Home LIRR The commuter rail crowd conundrum

The commuter rail crowd conundrum

by Benjamin Kabak

As a new year dawns, it’s become an annual tradition these days for commuter rail lines in New York City to announce record ridership numbers and continuing growth. Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit have seen numbers not matched since the age of the automobile dawned, and with congestion in the region worsening and gas prices rising, this is a trend with upward growth that shows no signs of slacking off.

Along with higher ridership comes more crowded trains. We’ve seen this in the subways, and commuter rail passengers who are on packed trains every day live through it as well. It is starting to become a problem and one, at that, with no easy solution. Jim O’Grady at WNYC has the story, railroad by railroad:

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 freight and 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…

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…

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.

O’Grady’s piece drills down on each railroad’s challenges, and we know that New York City is constrained in that Manhattan is an island. But while the situation is dire, there is some faint glimmer of hope for certain commuters. First, East Side Access may eventually open, bringing more riders on the LIRR and better distributing them throughout the city. The Penn Station Access plan could follow which would help Metro-North. New Jersey Transit, though, in the ARC-less present, is relying on Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel to remove some trains from the Hudson River bottleneck, and it’s not clear when, if ever, that tunnel will become a reality.

We can wring our hands over ARC and the missed opportunities, and we should be worried that few in Albany and Trenton are actively seeking a solution to this capacity problem. We should discuss through-running at Penn Station to bolster capacity as well. But because of geography, politics and economics, these capacity concerns represent a problem that won’t soon disappear.

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anon_coward February 25, 2014 - 2:10 pm

why can’t LIRR trains that run on the local track make all stops from jamaica to penn? at least westward. it would result in less people per train and maybe take some load off the E/F lines

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:35 pm

You could have every train stop at Woodside, Forest Hills, and Kew Gardens and there would be very few people willing to switch to paying the LIRR’s peak fares of $8/$9.50 over the subway’s $2.50.

anon_coward February 25, 2014 - 3:40 pm

the 8:12 and 8:25 trains you have around a hundred people for each one. maybe a little less. you might even get some more people from long island to take the train instead of drive.

a lot of times there is no more room left on these two trains and if they had more than more people might ride. there are lots of people for the 8:49 and 9:15 as well

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:44 pm

A lot goes into deciding which trains make the local mainline stops. The stops often have to get pushed off on the smaller branch trains (i.e. Hempstead, Far Rockaway, Long Beach, etc.) as the trains that come from the busier branches are far too busy to take on extra passengers.

I get what you are saying, have every train stop to spread the load out (it is something NJT did when they opened Secaucus), but it doesn’t work to well in this situation.

anon_coward February 25, 2014 - 4:33 pm

not saying run all the trains on the local track, but between the ones that stop at forest hills there are a few that pass by on the local track. why can’t they stop?

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 4:36 pm

Keeping trains flowing, even on the local track, allows for more capacity and througput down the line. If more trains would stop, they would get in the way of the trains that don’t. As a result, they would become delayed or have to be put someplace else, where there isn’t room.

johndmuller February 25, 2014 - 7:55 pm

You might get more speed out of some of the trains if they didn’t all stop, but that would mean that you weren’t getting max capacity out of the line.

If train A is going to make some intermediate stops, then train B following might as well make them too, as it will be bumping up against train A anyway. If there is enough slack in the schedule for train B to have started out well behind train A and just catch up with it at the end of the run, then you essentially have Metro North’s express scheme (Perhaps LIRR uses this approach too, I haven’t analyzed their schedules).

One could do without the express and squeeze another local in between in order to raise capacity. Your express riders would notice the difference and you might run into congestion at the terminals and/or have insufficient counter-flow slots.

Thus there is a possible trade-off between max capacity and giving some riders a faster trip.

To have your cake and eat it too, cut out the local stop(s) all together and run everything express and put in those extra trains. That’s how the stations in the Bronx and Queens get eliminated.

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 8:12 pm

There is a balance that the LIRR will ultimately have to find. It seems like they’re close enough at this time now. You can’t have every single train stop there, since that would provide far too much capacity than is actually needed (you can have headways that rival the E/F, but if you’re charging $8-$9.50, you’re not going to see anywhere close to the loads you would see on the subway.

Ryan February 26, 2014 - 12:36 pm

So… don’t charge $8-$9.50?

Charge $4-$5 instead. It’s a premium service and should be priced accordingly, so having the fares be double or a little under double those of the subway (plus, if you’re feeling feisty, a $1 peak surcharge) is appropriate and makes sense.

Having the fares be more than triple those of the subway is not. Having the fares be exactly equal to those of the subway also makes no sense.

anon_coward February 26, 2014 - 12:40 pm

the $8 is for single ride tickets
its $177 monthly which comes out to a little more than $4 for 40 trips a month. less if you use it to go into manhattan on weekends

Ryan February 26, 2014 - 1:30 pm

Well, actually, it’s really $289 (as of today, anyway) monthly because you have to buy your unlimited ride MetroCard separately, forgo bus and subway access entirely (bad), or only pay for bus and subway as you need it (which, at $2.50 a ride and ignoring the 5% bonus, gives you 44 rides exactly. Starting on your 45th ride, you’ve lost money by failing to buy an unlimited ride MetroCard).

40 LIRR trips on a Zone 1 monthly pass plus 40 subway trips equals $177 + $100 = $277, which averages out to exactly $6.925 per trip.

For the Zone 1-3 monthly pass, that inflates to $310, which averages out to exactly $7.75 per trip assuming the same 40 trips taken.

al February 26, 2014 - 1:16 pm

If the LIRR could chose a railcar design that allow better passenger movement inside the train, short platform stations like Forest Hills would be less of a problem. Currently, you can’t move beyond the the married pair on M3/M7 without exiting the train. The bilevels are a bit better, as you can enter at one end of the train and move down the train, but it requires a mini StairMaster session.

Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 4:18 pm

You can walk the entire length of the train on the MU’s, just like the bi-levels. The married pairs have doors at the ends that allow you to pass between pairs and there is nothing prohibiting you from walking from the first car to the last.

However, you have to keep in mind that you still have to seat large amounts of people in these trains. While turning the M11 into something that resembles a subway car would do wonders for moveability and loading on short-haul trips like Forest Hills to New York, removing seats will force people to stand, and when there are people who commute on the LIRR for upwards of 3 hours a day (myself included) seats are a precious commodity and getting rid of them to widen doorways, aisles, etc., might increase capacity, but it drives down comfort.

anon_coward February 26, 2014 - 4:25 pm

this and if they took seats away it would probably be harder to walk the train. as it is now a lot of people at FH get on the 4th car and walk back through the aisle

al February 26, 2014 - 7:53 pm

I wasn’t aware the cab ends were normally unlocked. The one time I rode the Port Washington Line, the cab ends were locked (Flushing G.O.).

One way to resolve the doors vs seats issue to reduce dwell time at NY Penn might be to have mid car doors that only open at NY Penn. The seats that face each other at mid-car could flip up. Those who sit there would get up at NY Penn, and have the doors open to their right or left for quick exit. It would also make those seats prized on morning runs into Manhattan.

afk February 26, 2014 - 8:06 pm

West Hempstead, Hempstead, Far Rockaway, and Long Beach each have scheduled runs of less than 60 minutes to Penn station, so it isn’t as important to maximize seating there as on a run to Montauk. If you remove some seating on the trains on those lines – start with getting rid of the middle seat to widen the aisles, you could increase capacity somewhat without inconveniencing riders intolerably. The people stuck standing will presumably have gotten on at a later stop, and wouldn’t have to stand for a full hour anyway.

By the way, the east river tunnels give two tracks into Penn, and ESA offers 1 more westbound track under the east river yes? Will those three tracks match the capacity on the mainline between Jamaica and Sunnyside during peak, as in, is there room to run trains to Hunterspoint/LIC still? Assuming the MTA was interested in something not Manhattan of course.

Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 8:34 pm

While removing seats on trains that serve the smaller branches (Far Rockaway, Long Beach, Hempstead, West Hempstead, etc.) might sound like a good idea, the LIRR has to have some sort of consistency across their fleet. With today’s schedules, a set of equipment that starts its day in West Hempstead might end its day in Ronkonkoma. All of the equipment rotations are tremendously complex since there are so many branches and so many terminals. It would be nearly impossible to keep the same set of equipment on only one branch. Heck, for a while there used to be a Speonk train that operated to Penn Station, turned around, went back to Freeport and made up another westbound move from there.

Currently, the LIRR does have suitable breathing room on the Mainline. They “throat,” or use a third track in the peak direction to allow for an increase in capacity. The way HAROLD interlocking is set up, LIRR trains that are going to Penn Station in the morning must be on 1 track or 3 track on the Mainline in order to reach the East River Tunnels. Currently 2 track mainly carries the trains to Hunterspoint Avenue/LIC, but there is still plenty of room on 2 track for hte ESA trains. In the evening there is still some room, but not as much since eastbound trains can use 1 track in addition to 2 and 4 tracks.

Rob February 25, 2014 - 2:13 pm

three-track bottleneck beneath the East River that it shares with freight …trains. – fine wnyc journalism [not].

Ckrueger99 February 25, 2014 - 2:28 pm

People are freight, kinda.

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:45 pm

If they share the tunnels with freight, why do all of our freight trains have to go up and over the Skelkirk Hurdle!?

LLQBTT February 26, 2014 - 9:04 am

C’mon, freight trains barrel through Penn morning, noon and night! No wonder they can’t add more trains!

al February 26, 2014 - 1:03 pm

There are 4 East River Tunnels.

lawhawk February 25, 2014 - 2:14 pm

Ben, if the MTA can’t even begin to unravel the bottleneck between LIRR and MNR, which are both MTA entities, what does it say about through running with NJ Transit….

Still, we’ve got proof that interoperation agreements are possible, it’s how the MNR has west of Hudson operations. Through-running trains would ease some of the transit burden and actually optimize the flow of trains in and out of Penn, because you wouldn’t need as many counter movements that aren’t revenue service.

It would be cheaper to enact through-tracking than the other infrastructure changes, and it would come sooner than the big ticket projects as well.

What it would require:
1) potential union deals/negotiation due to different rules between LIRR, NJT, and MNR;
2) equipment that can work on different modes – overhead lines for NJT and MNR, and 3d rail for LIRR; and
3) equipment that can handle the different dimensions for track geometry, platforms, etc.

A first step should be to enhance MNR/NJT service interoperability. The groundwork is already there. What’s lacking is the political will to make it happen. Because expanded service isn’t nearly as sexy as a ribbon cutting on a shiny new piece of infrastructure.

Nathanael March 4, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Metro-North is happy to interoperate with NJT. NJT and Amtrak interoperate, Metro-North and Amtrak interoperate, Metro-North manages to handle negotiations between New York and Connecticut.

The odd one out here is LIRR, which is so uncooperative that Amtrak is building a flyover just to segregate its operations, and Metro-North is consigning them to the subbasement of Grand Central.

Michael February 25, 2014 - 2:15 pm

Quoted Text:

“Long Island Railroad has nine branches that converge on a three-track bottleneck beneath the East River that it shares with freight and Amtrak trains.”

Maybe I am getting confused. In the Penn Station history program recently shown on PBS, and my own understanding, I thought that there were 4 tracks/tunnels between Manhattan and Queens direct in/out of Penn Station.

So does the above statement mean 3 tracks are used for the in-bound traffic, with the single remaining track used for all out-bound service to Queens in, say in the AM rush hours.

Or does the statement mean that 3 tracks are used FOR ALL TRAFFIC both in-bound and out-bound, and that the 4th track/tunnel is out of service?

Just clarification needed.

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:38 pm

There are four East River Tunnels that link Long Island and Manhattan. Two are used for each direction. Keep in mind that these tunnels also carry Amtrak and NJTransit trains to/from Sunnyside Yard, which is located in Queens.

anon_coward February 25, 2014 - 3:42 pm

yes, for rush hour they use 3 tracks for the rush direction

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:48 pm

The LIRR uses three tracks on its Mainline between Jamaica and HAROLD Interlocking, but the four East River Tunnels retain their direction of flow throughout the rush hour. The way the tracks and tunnels are setup in Penn Station, it makes it difficult to use three tunnels in one direction and only one in the other.

Michael February 26, 2014 - 12:42 pm

Thank you very much for suggesting those two very helpful websites, for learning more about the track and tunnel issues present at Penn Station and LIRR. Those websites are most informative.


SC February 25, 2014 - 2:24 pm

Long Island City and Hunters Point have easy access to the east side of Manhattan and currently only have 3 trains running per day… couldn’t a few more trains, along with an educational marketing campaign about how easy it is to get to midtown and the east side from there (or even wall street via ferry) help differ a few trains coming in and out?

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:40 pm

Ever since the Ronkonkoma Branch was electrified and the LIRR got on this crazy Manhattan-or-bust style of running trains, Long Island City and HPA have suffered. I agree with what you are saying in that those stations could serve as western terminals to add to the capacity, but the LIRR doesn’t seem to agree.

pkyc0 February 25, 2014 - 8:23 pm

Wouldn’t taking the train to LIC, then hopping on the ferry be faster for people working in the medical cluster and wall street?

Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 12:30 am

The LIRR does a crummy job of lining up the train and ferry times at LIC, so unless you get very lucky, the ferry doesn’t save you much time. You can take the 7 into Manhattan and get there pretty quickly, however.

al February 26, 2014 - 1:09 pm

There is capacity limitations with the Flushing Line. Adding a few more 1000 passenger LIRR trains would result in crush capacity on the 7 between Hunter’s Pt and GCT. You’ll also need larger or more ferries.

tacony February 25, 2014 - 2:35 pm

But aren’t these excuses only valid for a couple hours each weekday in the peak directions? I was on a dangerously standing room-only NJTransit train on a Saturday last summer. It was a zoo with airport-bound tourists blocking the crowded aisles with luggage. Conductors and passengers couldn’t get to doors in a timely manner.

You can’t tell me that they were only running a train per hour on the Northeast Corridor Line because there aren’t enough tunnels or track space at Penn. Do they publish load guidelines? Do they stick to them? Metro-North increased some of its off-peak service last year. I think there are now basically more than 2 trains per hour everywhere below White Plains all day. If more service is provided outside of peak rush hours, more people will travel then. That’s how you grow ridership despite physical constraints.

Tower18 February 25, 2014 - 3:22 pm

The weekend situation at EWR is a joke. NJC at :07, NEC at :14, and then nothing at all for 53 minutes. Why did they do it this way? What harm would it be to space it out so at least riders between Penn and Rahway have better service?

Joseph Steindam February 25, 2014 - 7:05 pm

NJ Transit might not have a say in the matter, since Amtrak controls the prioritization for service on the NEC in NJ, and gets to allocate the slots to NJ Transit, which can then plan service. The bigger issue with weekend NEC service is that typically one of the North River tunnels is shuttered to do maintenance work, greatly limited capacity on the entire corridor.

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 3:41 pm

There are two North River Tunnels under the Hudson River and for the last couple years, and for the foreseeable future, weekend schedules on NJT and Amtrak have to be able to single-track either tunnel at any point. This limits the capacity on weekends and causes the bunching that Tower18 talked about.

Joseph Steindam February 25, 2014 - 7:07 pm

Sorry for repeating basically what you said, I didn’t see it until after I had posted.

Jerrold February 25, 2014 - 4:02 pm


Could you please explain what you mean when you advocate “through-running at Penn Station”? I mean, Amtrak trains already use Penn as a stop, not necessarily as a terminal. I’m not clear on who else could run through it instead of it being their terminal.

Bgriff February 25, 2014 - 5:01 pm

Idea is that if NJT and LIRR were one railroad, trains would use Penn Station as a subway stop on their way through from either side. Means that right now, whereas an arriving NJT train and a departing LIRR train each require a separate platform space, here they would require only one, which increases the overall capacity of Penn without any new infrastructure. It would require a level of cooperation and competence far beyond current practice though, not to mention inter-state negotiations, labor deals, etc.

johndmuller February 25, 2014 - 8:23 pm

You might save on Trains, but I don’t think you would save on Platforms. The same number of Trips would be made by commuters at the same times, but some of the trains they came in on could continue on to the other RR’s tracks instead of turning around or spending the day in the yards.

It would be more efficient and might save on manpower if the personnel were allowed to operate on each others tracks or each others equipment. Those issues, plus the equipment (un)interoperability issue are the sticking points.

Metro North might have a better chance of doing this without labor, jurisdictional and equipment problems if they were to run through from the Hudson line down the Empire connection, then out via the Hell Gate line and on to the New Haven (and vice versa). In this case, the catch is that those runs would represent new slots (and a new player also) in Penn Station.

Eric February 26, 2014 - 9:17 am

No, you’d also save immensely on platforms, because trains could immediately depart the station instead of sitting around until their next scheduled departure.

Compare Paris’ Chatelet-Les Halles station to NY Penn Station. The former receives more traffic (493000/day for RER commuter rail, vs. 430000/day for all traffic including Amtrak). It handles all this traffic on 4 platforms. Penn Station handles less traffic on 11 platforms!


Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 4:20 pm

Few trains physically turn in the station during rush hours today. All but a handful of LIRR trains originate in West Side Yard and most of NJTransit’s and all of Amtrak’s come into the station from Sunnyside Yard.

Nathanael March 4, 2014 - 1:42 pm

If the trains ran through from LIRR to NJT, you’d have *half as many movements through the tunnels*, both under the East River and under the Hudson River. Think about it.

JJJJJ February 26, 2014 - 8:50 pm

When you turn a train, 100% of people have to get off, the platform has to be 100% cleared, and then 100% of people have to get on, by coming from the upper level.

If it runs to another stop, maybe 95% get off….and then it moves away, clearing the platform for the next train to let people off. Constant flow out.

When it returns, people can start entering the platform as the train is arriving. Constant flow in.

Patrick O'Hara February 27, 2014 - 1:52 am

The trouble with that arises when you try to load a train while still unloading one. A train cannot arrive in NYP with passengers while there are people on the platform ready to board. Because us New Yorkers, and New Jerseyans, act so civilized, if you try to unload a train at the same time people are trying to board, you would have tons of issues. Boarding passengers will be climbing and clawing their way over alighting passengers just so they can get inside and get a seat. Passengers trying to alight would have to fight their way out. It would be pandemonium.

fpp February 27, 2014 - 3:26 am

Could they have a standard dwell time at Penn of 3 or 4 minutes or something so people don’t feel they need to rush as badly ? Or are the platforms just not wide enough for that to work.

Patrick O'Hara February 27, 2014 - 10:40 am

The platforms are not all that wide, and people are in a hurry. There are times when crowding conditions in the concourse have required them to post a track number too early and it’s been a disaster each time.

Nathanael March 4, 2014 - 1:43 pm

Spanish solution — loading platform on one side, unloading platform on the other side.

Michael K February 25, 2014 - 5:04 pm

Merging the lines of the different systems – so a Babylon train could continue to Trenton for example.

Michael K February 25, 2014 - 6:24 pm

All future rolling stock would need to be modeled after the M8’s (with a movable third rail shoe) in order to accommodate future through running.

Patrick O'Hara February 25, 2014 - 8:10 pm

The third rail shoe on the M8’s aren’t movable, they stay in one position and either ride on top of the PRR-style third rail (that the LIRR uses) or on the bottom of the NYC-style third rail (that MNCR uses).

Also, the M8’s can’t work on the 25 Hz overhead wire (which is used south of the phase gap at GATE interlocking), so they won’t be able to go into Penn Station or out into New Jersey on the overhead wire. The 25 Hz Equipment was left out of the M8’s during the design process because it would have made the cars too heavy. Plus, the M8’s with their roof humps don’t meet the LIRR’s clearance profiles, so they would be restricted on operating through certain LIRR territory.

BenW February 26, 2014 - 12:19 am

Isn’t that “certain territory” mainly ESA? Or are there other tunnels and/or horrifically low overpasses in LIRR territory?

Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 12:33 am

They won’t make clearances in ESA, but they will also not be able to fit in the Atlantic Avenue Tunnels and certain places around Jamaica. An M8 has never actually tested here so we don’t exactly know where it will fit and where it won’t. They should be able to fit in most places, but the fact that they are restricted from some makes them undesirable since you can’t send any train to any location (it reduces operating flexibility).

al February 26, 2014 - 1:18 pm

How tall are the M8?

Michael K February 26, 2014 - 8:33 pm


They would need to be similar to the M8’s, just with a moveable shoe. I am also assuming for now that the Atlantic Ave branch will be turned over to the Airtrain or the subway once ESA is finished.

Patrick O'Hara February 26, 2014 - 8:36 pm

The M8’s don’t have, nor do they need a moveable shoe. The current shoe that the last two-third of the M8 fleet have is fine enough to work on the third rail. This newly developed shoe is also going to be used on the new M9 railcars that Kawasaki will build, so a LIRR train could go over to Metro-North and run on the ex-NYC third rail there without having any issues. All future equipment will presumably be made with the double sided shoe to allow for increased interoperability.

With that being said, there is currently no way a MNCR or LIRR MU can go from one railroad to another on their own power.

Nathanael March 4, 2014 - 1:45 pm

The 25Hz overhead is obsolete anyway and should be replaced with 60 Hz, as per long-term plans which have been around since before the Boston-Providence electrification in 1999.

Nathanael March 4, 2014 - 1:46 pm

…most of the NJT branch lines are 60 Hz. Move the 25 Hz / 60 Hz switchover point to west of Newark Penn Station, for starters.

LLQBTT February 26, 2014 - 9:09 am

It seems that if we are so proud of our transit oriented, environmentally correct ways, then transit planning and development must occur more rapidly and more cohesively, particularly from a regional perspective. However, since the MTA, not my first choice to lead a truly regional transit agency, is NYS’ whipping boy, same a s NJT for “stop regional commerce by shutting down the GWB” Christie, that leaves Malloy in CT. At least from afar, he seems genuinely interested in making transit improvements for his constituents.

Jim O'Grady February 26, 2014 - 3:50 pm

Hey all. My bad for saying freight trains use the East River tubes. I stand corrected — by you, many of whom know more than me about all-things-train. If you think there’s other important things I should know about transit in and around NYC, drop me a line: jogrady@wnyc.org. Thanks!


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