Could New York City get its own CrossRail?

Penn station: heart of the CrossRail proposals. Image: Getty.

As well as having the world’s largest metro system by number of stations, New York City also has a pretty sizeable commuter rail network.

In fact, it has several. There’s the MTA Metro-North Railroad, run by the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which serves the northern suburbs in New York state and Connecticut. There’s the Long Island Rail Road, and the Staten Island Railway: those are also run by the MTA, and respectively serve, well, you can probably guess. And then there’s the NJ Transit rail network, run by the authorities in the adjacent state of New Jersey, which serves that state and a few counties in its neighbours.

Between them, these four different systems carry passengers to and from the city from all points of the compass. But the system is fragmented: to get from Staten Island to Manhattan, you need to take a ferry. Some of the trains from New Jersey run into Penn station, in midtown Manhattan; but capacity constraints mean that many others terminate across the Hudson in Hoboken, requiring passengers to change to a PATH train, and then probably again onto a subway.

It’s a measure of the network’s complete lack of integration, in fact, that there is, best we can tell, no official map which shows all of it – even though some NJ Transit trains magically turn into MetroNorth ones at the state boundary. All seems a bit silly to me, but there we are.

None of this seems very likely to change any time soon, if ever – but in 2015, some city planning students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design did at least propose a start.  Here, inevitably, is a map:

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The New York-New Jersey CrossRail project would involve a capital “R”, as well as a pair of new tunnels under the metropolis. These would run from Newark in New Jersey, through Penn Station and out to Jamaica in the suburbs of Queens. There’d also be branches connecting to Newark and JFK airports, and another heading north to link up with Metro North services.

All this would mean that the current service would change from this...

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...to this:

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The big benefit of such a scheme is that it would make it much easier to get across the Hudson. No new transit tunnels under the river which divides New York from New Jersey have been built since 1910, and those which do exist are at full capacity. The existing Hudson River tunnels, the CrossRail team wrote, “are the most significant choke point along the entire Northeast Corridor”.

The proposed new tunnel will remove this bottleneck. It’d also make it easier for residents of Queens to get to Manhattan, relieving chunks of the subway network, too. And as a bonus, it’d open up new real estate schemes along the route, generating at least some of the cash which would pay for it.


How realistic is this? It is fundamentally the work of some students (albeit pretty well qualified ones), rather than an official proposal. And building new rail capacity in New York has proven to be both difficult and incredibly expensive. The recently opened second Avenue Subway extension has been called the most expensive subway ever built: nearly $4.5bn for just two miles of line, which would be hilarious were it not for the fact that stuff like this makes it harder to persuade politicians to invest in this stuff.

But CrossRail isn’t a complete pipedream. The students’ proposal builds on two official ones: Amtrak’s proposed Gateway project, which would build a new tunnel under the Hudson and expand Penn station, and the MTA's Penn Station Access project, which would take Metro North through Queens into Penn Station. What CrossRail does is to combine these, and to continue the route to the east, out towards Jamaica and Long Island.

There’s lots more nerdery in the report, about financing, phasing construction, service patterns and so on. But odds are you came here mainly for the maps, so let’s end on this one, which compares the proposed New York CrossRail with the nearly completed scheme which inspired it:

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You can read more about the proposal here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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