NYTIP – enhancing the nyc subway, part 3: broadway and queens boulevard

UPDATE (10.28.2020): Post updated with modified recommendations for the Queens Boulevard de-interlining.

In my last post, I discussed the South Brooklyn de-interlining. So far, the de-interlining plans contemplated by NYTIP involve simple swaps. In this part, we’ll explore the Broadway (N, Q, R, and W) and Queens Boulevard (E, F, M, and R) lines; while de-interlining the former is trivial, the latter is much more challenging.

Note: Click any image to enlarge.

I. Broadway

The Broadway trunk line runs from 57th Street and 7th Avenue to Canal Street in Manhattan. The N and Q make express stops and cross the Manhattan Bridge, while the R and W make local stops and run via Lower Manhattan. Conflicts occur north of 34th Street – Herald Square station when the N joins the R and W on the local tracks; the three services run together until reaching Queens, where the N and W serve Astoria and the R serves Queens Boulevard. Meanwhile, the Q serves the Second Avenue Subway (SAS) via 63rd Street.

[Fig. 1] Snippet of vanshnookenraggen’s track map showing Broadway line conflicts.

This pattern causes delays and restricts N, R, and W service since they share tracks from the 60th Street tunnel to Times Square. To address these issues and improve service on Broadway under NYTIP:

Reroute N trains via the Second Avenue Subway (SAS).

[Fig. 2] Overview of the N reroute, via Brand New Subway.

Under this reroute, the N no longer switches to the local tracks north of 34th Street; instead, it runs with the Q to 96th Street and 2nd Avenue. With only the R and W on 60th Street, there is now room to increase service on both lines to make up for the loss of the N.

A service increase on the W alone, however, is not enough to make up for the loss of the N on Astoria during off-peak hours. As such, in parallel with the N reroute, NYTIP prescribes changes to the Queens Boulevard service that will not only enhance service to Astoria, but also improve service on Queens Boulevard.

II. Queens Boulevard

[Fig. 3] Snippet of the NYC Subway map showing the Queens Boulevardtrunk (E, F, M, and R lines) and branches.

The Queens Boulevard (QB) trunk serves three different Manhattan trunk lines and connects to several other lines, making it one of the busiest trunk lines outside of Manhattan. It serves 8th Avenue (E train), 6th Avenue (F and M trains), and Broadway (R train). The E and F run express in Queens, with E trains entering Manhattan via 53rd Street and F trains entering Manhattan via 63rd Street. The M and R run local, with M trains entering Manhattan via 53rd Street and R trains entering Manhattan via 60th Street. The current pattern poses several conflicts:

  • The E express and M local merge near Queens Plaza.
  • The F express splits from the E west of 36th Street station to serve the 63rd Street line; this switch induces delays on the QB express.
  • Forest Hills – 71st Avenue, due to its nature as a relay terminal for the M and R trains, induces delays on the QB local.

[Fig. 4] Illustration of existing conflicts on the QB and Astoria lines.

Unfortunately, addressing these conflicts is not trivial. vanshnookenraggen explored some of these difficulties at length; he proposed sending the R to Astoria and sending the N via 63rd Street to Forest Hills to replace the R. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a bad plan. However, sending both the N and the Q via SAS allows for building both the Cross-Harlem and Bronx extensions of SAS Phase 2 (future post).

The first step in addressing the QB problem is resolving the Astoria problem. To do that:

Reroute R trains via Astoria to Ditmars Blvd.

Rerouting the R addresses the loss of the N beyond the rush hour. With the R and W now fully contiguous under NYTIP, all W trains can run as R trains. Taken together with the South Brooklyn de-interlining previously discussed, the R will no longer conflict with any other lines, allowing for significant service increases. If necessary, select R trains can terminate at City Hall or Whitehall Street to preserve regularity. (Turning R trains at City Hall requires rehabilitating the partially-furnished lower level – an optional investment under NYTIP.)

One of the main obstacles to running the R to Astoria is the lack of storage space for the R line’s subway cars. The current R serves the QB line for easy access to Jamaica Yard. One way to address this is as follows:

Potential capital investment: construct a new yard within the Con Edison property north of Ditmars Blvd.

[Fig. 5] Potential yard location within the Con Edison property with a provision for a future LaGuardia Airport extension.

Building this yard solves the storage space issue, and building it inside the Con Edison property mitigates residential impacts. It also increases the Astoria line’s capacity since the current terminal is a stub with no tail tracks. Importantly, this investment also serves as an anchor for the oft-discussed Astoria line extension to LaGuardia Airport. Although Governor Cuomo’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain keeps chugging along, it does not obviate the need for the Astoria extension. I’ll discuss this further in a future post.

Now, what if this yard isn’t built? Can we still de-interline Astoria and South Brooklyn in a way that gives the R direct yard access? Find out by reading this blog post!

Before I get into QB de-interlining options, allow me to discuss an investment that could enhance service under all options:

Potential capital investment: construct an in-system transfer connecting the Queens Plaza and Queensboro Plaza stations.

This transfer will give Queens riders some flexibility; however, it is not trivial – Queens Plaza is underground, while Queensboro Plaza is above ground. Nevertheless, NYTIP recommends this investment since it preserves access to Broadway from the QB line and serves as a key transfer point for eventual access to LaGuardia Airport.

Now, let’s explore the possible de-interlining options for the QB line, and the underlying challenges in each.

Option 1: Partial de-interlining with G extension

[Fig. 6] QB partial de-interlining option.

[Fig. 7] Option 1 track map showing conflicts eliminated through partial de-interlining.

Under Option 1, the G runs with full-length (600′) trains instead of 300′ trains and extends to Forest Hills to replace the R. The F and M switch alignments west of 36th Street station, with the F running via 53rd Street and the M running via 63rd Street; this swap removes conflicts with the E. As an optional enhancement, the G and/or M can extend to Jamaica – 179th Street, allowing the F to run express east of Forest Hills.

Full De-Interlining Options

So long as the QB line serves more than two trunks or branches, full de-interlining is not possible. Furthermore, full de-interlining requires some level of capital investment. The Regional Plan Association, in their Save our Subways publication, tries to get around this by rerouting the M via the J line to Broad Street. This leaves QB with only the E express via 53rd Street and the F local via 63rd Street. RPA suggests doubling both E and F service to preserve service levels. (While an M reroute isn’t necessary for full QB de-interlining, some options will require reinstating the brown M, as RPA suggests.)

Before exploring full de-interlining options, let’s discuss the tunnels to Manhattan. The 53rd Street tunnel connects to 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue, while the 63rd Street tunnel connects to 6th Avenue and Broadway; the latter includes a provision for a future 2nd Avenue connection. Since the 53rd Street tunnel is the only tunnel connecting Queens to 8th Avenue, all 8th Avenue service should serve 53rd Street and all 6th Avenue service should serve 63rd Street. This leaves the following options:

Option 2: 6th Avenue service express, 8th Avenue service local

[Fig. 8] Overview of Option 2.

[Fig. 9] Option 2 track map showing eliminated conflicts.

Option 2 fully de-interlines the QB line. Under Option 2, the E runs local while the F and M run express. When combined with the Central Park West de-interlining, the E under Option 2 no longer conflicts with any other line, allowing for significant service increases. However, this option presents several issues. First, the E’s current southern terminal – World Trade Center – is a stub-end terminal with no tail tracks, limiting capacity. Absent new tail tracks (possibly using the Worth Street subway provision), this option becomes untenable due to the potential capacity crunch on 53rd Street. While the 8th Avenue line has stubs south of Penn Station and south of Canal Street, each one requires crossing over the express tracks and is thus undesirable.

The second issue is the M’s short length. All QB services use 600′ trains except the M, which uses 480′ trains. At present, the QB express service runs about every 2 minutes at peak hours with full-length trains. While de-interlining allows service increases on the M, its short trains result in a net loss in capacity – another untenable situation. (Running full-length M trains requires platform extensions at every station from Essex Street to Middle Village.) A third issue is ease of access to 6th Avenue from the local stops west of Jackson Heights. Since the F and M diverge east of the next express stop (Queens Plaza), these passengers lose direct access to 6th Avenue.

Of these three issues, only one is solvable without capital investment – the last one. From west of Jackson Heights, riders can connect to 6th Avenue by making a cross-platform transfer at 7th Avenue – 53rd Street to the B/D.

Option 3: 6th Avenue service local, 8th Avenue service express

[Fig. 10] Overview of Option 3 with the new K line.

[Fig. 11] Option 3 track map showing eliminated conflicts.

Option 3 also fully de-interlines the QB line. Under Option 3, the F and M run local and the E runs express. Owing to the capacity limitations of the World Trade Center terminus, Option 3 prescribes a new K line. The K originates from Jamaica – 179th Street station and runs express with the E. Together, the E and K make the same stops from Kew Gardens to Canal Street in Manhattan; the E continues to the World Trade Center as normal, while the K takes the Worth Street subway to a new terminal at Grand Street:

[Fig. 12] Overview of the Worth Street subway.

The K serves three new stations at Foley Square, Rutgers Street, and Grand Street. Though Foley Square functions as a major transfer point, I’ll also consider an alternative station at Chatham Square – the site of a future Second Avenue Subway station.

As is clear, Option 3 requires more capital investment than Option 2; one way to reduce costs is building just the first of the three stations on Worth Street, or simply building tail tracks using this provision. Option 3 also presents some issues:

  • The F, as a local train, becomes the longest local train in the system with 54 stops end-to-end.
  • Unlike Option 2, local riders west of Jackson Heights have no opportunity to transfer to 8th Avenue service unless they ride back to Jackson Heights.

A capital solution to the second issue exists. With the R rerouted to Astoria, there is now room on the 11th Street Cut west of Queens Plaza to connect the local tracks to the 63rd Street line, as follows:

[Fig. 13] Potential track connection from the 11th Street Cut to the 63rd Street line.

With this track connection, 6th Avenue trains can serve Queens Plaza directly before accessing the 63rd Street line, mitigating transfer issues and increasing service at Queens Plaza. (Note that it is also possible to build this track connection under Option 2.)

One of the underlying philosophies of NYTIP with regard to the subway is that express trains should serve longer routes, while local trains serve shorter routes. To this end, one way to solve the aforementioned super-long-F-local issue is:

Optional enhancement: Swap the E/K and F/M trains south of West 4th Street.

[Fig. 14] Overview of the West 4th Street swap.

Through this swap, the 6th Avenue local services (F and M) shorten significantly, improving regularity. The E and K trains, therefore, traverse the longer route through Brooklyn’s Culver Line and enable significant service increases – along with express service – on said line:

[Fig. 15] Overview of Culver line service after the West 4th Street swap.

There is a drawback, however – you’ll notice that nothing serves the Chrystie Street connection under this routing. This is because the QB express needs its full capacity – replacing 600′ trains with 480′ trains is simply not an option. Facilitating this swap requires reinstating the brown M train from Middle Village to Broad Street (in which case the “V” designation returns for the 6th Avenue local from Forest Hills):

[Fig. 16] Overview of service changes required to preserve de-interlining through the West 4th Street swap.

Note that almost all of the changes required are operational changes. The only capital investments required for the West 4th Street swap are the Worth Street subway and, if necessary, new subway cars. I recognize that reinstating the brown M could be unpopular, especially given how popular the M-V combo proved to be!

Recommended path forward: Option 1 (short-term). For immediate improvement, NYTIP recommends Option 1 in the short term as “Phase 1” of the QB de-interlining. While replacing the R with the G may not be ideal, this partial de-interlining improves regularity by simplifying merges, and does not require capital investment.

That said, Option 3 represents one version of a long-term strategy for the QB line; with the appropriate capital investments, this option could work. I’ll discuss those investments further in future posts.

In my next post, I’ll address the Brooklyn IRT (2, 3, 4, and 5 lines). Until next time!

5 thoughts on “NYTIP – enhancing the nyc subway, part 3: broadway and queens boulevard

  1. Good recommendations for Broadway. It seems that all who analyze the problem of interlining know that this is one of the key problems with the N switching from local to express.

    Queens Blvd is a much harder nut to crack. There is no easy solution here. You may still need a few Broadway trains to serve Queens Blvd. The G train won’t sufficiently draw traffic away from the other lines since it doesn’t serve Manhattan. (You correctly note the difficulties with needed capital improvements for options 2 and 3).

    The key with Broadway deinterlining is that no express train should cross in front of the local trains and vice versa. All Broadway express trains must either go to 2 Ave or reach Queens Blvd via 63rd street. All Broadway locals must either go to Astoria or reach Queens Blvd via the 60 st tunnel and 11 St cut.

    I think the best overall solution then would be to send all Broadway locals to Astoria. Send most Broadway expresses to 2 Ave. Some Broadway expresses (not necessarily all N trains, maybe just some N trains) get sent via 63rd street to merge with the M to form the Queens Blvd local. This would also mean that all Queens expresses (E and F) get sent via 53rd street.

    A key piece of the analysis is how may trains per hour can each track hold and how many trains per hour can each terminal turn back.

    It would also be nice to see how you would modify the schedules for late nights and weekends. Per MTA, during off-peak certain trains may not run at all or run to an alternate terminal. I’m curious to see if you can explain how those possibilities come together under NYTIP.

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    1. Indeed, Queens Boulevard is a tough nut to crack. Replacing the R with the G may be a hard sell (even though it makes SAS expansion much easier). If it proves too tough to overcome, then the N via 63rd Street/QB local is a good alternative. In this case I’d pursue the 11th Street Cut – 63rd Street connection to ensure the M/N serve Queens Plaza before hitting 63rd.

      If the N serves QB, then one could argue, as the Regional Plan Association did, that fare rationing and service increases on Metro-North’s Harlem Line could serve the 3rd Avenue corridor while SAS takes the cross-Harlem alignment. Another option is the Q via cross-Harlem and Concourse to give Bronxites an alternate to the overcrowded 4. However, this option requires capital investment to minimize interlining and could complicate the service pattern on Concourse.

      Concerning overnights/weekends, click here for a copy of the enhanced NYCS guide (Excel): https://nerdynel.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/enhanced-nycs.xlsx

      I hope this answers your question!

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful explanation. It makes sense.

    With regard to commuter rail, fare integration and higher frequency would be an absolute game changer. I don’t know how practical it is on the main lines, but there are certainly some branches of the LIRR that come to mind as being really practical as adjuncts to the subway system. Particularly the PW branch, Atlantic branch, and the Lower Montauk branch. If you board at a station within city limits, pay a subway fare. That fare should allow you a free transfer to a bus and certain nearby subways.

    One problem with the out of system transfer at Lex/63 to Lex/59 is that the transfer takes the place of a transfer to a bus. There are many people in Queens whose trip starts with a bus and then to a subway and then probably at least another transfer of a subway to get to their destination. This is one of the key reasons why the transfer is not as popular as it otherwise would be to make a transfer from (F) to 4/5/6 and N/R. An out of system subway to subway transfer like Lex/59 to Lex/63 (and perhaps a LIRR to subway transfer like at Flusing-LIRR to Main St Flushing on (7)) should not count against your ability to take a bus, the same way that a true transfer between 6Av and Broadway trains at Herald Square does not count against your ability to take a bus.

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    1. If MTA rolls out OMNY correctly, it may mitigate the issue with out-of-system transfers you mentioned. Seems the solution is to allow unlimited rides on a single fare for a preset amount of time (say, 3 hours). Since there are a lot of extant free transfers, such shouldn’t erode MTA’s farebox revenue.

      I totally agree that rationalizing fares on commuter rail would be a game-changer. There would certainly be challenges (LIRR’s main line in NYC handling almost all branches, MNR’s Park Avenue tunnels, and at-grade merges between Amtrak and MNR south of New Rochelle and south of Riverdale being chief examples), but I think it’s doable even with current infrastructure.

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  3. Let’s see what would happen if the F no longer served Culver and the V was brought back. Though I did it a different way. I used the E to go via Houston Street extension to South 4th Street, the K to go whee you wanted it to go, and both the F and V train via Worth Street. Oh. And there was an unused upper terminal for Winfield Spur. I would pick out a train to use it. But, It would look a little different if I had a Brown M to go there. It would go on 78th Street, Garfield Avenue, 65th Place, Fresh Pond Rd, Central Avenue, and go to where the LIRR Rockaway Beach line was.

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