink how we use Penn Station.  We can still achieve the goal of doubling peak hour (8:00 AM to 9:00 AM) train service under the Hudson from 24 to 48 trains by simplifying train movements through the station which would allow us to maximize the current stations capacity, and allow us to add just 1 new track under the Hudson, instead of 2.  Adding 1 track now does not prevent adding more tracks later.

President Obama speaks of creating High Speed Rail, but the most important thing to do now is to get the next step going or we risk choking on the tremendous progress that the commuter rail and intercity rail marketplace has already achieved.  I don’t disagree with Governor Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC project due to cost, but as Hurricane Sandy has shown we are vulnerable and need a new option.  New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders need some respect and Amtrak deserves the ability to rebuild the existing tunnels that have served us so well for over 100 years.   

Robert W. Previdi
Philadelphia, PA
February 23, 2013
Twitter: @BobPrevidi

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