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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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