Wednesday, June 11, 2008

TriboroRX: Is the capacity there?

In discussing the TriboroRX proposal, I have serious concerns about the capacity of the right-of-way to handle this amount of service. Right now the Bay Ridge Branch and the New York Connecting Railroad are single-track freight lines in many places. Of course the proposal is to increase it to two tracks and possibly four where there's room. In fact the Bay Ridge Branch and the NYCR were originally four tracks for part of their length and can fit three, if not four, from the Brighton Line (Q train) to Fresh Pond Yard, and possibly even six for part of the right-of-way west of the Culver Line (F train). But the rest of the line, from the Culver Line to the Brighton Line, and from Fresh Pond Yard to the junction with the Amtrak line to Penn Station in Woodside, is two tracks, and even if the right-of-way could fit another track here or there, it would be expensive to expand the bridges and tunnels.

The problem is that these lines are still used for freight trains, and unless they're expanded to three tracks for the entire length, they will need to share the tracks. It's not unprecedented for transit and freight service to use the same tracks: New Jersey Transit's River Line between Camden and Trenton shares tracks with Conrail freight. However, New Jersey Transit has an agreement with Conrail that the passenger trains will only run from 6AM to 10PM, except Saturday nights. That might work in South Jersey, but it would be difficult in New York City, even in Maspeth.

But let's suppose that it was worth running passenger service just for the daytime and evening use. The River Line is a secondary freight route, and only runs a few trains a night, and the Bay Ridge Branch is even more lightly used. Good, right? Wrong.

There is a proposal for a Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel to connect the Bay Ridge Branch with the Greenville Yard in Jersey City. Currently, rail freight going from New Jersey to or through New York City needs to either be floated across the river on barges, or hauled over 150 miles north to the bridge at Selkirk and 150 miles back south. In practice, it's cheaper and easier to transfer the freight to trucks and drive it over the bridges. Of course that wears down and clogs up the city's bridges, highways and streets, pollutes the air and increases traffic carnage, hence the need for the tunnel.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Study for the tunnel, insted of eight train trips a day, there would be 24-64 freight train trips using the Bay Ridge Branch per day (page 8-69 of this PDF), depending on whether one or two tunnels were built. The DEIS is very unclear on the anticipated number of train trips on the Hell Gate Bridge, but the total number anticipated for LIRR destinations (i.e. all other destinations) is 13-15 per day. It sounds like that means we'd see 11-49 trains going over the Hell Gate Bridge, but I can't figure out whether the prediction is closer to 11 or to 49. I'm going to assume the most extreme scenario of 49 trains a day; it's still less than four an hour.

The TriboroRX proposal also doesn't take into account the plans to run Metro-North trains from New Haven to Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge. This would run five trains an hour in each direction during peak hours, a substantial addition to Amtrak's current ten trains per day.

Adding it all up, it looks like the following by the hour:

SegmentMax tracksCurrent freightCross-Harbor freightAmtrakCommuter railtotal
Hell Gate4<1421014
NY CR2<14004
Bay Ridge FP to Brighton Line4<15005
Bay Ridge Brighton Line to McDonald2<15005
Bay Ridge McDonald to BAT8<15005

Here's the bottom line:
  • Hell Gate: Amtrak, Metro-North and freight trains could fit two tracks if the freight trains are all run on off-peak hours, leaving two tracks for TriboroRX service. Some Metro-North trains could potentially share tracks with the TriboroRX trains to make room for more freight or Amtrak trains.

  • NY Connecting Railroad: Requires widening, time-sharing or commuter rail.

  • Bay Ridge Branch from Fresh Pond to Brighton Line: Freight trains can run in one or two tracks, leaving two tracks for passenger service.

  • Bay Ridge Branch from Brighton Line to McDonald Avenue: Requires widening, time-sharing or commuter rail.

  • Bay Ridge Branch from McDonald Avenue to the Brooklyn Army Terminal: Wide enough for anything.


Joby said...

cap'n this has always been one of the complications of the triboro rx proposal. However, Robert Moses actually anticipated having a double decker configuration with trains below and the cross-brooklyn expressway above, so its not inconcievable that the cut could be deepened, decked and covered so as to provide 2 levels of subway one level for passengers another for frieght.
- This of course is a costly proposal, but that doesn't mean its not worth doing.

CityLights said...

As a Staten Islander, I have my hopes on connecting Bay Ridge to Staten Island via tunnel, but it looks like Staten Island gets the shaft (not literally) as usual.

A tunnel to Staten Island would extend existing rail service from New Jersey that now terminates on the Island's west side. It would open the possibility of connecting NJ Transit to the LIRR and/or provide subway service between Staten Island and Brooklyn. Is anyone at all considering this idea?

Having the railroad run through Staten Island instead of New Jersey would mean more jobs in the city- since the rail yard can be located in Staten Island, not New Jersey. The only possible obstacle I can see is inability to expand the old North Shore right-of-way sufficiently to meet demand.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comment, Joby. One of the main selling points for the TriboroRX is that it's "cheap." If you just have to put rails back in an existing right-of-way, rebuild some stations and buy more cars, that's pretty darn cheap for a subway line. If you have to dig a cut-and-cover tunnel under an active freight line, even for a portion of the route, it's not quite as cheap. Still cheaper than a cut-and-cover tunnel under a street, and a lot cheaper than a bored tunnel, but not just like laying some tracks.

Cap'n Transit said...

Citylights, just so you know I agree with you in general. I'll write a post about Staten Island soon.

Joby said...

I fully understand and appreciate what you are saying. However, my understanding is that the most costly part of any rail expansion will be acquiring a ROW and NIMBYism. You bypass this by using an existing ROW. You are correct that it isnt simple. But given that gas prices are soon to hit 7-8$ a gallon federal money will be shifting to rail. NYC should have the proposal ready to drop on a congressmans desk when the time comes.

Alex said...

Everything is expensive if you look at it from the right perspective. The problem is the east side access project and the second avenue subway are gobbling up all the money, nothing else can happen until they are out of the way. The prospect of widening a trench for a few miles in Brooklyn is nothing compared to the costs of building a whole new train station in bedrock under Grand Central. TriboroRX certainly seems important enough to get the attention and money it deserves when the other two are done. It would be interesting to compare the scope and cost of this project to the circle line in Chicago which I think is a bit further along.

Also, weren't there plans for a greenway along part of this route in Brooklyn? Is there anyway to fit a running path and bike lane here as well? Would it have to be built over the railroad?