Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tunnel Key to New Jersey Rail Expansion

When it opened its great Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan nearly a century ago, the Pennsylvania Railroad continued to send most of its New Jersey commuter traffic to a satellite facility on the Jersey City waterfront where passengers transferred to ferryboats or the Hudson & Manhattan (now PATH) tube trains.

As its intercity passenger traffic waned over time, the Pennsy shifted its commuter trains to Pennsylvania Station. When the last trains departed from the Exchange Place terminal in the early 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that Pennsylvania Station would be more than adequate to handle the traffic. In fact, the Pennsy's managers decided to tear it down and replace it will a cramped facility underneath a new Madison Square Garden.

They did not envision a future with:
  • a revitalized Northeast Corridor with conventional and premium, high-speed trains.
  • connections to bring trains off the former Lackawanna and New York Central mainlines into Penn Station.
  • a transfer station in Seacaucus where passengers off former Erie routes could catch trains to Penn Station.
In short, a Penn Station with maxed out capacity.

That's the problem confronting New Jersey Transit, the government agency that inherited the state's commuter rail lines, including the former Pennsylvania, Lackawanna and Erie trains, in 1983. The two tunnels under the Hudson River and associated infrastructure "can no longer accommodate the expansion in passenger rail services associated with continued growth and development in the region."

Much of New Jersey's population works in New York or is employed with companies tied to New York's economy, such as the back offices of financial services firms. Thus, mobility between the Garden State and Manhattan Island is vital to the state's economic future. With the three highway crossings at peak capacity, as well, the state needs a new entry to Manhattan, and rail is the most efficient option.

That is the rationale behind Access to the Region's Core, a mega-project with an estimated $8.7 billion price tag. It consists of two new tunnels under the Hudson, connecting trackwork and a new station to the north of Penn Station. Among the benefits it would provide are:
  • Doubling of capacity for the trans-Hudson commuter rail system.
  • One-seat rides from areas now requiring a change of trains.
  • A new station to relieve overcrowded and inadequate facilities at Penn Station.
  • Reduced overcrowding and delays due to lack of track capacity in the station.
  • A network that could keep up with population growth west of the Hudson and job growth in Manhattan.
The plan calls for two new tracks running alongside the Northeast Corridor from the Frank Lautenberg Transfer Station in Seacaucus to new a tunnel alignment under the Palisades and Hudson River leading to a new six-track station on two levels, which would be built under W. 34th Street. A loop track would enable trains off NJ Transit's Mainline, Bergen County line and Pascack Valley line, which serve New York's Orange and Rockland Counties as well as northern New Jersey, to reach the new line and continue into Manhattan.

NJ already has dual-power locomotives that can run on diesel fuel or draw electricity from overhead catenary on order. This will obviate the need to extend electrification.

The project's final environmental impact statement is complete and $5.7 million in financing has been lined up from the state and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Now the project's managers are looking to the Obama Administration to come up with the remaining $3 billion as part of an economic stimulus package.

According to NJ Transit Executive Director Richard Sarles, Access to the Region's Core is the linchpin in future expansion of the state's rail system. He told the Trenton Times recently:
"The building of the tunnel will make it possible to build proposed new rail line extensions to Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex Counties, as well as a western extension that could connect Scranton, Pa., to New York."
Down the road, it could make it feasible to restore service to West Trenton via Bound Brook and Hopewell.

Penn Station and its connecting tunnels have served New York and its suburbs well for nearly a century, but new facilities are needed to support the region's continued economic development. Both NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, with its East Side Access project to build a tunnel and new station adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, are stepping up to the plate. For commuters there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

3 comments:

  1. Yes, this is true, but NJ Transit needs to realize the needs of commuters going someplace OTHER THAN New York City. For example, if one looks at South Jersey they will find an underused mass transit system that picks one up and drops one off miles from their final destination and initial origin. Granted South Jersey is sparcely populated and spread out, but that could still be remedied if NJ Transit were to use their common sense and add extensive rail lines in South Jersey, an area where towns were first built around rail lines. This would help to slow sprawl and encourage a lifestyle based on mass transit. What they need to avoid is using bus routes. As a resident of South Jersey, I can attest to the fact that riding a bus other than a school bus or a bus chartered for the casinos or some other destination is unheard of. If NJ Transit were to put some effort into Southern New Jersey (as well as North Western and inner-city transit), they could create the greatest mass transit system in the United States.

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  2. PATCO wants to develop new service in South Jersey, initially to Woodbury and Glassboro, but eventually to Millville. Here is a link to the item we ran on that at few days ago: http://ridingmytrain.blogspot.com/2009/01/expand-along-rail-line-not-highways-nj.html

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  3. With the regularity of trains breaking down in the current tunnels and delays suffered by commuters, there is clearly a need to relieve the bottleneck into Penn station. Also, with the long planning times and known political wrangling, one would not want to do anything to slow down, or potentially stop the progress on the Access to the Region's Core tunnel project.

    However, when one stands back and takes a look at the bigger picture the following emerges:

    1 Penn Station is overcrowded
    2 The streets around Penn station cannot handle the pedestrian traffic
    3 Commuter passengers from New Jersey arriving at Penn station work in the Financial district, Midtown, or uptown. Only a percentage of passengers actually want to be in the vicinity of Penn station.
    4 New Jersey Transit focuses its rides to Penn station using the one-seat rides concept, but commuters have to change seats to use the subway, or cabs, to get to their destinations.
    5 There is currently a project underway to develop a second station under Grand Central. This will provide access from Queens.
    6 The 7 Line extension currently under construction will go from Grand Central and pass underneath the Port Authority.

    So:
    1 Why not build the new tunnels to go to Grand Central, and provide a stop at the Port Authority, using the 7 Line under construction?
    2 Provide downtown PATH access to Secaucus Junction.
    3 Turn Secaucus Junction into the main transportation hub in New Jersey from where commuters can choose which part of Manhattan (or Long Island) they want to go to.

    Benefits: This will:

    1 Provide a “Most Convenient Seat” rather than a “One Seat” ride that takes commuters more closely to their end destination.
    2 Reduce train and commuter congestion at Penn station
    3 Reduce pedestrian congestion around Penn station
    4 Provide high capacity alternatives for emergency situations

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