(New York, NY -- WNYC) New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota told a conference of transportation professionals that the only hope for moving more people under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey is for the area’s commuter railroads to set aside their traditional enmity and work better together.
His remarks came after a presentation showing rapid growth in New Jersey’s commuter population has maxed out rush hour crossings — both transit and vehicular — and that relief in the form of a proposed Gateway Rail Tunnel won’t arrive until 2025. If it arrives.
Which raised the question: 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.
The practice is called “through-running.” It happens already when NJ Transit trains carry football fans on game day from New Haven, Connecticut, through Penn Station to Secaucus, where passengers transfer to a shuttle that takes them to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
Lhota says more trains crossing borders would make for a truly regional and efficient system. But first the railroads must cooperate. "Right now, we're as Balkanized as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “We need to find a way to coordinate that."
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said running the football train is complicated but shows that cooperation is possible. “Doing just this experiment required agreements among four railroads to coordinate schedules, crews, track, ticketing, revenue and some minor hardware issues,” he said. “So expanding it to full-fledged through-running will take much more.”
Lisberg said the four railroads are conducting a $1.5 million study to look at improving Penn Station’s capacity. “The study is trying to quantify the benefits and the costs of through-running,” he said. One of those costs would be overcoming the railroads’ disparate technologies: Amtrak, Metro-North and NJ Transit use overhead catenary power, while Long Island Rail Road is powered by a third rail.
In an email, Lisberg further weighted the costs and benefits of through-putting. He said a big advantage would be that trains wouldn’t have to stop and turn around in Penn Station, “or use precious tunnel slots to move empty trains into storage yards.”
And he said the existing tracks and platforms under the station “could be reorganized into simple eastbound and westbound tracks and platforms, regardless of which railroad uses them.” Then he added a caveat: “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.”
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. If it gets built.