Welcome back to my NYTIP series! In this series of posts, which comprise Volume II of NYTIP – transforming commuter rail into regional rail, I will discuss ideas for transforming the disjoint commuter rail systems in the Tri-State Area into an integrated regional rail network. This post addresses the Harlem and New Haven lines of MTA’s Metro-North Railroad in NYC. (Note, however, that this post does not include Penn Station Access, which I’ll discuss in the next installment.)
Note: Click any image to enlarge.
Several commuter rail lines serve the Tri-State Area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). In New York alone, MTA’s Metro-North Railroad (MNR) and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), as well as NJ Transit, provide service; the latter two share a terminal at Penn Station, while MNR serves Grand Central Terminal. Despite the relatively robust coverage provided by each of these railroads, they operate entirely separate services with differing fare regimes and virtually no interconnectivity between them.
Making matters worse, most commuter rail stations within NYC only see limited service – half hourly or hourly in most cases – and the fares are prohibitively expensive compared to local buses and subways. Compared to a $2.75 local bus or subway fare, trips to Harlem – 125th Street or Grand Central from anywhere in The Bronx cost $7.25 off-peak and $9.75 peak. These fares are prohibitive for most Bronxites, given that The Bronx’s median household income was approximately $40,000 per year in 2019, and over 1/4 of its residents live in poverty. (The off-peak fare is even higher than MTA’s express bus fare of $6.75!) While intraborough fares are only $3.00, service is sparse at all but a few stations.
A similar situation exists on the LIRR, which serves Penn Station in Manhattan and several stations in Brooklyn and Queens. Trips to Penn Station from Queens stations west of Jamaica cost $6.50 off-peak and $9.00 peak; from Jamaica and eastern Queens stations, this increases to $7.75 off-peak and $10.75 peak.
The only attempts to address these obscene fares are the weekend CityTicket, the LIRR’s Atlantic Ticket, and lower fares for certain intraborough trips. Needless to say, these efforts aren’t nearly enough.
There are thus two key problems to address when it comes to NY’s commuter rail infrastructure – infrequent service and inequitable fare regimes. The Regional Plan Association (RPA), in their T-REX report, has the right idea when they suggest consolidating fare zones and substantially reducing fares within the inner urban core. Indeed, if there is any hope of using commuter rail to relieve overcrowded subways and encourage transit trips, it begins with lower fares. A comprehensive report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer – who is now facing sexual misconduct allegations – suggests lowering rail fares to match the current $2.75 bus and subway fare for travel within city limits, an excellent starting point.
However, lower fares mean nothing without better service. Both Stringer’s report and the aforementioned T-REX report state as much; while the latter presents a bold vision for such improvement, it actually takes much less to set the table.
Therefore, under NYTIP, the first phase of regional rail provisioning is addressing “low-hanging fruit” opportunities to increase commuter rail capacity. There are four steps to this phase:
- Expand existing stations and increase service,
- Construct infill stations,
- Remove bottlenecks, and
- Enhance network connectivity.
Let’s begin with MNR’s Harlem and New Haven lines in The Bronx.
Expanding Existing Stations
At present, MNR’s Harlem line serves seven stations in The Bronx – Wakefield, Woodlawn, Williams Bridge, Botanical Garden, Fordham, Tremont, and Melrose. The New Haven line joins the Harlem line north of Woodlawn, but generally runs express. Aside from Fordham, few trains serve The Bronx. Moreover, most of these stations are not ADA-accessible and have short platforms – in particular, the Tremont and Melrose stations can only platform two cars! The easiest way to encourage ridership at these stations, aside from rationalizing fares, is to lengthen the platforms and enhance accessibility. Under NYTIP, the baseline platform length is 680-700 feet, long enough to platform 8-car trains:
[Figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5] Station enhancements at local stops on the Harlem line.
The Botanical Garden station isn’t included because it is already an ADA-accessible station capable of platforming 8-car trains.
Now, the Fordham station is the only Bronx station served by both Harlem line and New Haven line trains – though the latter only dropped off southbound and picked up northbound until MTA axed this rather nonsensical 19th-century rule in 2019. Given that Fordham is one of the busiest local stops on MNR and the busiest reverse-commuting station in the nation, NYTIP contemplates a radical improvement – express stop conversion:
[Fig. 6] Express stop conversion at Fordham station. (Unmodified track map by vanshnookenraggen.)
Express stop conversion at Fordham – along with extra-long platforms – serves several purposes. The first is to allow major service increases without constraining capacity. The second is to allow faster trips from Fordham to both Manhattan and the suburbs (mainly the latter since New Haven line trains already operate express to Grand Central). The third is to provision for future intercity rail (i.e. Amtrak) service, made possible by new connections that I will discuss in follow-up posts. This requires careful modifications to the historic stationhouse, as well as right-of-way (ROW) widening under Fordham Plaza.
A key goal of regional rail under NYTIP is high-frequency service, consisting of local trains serving the inner urban core (including all of NYC), and express trains serving the suburbs and exurbs. To this end, for local service, NYTIP contemplates RPA’s recommended baseline service level – 6 trains per hour (TPH) during peak hours and 4 TPH during off-peak hours. This translates to service every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours. However, local trains from both the Harlem and New Haven lines could make all stops in The Bronx (except for Wakefield), yielding combined service every 5 minutes during peak hours and every 7.5 minutes during off-peak hours – a service level comparable to existing subways. At Wakefield, the island platform configuration allows some express trains to stop there. Then, with the Fordham express conversion, express trains could serve Fordham directly without switching to the local tracks, providing a significant service increase.
To “jump start” such a service enhancement, local trains could initially run with 6-car (510-foot) trains – unless both demand and rolling stock availability permit 8-car (680-foot) trains. Then, as ridership grows and more rolling stock becomes available, longer trains could run.
A Note on Interlining
The service frequencies mentioned above assume that both the Harlem and New Haven lines remain interlined on both the local and express tracks in The Bronx. Another option is to pursue a form of de-interlining, where all Harlem line trains run on the local tracks and all New Haven line trains run on the express tracks in The Bronx. However, this amounts to a partial de-interlining at best, for two reasons. First, all MNR lines interline through the four-track Park Avenue tunnel. Second, such a pattern requires interlining between the Harlem line’s express and local services, as well as the New Haven line’s express and local services.
As of 05.04.2021, I’m leaning toward keeping Harlem and New Haven line locals on the local track, and expresses on the express track. This allows for predictable service patterns and easier reverse-commuting from The Bronx.
The Harlem line contains several abandoned station sites. Stations once existed at 183rd Street, Claremont Park, Morrisania, and 138th Street. Incidentally, reactivating some of these stations would close a large gap in rail service between the Concourse line and the IRT White Plains Road lines. Recently, vanshnookenraggen wrote a post arguing that it wasn’t necessary to build a 3rd Avenue branch of SAS – among other possible subway lines – because regional rail could close the gap at a fraction of the cost.
While I’ve always had a “soft spot” for a 3rd Avenue branch of SAS, I’m open to having MNR’s Harlem line fill this gap. To that end, let’s examine potential infill station locations.
Belmont (183rd Street)
[Fig. 7] Overview of the Belmont station.
The Belmont station’s main purpose is to close the gap between Fordham and Tremont; however, the resulting interstation distances are less than 1/2 mile. Consequently, this station is optional under NYTIP. However, I wouldn’t rule it out in the future – especially if the Harlem line replaces the 3rd Avenue branch of SAS.
To close the gap between the Tremont and Melrose stations, I will consider two options.
Option 1: Two station option – restore the Claremont and Morrisania stations
[Figs. 8, 9] Overview of Option 1.
Option 1 constructs infill stations at the former Claremont Park and Morrisania station sites. Both of these sites provide connections to crosstown bus service – the Bx11 at Claremont and the Bx35 at Morrisania – and serve high-density areas.
Option 2: One station option – new Claremont Village station
[Fig. 10] Overview of Option 2.
Option 2 proposes a single infill station at Claremont Village, halfway between the Claremont Park and Morrisania station sites. This station still provides access to crosstown bus service (Bx11) through its 171st Street entrance, and provides a station closer to dense housing and several schools.
As of 05.04.2021, I am leaning on Option 2. The Claremont Village station is within one block of both the Claremont Park and Morrisania station sites, effectively serving the same catchment area.
The 149th Street – Grand Concourse subway station on the 2, 4, and 5 lines contains signage directing riders to a proposed MNR station that was never built. A station in this area would not only connect to these subways, but to several bus routes, the Hostos Community College, Lincoln Hospital, and other points of interest. Just south of 149th Street, the Hudson line joins the mainline at grade. This is a significant bottleneck since northbound Hudson line trains must foul the entire mainline to access the Hudson line. Even so, infill station options exist. Let’s explore them.
Mott Haven Option 1: Infill station on existing junction
[Fig. 11] Overview of Mott Haven Option 1.
Option 1 is the “minimal disruption” option. The only change required to facilitate this option is realigning the southbound Harlem line local track to accommodate a pseudo island platform. Hudson line trains serve a separate island platform built on existing space between the northbound and southbound tracks.
This option includes provisions for a modified version of the so-called “Manhattan Spine” route proposed by RPA. The Manhattan Spine is a supplementary rail line running via Manhattan’s 3rd Avenue that relieves the existing Park Avenue corridor. Phase 1 of regional rail under NYTIP does not include the Spine.
Another potential enhancement, if feasible, is a new Mott Haven Train Hall within the post office on 149th Street and Grand Concourse. This Train Hall would include passages to both the Mott Haven rail station and the existing subway station. The Train Hall would be one element of a passageway improvement project for the entire 149th Street – Grand Concourse station complex.
The main drawback of Option 1 is that it retains the flat junction due south of the station. But what if we could solve that problem?
Mott Haven Option 2: Infill station on grade-separated junction
[Fig. 12] Overview of Mott Haven Option 2.
Option 2 provides an infill station serving Harlem and New Haven line trains only. By modifying the stub tracks at the Mott Haven Wye, island platforms could be built serving local and express trains. Option 2 uses existing space to build a flying crossunder for northbound Hudson line trains; consequently, Hudson line trains skip Mott Haven and no longer foul the mainline. Google Earth measurements suggest the crossunder could clear the Harlem line trackage at less than 2% grade, which doesn’t appear to be insurmountable. This option also allows for the aforementioned Mott Haven Train Hall.
Mott Haven Option 3: Restore the 138th Street station
[Fig. 13] Overview of Mott Haven Option 3.
Option 3 restores the former station at 138th Street. This is by far the easiest of the three options since it only requires station construction. Unlike Option 2, Hudson line trains would also stop here. However, this location provides the least advantage relative to the other options, given the existing 138th Street subway station and better transit connections at 149th Street.
As of 05.04.2021, I am leaning on Option 2 for the Mott Haven station – primarily due to the Hudson line grade separation. While Option 3 doesn’t preclude such grade separation, the 149th Street site is a better candidate for a hub station. While Hudson line trains wouldn’t stop at Mott Haven, they’d serve an alternate hub at the Yankees – East 153rd Street station.
These infill stations, combined with frequent service and lower fares, will make the Harlem line accessible to thousands of Bronxites, greatly improving travel options.
As Mott Haven Option 2 shows, grade separation can eliminate bottlenecks on MNR. Within the NY area alone, MNR trains encounter several “flat” (at-grade) junctions, constraining capacity. Aside from the aforementioned Mott Haven Junction, there are two additional junctions I’ll discuss in this post.
[Fig. 14] Overview of Woodlawn Junction.
MNR’s Harlem and New Haven lines meet at Woodlawn Junction. The southbound direction is mostly grade-separated, while the northbound direction is a flat junction. Consequently, there are several merging conflicts – mainly due to the way New Haven line trains join the mainline. As Figure 14 shows, there are segments where New Haven express and local trains merge, other segments where New Haven line trains foul the mainline briefly, and a segment where mainline fouling extends as far as a point south of Woodlawn, if not further.
To mitigate these merging conflicts:
Convert Woodlawn to a fully grade-separated junction.
[Figs. 15, 16] Woodlawn Junction grade separation.
Full grade separation at Woodlawn Junction requires a modification to just one track – the northbound express track. Beginning at a point south of 224th Street, the track runs downgrade at about 1%. This ensures the new track clears the Bronx River, which is generally shallow – it is no deeper than 12 feet, and the deepest parts are at its south end. A new high-speed switch provides direct connectivity to the New Haven line’s express track, minimizing conflicts; Google Earth measurements suggest northbound Harlem and New Haven line trains can emerge at a 1% grade to meet existing tracks. For operational flexibility, this project retains part of the existing northbound express track as a stub. This is important because there are still a few unavoidable conflicts. Southbound New Haven line express trains either merge with the locals briefly, or foul the northbound Harlem line local track briefly while using the stub to rejoin the express track. In either case, there are fewer conflicts than before; when combined with Penn Station Access, the express/local merge is even less of an issue.
[Fig. 17] Overview of Shell Junction.
Shell Junction, located outside of NYC near New Rochelle station, is a key choke point on the New Haven line. This single junction limits intercity (Amtrak) service between New York and Boston, and also constrains capacity on the New Haven line. Given MTA’s plans for Penn Station Access, and the FRA’s plans for high-speed rail (HSR), fixing this junction is crucial. As with Woodlawn Junction, the key is grade separation – an enhancement that’s part of NEC Future (see slide 24).
[Fig. 18] Conceptual improvements at Shell Junction and New Rochelle station.
Grade separation at Shell Junction ensures that both the New Haven and Hell Gate lines can accommodate regional rail (local and express), intercity, and HSR services with minimal conflict. At New Rochelle, a new island platform built on existing space converts the station to a full-fledged express stop, enabling significant service increases. Both the new platform and the existing platforms would accommodate at least 10 cars – long enough for both MNR and intercity trains.
While not explicitly shown in Figure 18, improvements would include curve straightening where feasible.
The first phase of regional rail provisioning under NYTIP consists of four key elements – station improvements and accessibility, infill stations, eliminating bottlenecks, and constructing new connections. This post addressed the first three points as applied to the Harlem line in The Bronx. In Part 1b of this post, I’ll address regional rail provisioning on MNR’s Hudson line in NYC, Amtrak’s Hell Gate line (Penn Station Access), and the New York Connecting Railroad (Triboro RX). Until next time!