Nearly five years ago, then-MTA Executive Director and CEO Lee Sander celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the MTA by trumpeting the agency’s next four decades. He spoke as a visionary would, highlighting train routes the city needs to expand and compete over the next four years. Most optimistic — for New York — was his vision for a circumferential subway route through Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
Known as the Triboro RX route in planning circles, this train line would use preexisting rights-of-way to connect Outer Borough neighborhoods with radial subway lines, and if the city could enjoy it by 2048, we’d be golden. Or at least that’s what the New York City-centric thinking went. Most other cities have more ambitious plans than that, luckily for them. Let’s look across the pond at a recently completed orbital line.
This past weekend, London celebrated the completion of the London Overground orbital loop. Using preexisting rights of way, the new surface rail skirts the congested core of the city and connects key underground routes. As The Atlantic Cities site notes, it’s a part of London’s so-called “make do and mend” transit efforts. Feargus O’Sullivan has this report:
This new line will ease pressure elsewhere and allow travelers to circumnavigate the city without passing through its congested core. Colored rust on the city’s transit map, the new line looks like a huge clockwork orange, closely connecting neighborhoods that were once strangers to each other and further helping the ongoing march eastwards of London’s city center. It’s all part of an ongoing radical overhaul of London’s public transport system, the scale and ambition of which the city (or any western European capital, for that matter) hasn’t seen since at least the 1980s. And it’s all arrived so quietly.
It’s not surprising that this revolution has gone largely unnoticed internationally. When a sparkling new metro line is unveiled, transit geeks across the world drool, myself included. By contrast, London’s new links (part of a growing network under the umbrella name London Overground) have arrived through creating new, tunnelled connections that bolt together old, underexploited tracks, a sort of make-do-and-mend network. This doesn’t make it any less effective, and the Overground is already helping to redraw the London map and, as one of the UK’s most reliable railways, it’s making the city that bit more liveable…
This new network is already re-chanelling the flow of London transit. Nowadays, many London office jobs are in the redeveloped former docks in the East, while much of London’s nightlife has also moved to the area just north. The Overground makes getting to these areas while bypassing the historic center much easier. It’s also helping to create a new commuter drainage basin for Docklands jobs. South East London has pretty much the last pockets of affordable Victorian property in the city and they’re now within 30 minutes of financial centers like Canary Wharf. Now that Londoners are giving up on the city’s West as an exorbitant playpen for super-rich property speculators, the Overground’s improvements both reflect and facilitate the city’s shift in gravity eastwards.
For more background on the Overground, check out London Reconnections and, in particular, this 2011 post. The site has tirelessly chronicled London’s efforts to improve its transit network, and as New York builds the small Second Ave. Subway, London has constructed the Overground orbital with Crossrail set for a 2018 revenue service date. If only we could do the same in New York.
We could though, and it wouldn’t take much creativity. The Triboro RX line is New York’s answer to the London Overground. Similar to London’s new route (as one TFL planner noted), New York’s proposed circumferential route uses existing rights of way and existing tracks to build out a better transit connection. As the last part of the Overground required 1.3 kilometers of new rail, Triboro RX would require some construction and upgrades, but the path is there, waiting for rail service.
What London has that New York does not is leadership devoted to transit. We don’t need ambitious plans or money to dig out new tunnels. We have the plans, and we have the path. We just need politicians willing to commit as Boris Johnson has. For London, the Overground is just the beginning while for New York, Triboro RX remains a dream. As the self-proclaimed center of the universe, though, New York City can ill afford to fall behind its international competitors, but without real transit leadership, that’s exactly what’s happening.