In 1955 Paris had six major train stations, all with commuter rail components, and three commuter rail lines that terminated in small stub stations. All of these lines stopped short of the heart of the capital, requiring passengers to transfer to the metro if they were going to central locations or to the other side of the city. The metro system had only two-track local lines, which meant a frustrating trip for anyone who wanted to go any distance within the city.
The 1965 infrastructure master plan laid forth a grand vision for access to the city, which has gradually been put into practice. Four new tunnels were bored deep below the surface, connecting the stub stations with the commuter rail networks of four of the major stations. Two gigantic new stations (Châtelet-Les Halles and Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame) were created in the center of the city to allow transfers between the lines, and a series of stations were created along the lines allowing transfers to the metro. A zone payment system was implemented, allowing people to use the new Regional Express Network (RER) for intra-city trips at the same price as the metro, and with the same tickets. The result is that people from the suburbs can now be almost anywhere in the city in a short period of time, and people can cross the city quickly.
In New York in 1955, there was a similar situation. There were two major stations in Midtown Manhattan, four major terminals just across the river (Weehawken, Hoboken, Exchange Place, Communipaw Terminal and Long Island City) and two stub terminals (Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx). Four other stub terminals (Bay Ridge and Bushwick Terminals in Brooklyn, 180th Street in the Bronx and Saint George in Staten Island) had lost passenger service earlier in the century, but still had the tracks in place. Two subway lines, the Flushing and Canarsie Lines, also stub-ended under 41st and 14th Streets.
Instead of a visionary plan like in Paris, New York's leaders chose to retrofit the city for the automobile. Between 1955 and 1965 they opened the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Newark Bay Bridge, a third tube for the Lincoln Tunnel, a lower level for the George Washington Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Long Island Expressway, the Garden State Parkway, the New England Thruway and Interstate routes 78, 80 and 84 and a section of the FDR Drive were built during this time.
In the meantime, rail infrastructure in the New York area languished. The Independent Subway Second System plans collected dust on the shelves. The New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad had already been cut back to the city line and turned into a branch of the IRT. The Putnam Line, which terminated at Sedgwick Avenue, was torn up and is now a recreational trail. Bushwick Terminal was closed and the tracks removed. The Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge across Newark Bay was torn down, and the Communipaw Terminal at Jersey City turned into a museum. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Exchange Place terminal and the West Shore Line's Weehawken Terminal were abandoned along with their tunnels through the Palisades. Staten Island's North Shore Line and the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge were also taken out of use. Traffic to Hoboken and Long Island City was gradually reduced. In a symbolic attack on the rail system, Penn Station's celebrated above-ground structure was demolished and replaced with a new Madison Square Garden arena.
While Paris built several expressways as well, during the economic crisis of the 1970s they chose to abandon their expressway plans and focus on the RER, while New York abandoned its subway plans and focused on roads. The single major rail project that was completed during that time was the 63rd Street tunnel, but its lower-level tubes, intended for commuter rail use, have still not been connected to anything, and have been called "the tunnel to nowhere." A few minor connections made slight improvements in the system, but there were still obvious deficiencies. Most of the trains terminated at Penn Station, but a large number of jobs are in East Midtown or Downtown, requiring a subway transfer. Travelling between Queens and New Jersey, or Brooklyn and Westchester County, requires a series of complicated transfers.
In the 1990s transportation planners, perhaps motivated by the success of Paris's RER, proposed a series of upgrades to connect portions of the transit system. A few of these have been put in place, mostly by New Jersey Transit. The Kearny Connection allowed Morris and Essex Line trains to enter Penn Station, the Montclair Connection allowed Boonton Line trains to use the Kearny tracks and the Secaucus Transfer allowed passengers from the ex-Erie and Pascack Valley lines to transfer to Penn Station-bound trains. The Weehawken tunnel was converted to light rail use, allowing residents of that area to reach jobs, trains and ferries along the waterfront. In addition, there are plans to extend the Long Island Rail Road Flatbush branch to Lower Manhattan, and to revive service on Staten Island's North Shore and West Shore lines, probably with light rail.
More exciting was a grand vision for connecting job sites in Midtown Manhattan. The #7 subway tunnel would be extended west to the planned Hudson Yards development and the Javits Center. The Long Island Rail Road would use the 63rd Street Tunnel to connect to Grand Central, freeing up space for Metro-North trains to terminate in Penn Station via the Empire Connection and Hell Gate Bridge. In the "Acces to the Region's Core" plan, a new tunnel under the Hudson would allow more New Jersey trains to reach Midtown; a 2002 bulletin from the Regional Plan Association shows them making a loop through Penn Station, Grand Central, Rockefeller Center and the planned Hudson Yards development. Finally, to the symbolic wound from the destruction of Penn Station, the old Farley Post Office one block to the west would be converted to a new Moynihan Station.
This grand plan had its faults, but it would have been a big improvement. Now, ten years later, it's in tatters. The MTA has forsaken any attempt to connect Long Island Railroad trains with the actual Grand Central structure, preferring to dig a tiny terminal deep underground, with a single exit to 42nd Street and difficult subway transfers. New Jersey Transit's loop has shrunk to a single six-track station under 34th Street, which is also deep below the ground and unconnected to any other tracks. Worse, both of these plans leave no opportunity for expansion: the NJ Transit station terminates in front of Water Tunnel #1. The #7 train extension will only be a single stop, possibly even without the shell of an intermediate station. The Moynihan Station will not allow rail passengers to connect to any new subways, and it is unclear what use it will be, except as a waiting area and a symbol.
Even these plans, though, did not allow for through-running of trains between the three major commuter rail systems. They did nothing to unify the three incompatible electrification systems currently in use, create connections between the various lines, or revive dormant lines like the Bergen Arches, the Bushwick Branch and the Putnam Line. The light rail line proposed for Staten Island's North Shore Branch would not connect take advantage of the recently rebuilt Arthur Kill bridge to connect the island with the mainland.
The New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers has been a persistent critic of the awfully-named "THE Tunnel" project. The Regional Rail Working Group has been a critic of the LIRR East Side Access project and a big supporter of through-running.
Every year the components of this plan become less useful and more symbolic. I think it's time to pause and reconsider. With the money we have, do we really want to wind up with three "tunnels to nowhere" and a glorious station structure that adds no functionality whatsoever? If we're spending the money to dig deep, why not dig tunnels that could eventually connect to each other, or to existing tunnels? Let's see what we have and what we can afford. Let's try to overcome the archaic territorial divisions between the various counties of New York and New Jersey, and the Byzantine boundaries between New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority and the various MTA fiefdoms. Let's stop worrying about offending Senator Moynihan's friends and family, who probably don't take the train anyway. Let's do something real.