Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bridge Route

In the comments to my last post about the lack of redundancy on the Northeast Corridor, Adam missed part of the point:
The main problem with the Tappan Zee alignment is that it skips NYC, the most important stop on the train. Ideally, we'd have six tracks under each river for either commuter or long distance trains.

Adam's proposal would not provide very much redundancy, as CityLights observed in suggesting that a Staten Island route would "serve as backup route in case something happens in Manhattan." Redundancy doesn't just mean having multiple routes, it means having routes that connect multiple locations without going through the same point. Something that can take out two tracks in Midtown Manhattan could also take out six.

What is really frustrating in all this is that there used to be a very good set of alternative routes to the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New Haven, and the New Haven Railroad between Philadelphia and Boston, that combined would have allowed trains to completely bypass the pinch points I described in my previous posts. Various combinations of these were called the Poughkeepsie Bridge Route, the Federal Express route, and the Alphabet Route. Freight trains used the route regularly from 1890 to 1974, and passenger trains for part of that time.

The key is the Poughkeepsie Bridge, a railroad bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, which connected the Erie hubs at Maybrook and Campbell Hall to the Central New England hubs at Hopewell Junction and Boston Corners. The rail superstructure on the bridge was badly damaged in a fire in 1974 and never rebuilt, and the tracks between Maybrook and Hopewell Junction have been abandoned.

The bridge structure itself is still solid, and the right-of-way is still intact. If restored, the tracks could move passengers and freight from New England to Pennsylvania and points south and west without going through New York City, taking pressure off the Northeast Corridor and the bridge at Selkirk. Even though there's only room for a single track, the lines on either side could be double-tracked.

Well, readers, you'll be interested to know that a group of visionary citizens has gotten together to restore the bridge. After fighting for many years, they've gotten the support of political leaders, and their project has received a share of the federal stimulus funding. If all goes according to plan, in October the bridge will reopen ... as a rail-trail.

Now don't get me wrong, I love rail-trails. I've spent many happy hours strolling the Airline and cycling the Old Put. But you've got to keep your priorities straight. A rail-trail from Maybrook to Hopewell Junction is not worth our budget dollars, it's not worth our stimulus dollars, and it's certainly not worth using the only rail crossing infrastructure between Penn Station and Selkirk. All this activism, political capital and money could have gone into upgrading the multi-use walkways on either side of the Mid-Hudson Bridge and providing the staff to keep them open and safe after dark. That's really all you need to have a decent connection between rail-trails on either side of the Hudson.

"But Cap'n," you say, "there are no tracks. It would cost millions to restore the tracks from Maybrook to Hopewell, and many of the lines that used to connect at those points are gone too. You're talking about billions to get it back to the point where you can have normal speed electric passenger trains between D.C. and Boston using this route."

Maybe billions is what it would take. But I would argue that billions spent on a project like that would revitalize Orange and Dutchess counties and provide much needed redundancy on the Northeast Corridor. The restored capacity would also shift thousands of car and plane trips to transit, with their attendant benefits of increased efficiency, improved social structures and reduced pollution and carnage. Isn't that worth a few billion?

Finally, let me compare this proposal to the disastrous Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project, which the good folks at Tri-State seem to think would be worth $14 billion (and counting) and three new vehicle lanes just so that they can put "helped introduce BRT® to the NY area" on their resumes. If expanding a highway bridge is worth $14 billion, surely maximizing the passenger throughput of an existing rail facility is worth half that. Right?


MHJ said...

Investing in our infrastructure is a vital way to jumpstart the economy by creating jobs and better access to urban and rural areas across the nation AND a great way to create new technology that can benefit people worldwide.

AlexB said...

Besides some super tunnel from Newark to Westchester, I think the best option is new track (HSR?) along 287, the Tappan Zee, and the West Shore Line (or Pascack Valley). You have to rebuild the Tappan Zee anyway, greater access to White Plains is desirable, and the right of way exists. The train could also be re-routed along various connecting lines to Penn Station if necessary (Harlem, Hudson, Pascack, West Shore, etc.) In terms of longer distance rail customers, it could capture the markets in a lot of NJ, Westchester and the Hudson River Valley. If it passed through Secaucus, it could also attract NYC riders with a 10 min Penn-Secaucus shuttle. Yet, it would still be helpful if there were a disaster in Manhattan or something mundane happened in the East River tunnels or the Hells Gate Bridge.

The thought of another new set of tracks paralleling the Penn RR tracks makes me tired. After the $15 billion or so to be spent on ARC and THE, there's other things that attention besides suburban access to midtown. Unless they want to connect something that goes to Grand Central with something that goes to Penn, I think we have enough trains to midtown for now.

The Staten Island/Brooklyn route is interesting, but not very cost effective. Unless you built a tunnel under the Long Island Sound AND the Narrows (each of which is a MASSIVE undertaking), you'd still have to go over the Hells Gate Bridge. It already has Amtrak and could soon have Metro North and possibly even a subway line. The Hells Gate won't have the capacity or provide the requisite redundancy. Also, even though the route would attract Brooklyn/Queens and LI riders, it doesn't go through any major job centers.

The Poughkeepsie bridge is definitely not worth billions. The adds too many miles to the Boston-DC route, won't attract many new customers, and Orange/Dutchess counties don't need any revitalization. If people start acting like a new Costco in Poughkeepsie is as amazing as one in the south Bronx, then I'll start to worry.