Why Commuter Trains Aren't Getting Any Less Crowded

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Riders disembark from a Metro-North train.

Ridership on New York's three commuter rail lines exceeded or approached record levels last year. Those growing numbers cause crowding at rush hour, and beyond. But the railroads say stubborn physical and political constraints will probably prevent them from adding seats or service any time soon.

As the economy recovers and bridge and tunnel tolls keep rising, riders are flocking to transit. That's placing a strain on Long Island Railroad, Metro-North and New Jersey Transit, whose documents acknowledge that some train trips are all but guaranteed to have standees.

Veteran commuter Barry Wadler, who was in Penn Station recently awaiting a train to Merrick, described conditions on Long Island Railroad. "Any train going to Hicksville is crowded," he said. "Any train going out to Suffolk, Ronkonkoma is crowded. The Merrick trains on the South Shore, the Bablyon line is crowded."

Long Island Railroad's Hydra-Headed Challenge

Riders like Wadler wonder why the railroads don't simply add more trains. The answer is limited track space. Long Island Railroad has nine branches that converge on a three-track bottleneck beneath the East River that it shares with Amtrak trains. Railroad president Helena Williams says most of those trips end at Penn Station, where track space is at a premium. "We only have so many opportunities to put trains through our system and into Penn Station," she told WNYC during an interview at the MTA's Midtown headquarters.

Wadler's next suggestion is to make trains longer. But that raises the problem of the railroad's many short platforms. Emptying 12-car trains onto 8-car platforms requires passengers to move from car to car before exiting. That adds minutes at each stop and clogs the schedule, which means fewer trains.

And there's another difficulty. The morning rush runs more trains in a shorter span of time than the evening rush. To add more service in the morning, you have add more space to the rail yards for trains to turn around and line up one after the other, ready to go. Or as MTA board member Mitch Pally put it at a recent railroad committee meeting: "The more yards you have, the more trains you can run."

But LIRR president Helena Williams said not only are the trains overcrowded, the rail yards are, too. "It's the storage issue. If we want to increase service, for example, from Huntington [traveling] west, we need storage for electric cars," she said.

The railroad has tried to buy land for rail yards near Huntington and in Suffolk County. But local homeowners and elected officials have stopped them—just as they stopped an effort to add a third track to the railroad's main line, which would've increased service and lessened the number of standees.

Metro-North's Quasimodo Problem

Metro-North has six fewer branch lines and more rail yard space than Long Island Railroad. But it, too, has short platforms and is bursting with passengers, especially on the New Haven Line. Metro-North would like to add double-decker trains, which carry more people and are used by commuter lines around the country, including the LIRR and New Jersey Transit. But spokesman Aaron Donovan says the issue is not enough headroom—for the trains.

"Grand Central Terminal is served by four tracks that lead in from the north on a four-track tunnel," he said, referring to the Park Avenue Tunnel, which runs from 97th Street to 42nd Street and was built in the 1870s. The tunnel's low ceiling means Metro-North trains serving Grand Central can't be taller than 14 feet, 11 inches tall.

"It causes us a capacity constraint because we are not able to run the tall double-decker coaches," Donovan said, adding that Metro-North has looked into designing custom double-deckers with steeply sloped roofs and other modifications. But that's years away, at best. The railroad's next generation of train cars are designed to be single-level. And it's probably impossible to turn New Haven line cars, with their rooftop electrical systems, into double-deckers.

NJ Transit: Tunnel Poor

New Jersey Transit has dozens of double-decker trains that fit through tunnels under the Hudson River. The problem is the number of tunnels: two. Spokeswoman Nancy Snyder says those two tunnels carry all of the Amtrak and commuter train traffic between Manhattan and points west.

"Peak period track slots into and out of New York City are all filled," she said. "No additional trains can be added into the city during peak hours. If something goes wrong then trains become quickly backed up."

The obvious solution is to double capacity by building another tunnel. That's what the ARC tunnel was designed to do before New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed it in 2010. Amtrak is working on a substitute called the Gateway Tunnel, but that's a decade or more away.

That leaves commuter rail riders to pack into trains not designed for standees, the way subway cars are. And while most subway rides last 15 to 25 minutes, commuter train rides can be more than two hours one way. Snyder says NJ Transit is trying to alleviate crowding by buying more double-decker trains and beefing up the light rail system that siphons off riders to the PATH train. "It reinforces and supports our effort to spread the ridership on different modes," she said.

And that would seem to be the message, for now, from the railroads to their combined annual ridership of 245 million: If you don't like standing on a jammed commuter train, try other ways of getting to work while we figure out how to add capacity.

Take a ferry, maybe?

Several WNYC listeners raised good questions about crowded commuter trains and what might be done about them. Reporter Jim O’Grady responds to a few of the issues raised in a discussion with host Soterios Johnson.