The future of Penn Station has long been an object of fascination for New Yorkers and others in the region. But what if that fixation on the terminal is misplaced? As transit blogger Yonah Freemark wrote this week,
But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?
Imagine taking a commuter train from New Haven to Trenton, or from the boardwalk in New Jersey to the shores of Long Island Sound in Port Washington, without changing trains or even seats. That kind of easy, fast access to regional destinations could be the future of the tri-state area’s rail network.
That doesn’t happen if the region’s transit agencies and elected leaders can’t re-imagine Penn Station not as a terminal, but as one stop among several on a rail line through the city.
As Freemark documents, many European cities have rebuilt their formerly stub-ended terminals into stations on a through-running network. The approach has generally found less favor on this side of the Atlantic. Only Philadelphia has succeeded in building the connective infrastructure that makes through-running possible, although the tunnel has never been optimally used as the core of a true rapid transit system. Los Angeles will soon become the second American city to retrofit its commuter system for through-running, and in Canada, Toronto is transforming its Metrolinx network into a Paris-inspired rapid transit system with frequent service that may eventually allow for through-running at Toronto Union Station.
Indeed, implementing through-running at central terminals is typically only one part of a broader approach known as “regional rail” (as opposed to “commuter rail”). This approach focuses on frequent service around the clock (or at least late into the night), rather than focusing on weekday rush hours. This kind of service is especially important with reverse commuting and off-peak travel on the rise.
Suggestions for such a transformation abound. Sarah Laskow made the case for unifying the region’s commuter rail systems in Capital New York last year,
The benefits wouldn’t just accrue to people traveling to special events, or to the odd souls who have regular occasion to travel straight from New Brunswick to Rye. Cohesive regional transit would be of significant benefit to the New York area, and to most everyone who depends on public transportation to get around it. The effect would be particularly noticeable to anyone who ever travels, in any direction, through Penn Station.
Yonah Freemark had previously run on his blog a series by Alon Levy outlining the possibilities for a massive future regional rail system. George Haikalis of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility has convened a group known as the Regional Rail Working Group to advocate for such a regional network. As MTR previously reported, even the MTA Reinvention Commission report suggested through-running at Penn Station and cooperation among the regional rail systems among its priorities.
Despite the clear benefits, any ambitious regional rail scheme that might be implemented in the tri-state region represents a major paradigm shift on both the operating and infrastructure sides, and as such remains years if not decades off. However, the core improvement—through-running at Penn Station—remains both eminently achievable and potentially quite beneficial for travelers. Part II of this post will explore short- and medium- term strategies for utilizing and implementing a through-running model at Penn Station.