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Modernizing New York Commuter Rail: A Report by the Effective Transit Alliance—some notes by Steve Dunham, Dec. 2, 2023

Modernizing New York Commuter Rail, a report by the Effective Transit Alliance, states that the New York City region’s commuter rail needs to be modernized with “high all-day frequency,” “electrification, high platforms, and some junction reconstruction,” and “through-running.” The goals of the modernization: “higher capacity at rush hour,” “faster and more reliable trips at all times of day,” “enabling trips between neighborhoods and jobs on opposite sides of Manhattan,” “increasing frequency and reliability for the growing market of off-peak commutes,” and “supporting non-work trips.” (The report appears to be undated, but some of the sources cited are from 2023.)

“The current operating assumption of American commuter rail is that nearly all users are city center commuters, and all other trips are done by car,” according to the report. However, the sources cited for this assumption are from 1968 and 1978. While some commuter rail operations, such as Virginia Railway Express, offer almost exclusively rush-hour service Monday through Friday and are designed to cater to drivers, others, particularly those serving the New York City area—the subject of this report—do offer a lot of service outside peak weekday hours. “Commuters working in Manhattan are the largest group of users but not the only one,” emphasizes the report, as if only the Effective Transit Alliance is aware of this.

“Passengers ought to be able to use the trains without having to orient their entire lives around an unpredictable, infrequent schedule,” asserts the report, as if this exaggeration were typical of the situation facing commuter rail passengers in the New York City area. The report also asserts that “traditional American transit planning holds that the sole job of service frequency is to provide capacity”; no examples are given, but numerous counter-examples could be offered, such as New Jersey Transit’s half-hourly weekend service on the line between Trenton and New York, where frequency not only provides capacity but encourages ridership.

The report sets forth arbitrary frequency standards: “An urban station thus needs a train every five to 10 minutes all day in each direction, every day, at worst. An inner suburban station like Elizabeth, Lynbrook, Great Neck, or Mount Vernon West needs a train to come every 10–15 minutes all day. More suburban stations can afford lower frequencies, but they still need a train every 20 minutes at worst. Distant stations, located at least an hour away from Manhattan, could get away with a train every half hour. Hourly trains are only acceptable hours away from Manhattan, and less than hourly trains are not acceptable anywhere in the region.” However, mere distance from Manhattan does not accurately measure the transportation needs of suburban stations. Only a few existing commuter rail lines reach places “hours away from Manhattan”—Waterbury, New Haven, Poughkeepsie, Bay Head, Netcong, Port Jervis, and Montauk are examples—but each of these stations serves markets of varying population size and density; the frequency needed to provide good service to each is not a function only of distance from Manhattan. “Thus”—the fourth word in the quotation at the beginning of this paragraph, and the rationale for the frequency standards—refers to this preceding text: “The impact of frequency is especially high when the interval between trains approaches the in-vehicle trip time, and remains high even though commuter rail is scheduled and in principle passengers can adapt their schedule [“orient their entire lives”?] to that of the train.19 20 21 22 To that effect, the maximum wait at a station should be no more than half the expected trip time. This is an extension of the campaign led by Riders Alliance for Six-Minute Service23 calling for boosting midday and weekend frequency to this level.” (The Riders Alliance Six-Minute Service campaign advocates running subways and most buses—not commuter rail—every six minutes.) If “the maximum wait at a station should be no more than half the expected trip time,” then service every six minutes would apply to trips of up to 12 minutes. Urban commuter rail stations that need “a train every five to 10 minutes all day in each direction” would, under this standard, be the starting points for trips of 10 to 20 minutes.

The report rightly points out the diminished service that has resulted from the end of timed connections at Jamaica and notes the infrequent service at Lynbrook. A new Long Island Rail Road service pattern with cross-platform connections at Jamaica (which used to be standard) could improve frequency from many Long Island points to Grand Central, Penn Station, and Brooklyn.

The Effective Transit Alliance report states, “Fares must be mode-neutral: longer trips should cost more than short ones, but all trips within a zone must cost the same regardless of which mode of public transit is used and regardless of how many times the rider transfers.” This principle allows charging for distance traveled but not for type of service. Commuter rail trips on more comfortable trains designed for longer trips would have to be the same price as trips of the same distance on a subway or city bus. The report points out the fare penalty for transferring between commuter rail and local transit and the empty seats on reverse-peak commuter trains. While fare adjustments could reduce transfer penalties and fill empty seats on commuter trains, this does not logically mean that commuter trains must not have higher fares per mile than local transit; also, commuter trains do charge by distance, but the New York City subway has a flat fare no matter how far a passenger rides.

Another problem that would be created by frequent service to accommodate passengers within New York City is that the trains would have wasted capacity farther from the city, as the trains would have to be long enough to handle all the suburban passengers and the urban riders too. Another unaddressed quandary is high frequency of commuter trains on lines with grade crossings; trains every 5 or 10 minutes would create road congestion and possibly impede movement of emergency vehicles.

The Effective Transit Alliance report also states that all commuter rail stations should have high platforms and that all commuter trains in the New York region should be electric multiple units, with future equipment purchases leading to fleet uniformity across the Long Island Rail Road, Metro North, and New Jersey Transit. High platforms reduce dwell time at stations and accommodate the many passengers who find steps difficult or impossible to use; high platforms at all stations sounds like a reasonable goal. Electric multiple-unit trains have their advantages, but for the Effective Transit Alliance to decree what type of trains all the agencies should be buying from now on is an unsupported claim. With full electrification of the commuter rail network in the New York City region a distant dream, agencies’ purchase of dual-mode locomotives looks sensible and in fact could enable through running between some electrified and non-electrified lines if that were proven desirable.

The weakest part of the Effective Transit Alliance report is the insistence that the bulk of commuter trains in the New York City region should operate through Penn Station or Grand Central, beginning in suburbs on one side of the city and ending in suburbs on another side. The report claims that great operating efficiencies would result but provides no numbers comparing current operations from New Jersey through Penn Station to Sunnyside Yard versus operating through to branches of the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North or from Metro North or Long Island through Penn Station to West Side Yard versus operating through to points in New Jersey.

The Effective Transit Alliance report correctly states that Septa operations through the center of Philadelphia do not maximize the possible markets for cross-city service; the lines were originally paired to match frequency and passenger volume but not necessarily market pairs. Some lines had a J or U shape, offering little utility for travel between suburbs. Yet the report names the Long Island Rail Road Port Washington branch as “an attractive target for early through-running” because it parallels the crowded 7 subway line. But the Port Washington branch does not pass through Jamaica, thus offering little connection to the rest of the Long Island Rail Road except at Woodside. The Effective Transit Alliance report also does not explain how the Port Washington branch would more effectively alleviate crowding on the 7 subway line if trains on the Port Washington branch ran through to and from New Jersey. The report also asserts that running through trains between Stamford and New Brunswick would alleviate crowding on PATH but does not explain why or how (the through-running commuter trains would serve the same places as PATH only in midtown Manhattan and at Penn Station in Newark; PATH serves these destinations only via a transfer).

The report names many cross-regional pairs of origins and destinations that are not well served by current commuter rail service, but it gives no indication of the size of the markets or potential demand for direct service. One graphic gives 2019 cross-regional commute volumes, but it is so vague as to be useless, indicating 7,500 to 8,100 daily commutes between anywhere in New Jersey and anywhere in Connecticut, or 11,000 to 19,200 daily commutes between anywhere in Westchester County and anywhere in New Jersey. There is no indication of how many trips begin and end near commuter rail stations that would be connected by through running.

Another practice advocated in the report is clockface scheduling (that is, scheduling trains at certain times past the hour throughout the day). Actually, New Jersey Transit, Metro North, and the Long Island Rail Road already employ a good deal of clockface scheduling, but it is not always the most efficient choice, as it can require unnecessarily long layovers at suburban terminals simply to await the clockface departure time, and the trains operating into, out of, and through Penn Station have to accommodate Amtrak trains too.

On the whole, the Effective Transit Alliance report states too many unproven assumptions while demanding conformity with its ideals without quantifying the benefits that it says would follow.

Steve Dunham lives in Pennsylvania and has been a rail advocate for more than 45 years.