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:

Click to expand.

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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.