Earlier this month, MTR explored the concept of transforming the tri-state area’s commuter rail network into a regional rail network. The plans covered differ in scope and detail, but all have one major component in common: changing Penn Station from a terminal to a run-through station.
Currently, many Amtrak trains run through Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor journey between Boston and Washington. So does, infrequently, the joint Metro-North/New Jersey Transit train that brings fans from Connecticut and Westchester to the Meadowlands for football games on designated Sundays.
But what would the benefits of through-running be if implemented across the board? The most important effect might very well be to relieve the capacity crunch that the station is experiencing. With trains making a stop instead of performing their beginning and end-of-run preparations at Penn Station, each track would be able to handle trains at a higher frequency (just imagine if subways lingered at Times Square, Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Center like they do at terminus stations in Coney Island, Flushing or Inwood). Run-through trains would also make journeys from one non-Manhattan destination to another much faster and easier.
Through-running could also make the Penn Station Access project—which will one day bring Metro-North New Haven Line trains to Penn Station—significantly easier. While that project involves very new infrastructure and received $250 million in capital funding in the 2015-16 state budget, it is still years from scheduled completion because it cannot be implemented until some Long Island Rail Road trains are diverted to Grand Central. But with more delays for East Side Access, the opening of Penn Station Access—a significant new transit option for eastern Bronx communities and commuters from farther north–could be a decade or more away.
There are, predictably, some technical barriers to through-running. There’s the pair of narrow (and rapidly deteriorating) tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey, which will eventually be addressed by Amtrak’s Gateway plan (though nobody knows when). And then there’s the issue of electrification systems. Metro-North, LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak use a wide variety of electrification systems on their lines, and there are few rail cars or locomotives equipped to operate on all, or even several, of them. Only Amtrak and NJT currently own equipment capable of operating on the Northeast Corridor both west of the Hudson and east of Sunnyside Yard in Queens. Those barriers to interoperability is why it is so important that the MTA has the funding to order M9 cars in the next capital plan. While the first order of M9 cars won’t be equipped with third-rail “shoes” capable of running both under (on the LIRR) and over (on Metro-North trackage) the electrical supply, there’s still hope that future orders may have the equipment necessary to make interoperability possible.
Technical barriers are entirely surmountable (with the right amount of funding), but the real challenge are the political barriers. Sarah Laskow of Capital New York said it best:
Absent political pressure, it’s exactly the sort of project that none of the existing agencies are going to fight for… The idea of a unified regional rail system has been around for years, along with plans to create a unified fare system and to make it easier to reach the New York airports. But however nice they might sound, there’s no agency, commissioner, or politician who really has both the incentive to push for them and the power to make them happen.