Through-Running at Penn Station is the Key to a Unified Regional Rail Network

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.

12 Comments on "Through-Running at Penn Station is the Key to a Unified Regional Rail Network"

  1. Clark Morris | July 8, 2015 at 9:26 pm |

    I definitely agree that through running is needed with at least a station at Kips Bay. ALP45s could replace the problematic DM Long Island locomotives. The M7 and M9 train sets could be modified by adding 1 or two cars with pantographs, rectifiers, and transformers with power cables to the other cars.

    Also a minor nit. The Lakeshore line in Toronto already is through routed at Union Station with just an extended stop because it is the only downtown station.

  2. When this happens, I going to move to New Haven and commute to Trenton every day.

    Just kidding. Great piece.

  3. This is the most pressing economic need in the tri-state metro area. Regional Rail is a tool to grow GDP, boost quality of life, increase access to jobs and improve air quality (Significantly!). This should be the highest priority for all three governors. However, only the governor of Connecticut takes transportation seriously. The other two are devoted to their campaign donors, who are historically anti-urban and anti-rail ideologues.

  4. So, just how do the people of NYC who will bear the inconvenience and costs benefit? Especially the part about access to NYC jobs for the unemployed of CT.

  5. Martin Robins | July 10, 2015 at 12:31 pm |

    I hope Part II spotlights the value that Dual-powered locomotives, now in NJ T’s fleet,could play in the next through-running analysis.

  6. Thomas Marchwinski | July 10, 2015 at 2:09 pm |

    There actually was a study of the potential for through running in terms of markets in the mid-2000’s. Problem is except for sporting events and to the airports, markets are small in most cases. Best case for through running is New Haven Line to NJT NEC to New Brunswick, via AMTRAK Hell Gate line. The linked article is naïve in that unlike the New Haven Line and NEC or other NJT electric lines which have same power systems (overhead catenary) which is easy to do, LIRR and other MN lines have third rail power. This would have to be rebuilt through the Hudson River tunnels and either use dual mode third rail and diesel or dual catenary/third rail electric. So the maps showing through movement require significant investment in new rolling stock.

    Also Tri-State, your color scheme above has some errors. You show the Main Line in NJ in red, implying these trains go direct to PSNY. THEY DO NOT! That line should be Blue, going to Hoboken. Direct service from these lines is only possible via Secaucus Loop. Also, they are mostly NJT, not Metro north lines. Also, where is the Raritan Valley line, seems to be missing. At least get the map right!

  7. Henry Sommers | July 10, 2015 at 5:08 pm |

    For decades I have advocated a regional approach to passenger rail services in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. One seat, one ticket, one train set. No, not all lines and not all equipment is compatible but that is part of what has to be done. Immediately it is possible along the Corridor from most Philadelphia points through NYP to New Haven, for instance. But even if across the platform interline connections could be implemented at Trenton, Newark, Secaucus, and NYP, simultaneously or within say, no more than five minutes, with integrity and reliability, then reaches could be made to provide services that could be marketed and will be used. Yes, traffic analysis or market research has to be done, but a well marketed, priced, and operated train service would attract riders and utilize equipment to the utmost. SEPTA already does it internally. For instance, Doylestown trains (former Reading RR) will run through Center City to 30th Street and on to Paoli and Thorndale…one train, one number, one trainset, one schedule, one crew (?), wonderful. PRR and NH did it on intercity services even to where a GG1 would pull all the way to New Haven. NJT has worked with CONNDOT and MNRR for New Haven to Secaucus Jct. station (with trains actually going on to Trenton) for football and special events at the Meadowlands seat, one ticket, one train; regular crew assignments. LIRR gets in the act with one ticket to these events but an across the station connection. NJT could provide services from any point in North Jersey (except on former Erie lines to Suffern, Port Jervis, and Spring Valley lines) utilizing their dual electric-diesel electrics to CONNDOT points but compatibility has to be determined to and from LIRR points (locomotives must be stopped to lower and raise pantographs but power modes can be changed on the fly). No one need step on union contracts nor jurisdictions. How about a reverse move at NYP to go to Poughkeepsie or Albany? But it has to be studied and carefully planned and implemented. You can’t run a train from Hackettstown, High Bridge, or Bay Head through NYP to Greenport, Montauk, Waterbury, Danbury, or Albany just because you can do it and it sounds like fun but because it makes sense and at least won’t lose dollars.

  8. Nathanael | July 15, 2015 at 9:27 am |

    A lot of people are confused about the benefits of through-running.

    It doesn’t matter that very few people are going from New Jersey to Long Island. It doesn’t matter AT ALL.

    What matters is that right now, the East River Tunnels have to hold all the LIRR trains (carrying passengers) AND all the NJT trains (deadheading empty to Sunnyside Yard). Replace those NJT trains with extensions of the LIRR trains… and you have more slots through the East River Tunnels, and you can run more trains.

  9. A very promising idea, much needed.

  10. Tim Evans | July 20, 2015 at 3:59 pm |

    Philadelphia’s “tunnel has never been optimally used as the core of a true rapid transit system”? Trains magazine seemed pretty impressed with the tunnel’s capacity when it took a look at commuter rail operations up and down the Northeast Corridor in 2005:

    “With apologies to Union Pacific’s triple-track in Nebraska and BNSF’s Transcon, putting 100 trains a day on a main line is child’s play in the East! Granted, commuter trains all behave identically, and pretty much look the same. They need to, if they’re to race against time twice a day. But the sheer numbers are staggering. SEPTA squeezes all 458 of its weekday trains through a four-track tunnel between Philadelphia’s Suburban and 30th Street stations; MBTA uses two Boston stations t handle its 465 trains; Metro-North keeps Grand Central Terminal humming with 529 trains a day. and runs 98 more on its outer branches and west of the Hudson River.”


  11. It seem that the observation here is not that the system has not been optimized for through-running, but that the map does not reflect the current through-running operation that is in daily practice. Two very different things. The commuter tunnel provided tremendous simplification to the Philadelphia regional rail operations, eliminated the need to hold a lot of trains downtown, and gave commuters a selection of downtown stations – even if the number of commuters who have a need to pass through the city to a destination on the other side is small.

  12. Apologies – the above comment was intended for a different website. It does not apply here.

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