Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why you should care about the Cross-Harbor rail freight tunnel

For years, people have been talking about a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, but it hasn't caught on in the public's imagination. Look, already with you! You're thinking, "Geez, do I really want to read some post about a freight tunnel? I don't ship freight. What do I care?" But you should, so don't close this window! Here's why: less carnage, saving tax money, no more highway hostages. Read on for details.

Ever since the Poughkeepsie Bridge was closed, freight trains going from west of the Hudson (New Jersey, most of upstate, most of the rest of the continent) to east of the Hudson (New York City, Long Island, Westchester, New England) have had to go all the way up to Selkirk, a tiny hamlet south of Albany, to cross the river.

There are two alternatives to the "Selkirk hurdle": put the rail cars on a barge across the harbor, or transfer the goods to trucks. A lot of shippers have been using a third alternative: sending the stuff on trucks the whole way. And of course that means more trucks and bigger trucks.

How do trucks get across the Hudson? On the Verrazano, George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges, and through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. How do they get from Brooklyn to Queens? On the BQE. How do they get from Queens to the Bronx? Over the Queensboro Bridge and on Manhattan streets.


The proposed Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel would allow trains from west of the Hudson to travel through Jersey City and Brooklyn to points east. They would connect to yards in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Long Island where goods could be loaded onto trucks. The estimate is that a million trucks would be removed from the region's roads. Because the trucks would be doing short distribution runs, they could be smaller. Here are some reasons why that's a good thing for us:

1. Carnage. Smaller trucks are safer in an urban environment. The safest truck, of course, is no truck at all.

2. Road maintenance. The amount of damage that a vehicle inflicts on a road is proportional to the fourth power of that vehicle's weight. Getting this heavy freight off our asphalt roads and onto steel rails would save a lot in maintenance.

3. No more hostages. If you're like me, you've come up with a great argument against a wasteful road project, when some smart-ass busts out, "Well, you may not drive, but your groceries got there by truck! You'll be paying more for cereal if the roads get congested!" They're holding your food hostage to get their road. With this project, you'll be able to smile sweetly and say, "Actually, my groceries come by train, so fuck off!"

So keep this in mind if you care about saving lives by getting big trucks off the road, or about saving money on road maintenance and construction: you like the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel. Tell your representatives!

30 comments:

Alon said...

Your groceries would get there by truck either way. The question is entirely where the point of intermodal transshipping occurs.

There are a lot of good arguments for building the tunnel, but it's not going to suddenly make annoying road enthusiasts change. On the contrary: suddenly all the people in Bay Ridge and Maspeth will start whining about how loud trains are and how adding more (much quieter, electric) commuter trains will destroy their quality of life.

capt subway said...

If the tunnel is ever built, a scheme that's been around since the 1920s and which I always thought was a great idea, one can expect freight train traffic on the NY Connecting RR to become hot & heavy, with two results:

1. As Alon notes above, the NIMBYs who live along the line can be counted on to raise holy hell.

2. The idea of the Triboro Subway using this ROW will be pretty much over and done with. Rapid transit type subway trains are just not going to be able to share the same tracks with mainline freight trains, for a whole host of reasons.

Brian Van said...

Capt-

Austin (if not many more cities) has this problem as well. A heavily used freight line cuts right through the southeastern part of the city, in a residential neighborhood, and it's quite loud.

Thinking creatively (if unrealistically) for a second here, is there any potential in technology advancing to cut the noise levels of freight trains? It's one thing to hold the horn - the South Brooklyn ROW has no grade crossings - but they could probably find a way to tone down the seismic impact of it? It'd be really helpful here. Cities need quiet freight rail more than they need more box trucks and semi-trailers.

AlexB said...

I thought there was room on most of the ROW for four tracks, i.e. two for the tiboro and two for the freight line? No?

The tunnel is a great idea, but I heard it would only decrease existing truck traffic by 10%. At a multi-billion dollar price tag, it can only be justified in the very long term.

It's also not as simple as just building the tunnel. The tracks on both sides of the harbor would need huge amounts of work to accommodate this kind of thing.

I've always been confused about one thing: if they can get freight trains from New Jersey to Staten Island, wouldn't it be easier to build a tunnel from there?

arcady said...

This project is long overdue, though there are a few oddities in the current proposal, the most odd of which is the fact that they're not even considering electrification. A tunnel that long requires some fancy ventilation arrangements with diesel engines, and electrification might actually help to cut costs by allowing a smaller tunnel, or one with more tracks in a given profile. It would also cut down some of the noise from freight trains, as diesel engines can be pretty audible from a significant distance. There's still the wheel-rail noise to deal with, but tht can be reduced by carefully placed sound barriers somewhere near rail level.

capt subway said...
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capt subway said...

In response to Arkady: yes electrification for a tunnel that long might be necessary. Although the second St Clair RR tunnel, between Ontario & Michigan, handling both freight & passenger trains, is not electrified, so then again maybe not. BTW keep in mind that the NY Conn RR, opened in 1916 along with the Hell Gate Bridge, was electrified with overhead AC from 1927 until 1970, at which time it was de-juiced.

In response to Alex B regarding the width of the ROW: for a greater part of its length the ROW is only 2 tracks wide. So, yes, this would present a serious problem for possible use by subway trains.

arcady said...

The Detroit-Windsor tunnel is about 1.6 miles, portal to portal. The Sarnia-Port Huron tunnel is only 1.14 miles. The Cross-Harbor tunnel would be some 4.5 miles long, which is considerably longer. The Hoosac Tunnel is about as long, but has a ventilation shaft in the middle. And using electric traction might allow for a shorter tunnel, with steeper grades, both because electric locomotives are more powerful and because diesels might be limited in how hard they can pull by the capacity of the ventilation system to extract the exhaust.

Also, another issue to consider with this line is what happens if it becomes a major transit corridor. There's plenty of freight lines in New Jersey, but on the east end, that freight traffic will all have to fit either somewhere on Long Island, or on the MN Hudson and New Haven Lines, all of which are pretty full already.

Alon said...

Don't forget, the only connection through Staten Island is being severed to make room for a busway. And if it weren't, it still would need to be severed to make room for frequent passenger rail.

threestationsquare said...

@capt subway: The TriboroRX (Bay Ridge/NYCRR) ROW is 4 tracks wide across the Hell Gate bridge (freight trains could easily share with Amtrak), 4 tracks wide between Fresh Pond Yard and the Brighton Line, and more than 4 tracks wide between McDonald Ave and the proposed tunnel portal. Between Fresh Pond and the Hell Gate Bridge, freight trains could use the Lower Montauk branch, then use the curve into Sunnyside Yard and reach the bridge that way, leaving the straighter NYCRR route for rapid transit. Between McDonald and the Brighton Line there's a genuine conflict, and rapid transit trains on the Triboro route might have to terminate at the Brighton Line initially, but that problem section is less than 1 mile out of 20+ miles of ROW.

transport_eng said...
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transport_eng said...

Try a train ferry. Not a car float. Train ferry. It can take an entire 7000' train across on a single trip. It will need to be 200' x 950' and double ended for Ro-Ro operation. It won't cost billions like a tunnel would. Get an old Suez-max or Malacca-max tanker and rebuild it.

As for noise, they could go with embedded rail ladder track with welded rails for vibration reduction and sound absorbing wall panels for noise mitigation. Partial decking over in open cut locations and catenary electrification are 2 other things they should consider.

TriboroRX is still easily feasible considering that freight train frequency is low enough to run frequent EMU service with overtake locations where the ROW is 4 tracks wide.

Another factor allowing for rapid rail passenger operation is that freight trains can run mostly Midday and at night. That way trains bound for Boston and mid-Long Island can get there by the early enough for truck delivery prior to AM rush.

transport_eng said...

Alon:
Trucks running to and from intermodal terminals can be electric or CNG as the runs can be shorter and the transfer facilities can have charging and natural gas refueling facilities.

Queens Crapper said...

As for people in the outer borough neighborhoods that you despise so much, they do not object based on noise coming from trains. They object because the intermodal facilities were to be located in their neighborhoods sending thousands more trucks to them. Well, unless Newtown Creek is filled in and eminent domain is used on a wide scale, which environmentalists as well as locals will challenge, there will be no intermodal in Maspeth. Why should one neighborhood take on the burden of all the city's trucks? Not to mention there is already a bottleneck at Fresh Pond Yard with the increase in garbage trains coming from Brooklyn, Long Island and soon - 1/2 of Queens. So no one will be receiving their groceries by rail as projected, unless they like spoiled milk.

Cap'n Transit said...

Crapper, I don't despise any neighborhood, though I understand how convenient it would be for you if I did. My own neighborhood is forecast to see increased truck traffic from the tunnel. Why do you despise the residents of all the neighborhoods that would see a reduction in truck traffic?

Queens Crapper said...

What neighborhoods would see a reduction in truck traffic? All goods will still be shipped by truck to their final destinations. I should accept a gigantic intermodal in my neighborhood so other neighborhoods can have cleaner air? I already live in an asthma alley and in an neighborhood that is vastly overburdened with "necessities" that help other neighborhoods.

Furthermore, the only export we have to ship via rail is garbage, and that's already being done. Do you really think that companies already shipping goods by truck are going to switch to shipping by truck to rail and then from rail to truck? Not going to happen.

Queens Crapper said...

And all imports and exports will have to pass through a railyard that hasn't seen an upgrade since it was built in the 19th century and can't handle current train traffic. Are you aware that freight trains sit waiting at Fresh Pond for days to be switched between LIRR and CSX tracks? Cross Harbor mentions NOTHING about this issue.

transport_eng said...

Crapper:
Having shorter runs allow for electric and low emission vehicles, as well as lighter delivery vehicles. Currently, natural gas is significantly cheaper and cleaner than diesel. Electric trucks charged with cheap late night-early morning electricity also has an edge vs diesel.

The main benefit is cutting down on cross country and long distance semis. That includes Maspeth due to the large number of warehouses and factories in the area that receive shipments.

I can't discount that Maspeth won't see a net increase, but truck routing can be predominately to and from the highways along streets in industrial western areas away from residential sections of Maspeth. Coupled with low and zero emission vehicles, and air quality might improve.

The South Bronx will also see a marked decrease in interstate truck traffic as rail displaces long distance 18 wheelers. Local deliveries will still run from the warehouses and wholesale markets, but they can be electrified or run on CNG.

Maspeth and Ridgewood will not be the only area to see an uptick in rail traffic. Brooklyn Terminal Market will also have an uptick. The Bush Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal will also see a bump up. So will Brookhaven in Suffolk County, where they just completed a intermodal rail facility. The Small LIC and Arch St yards can see a bump too. Its not inconceivable that they can have a small freight facility at Sunnyside Yards too.

Long waits at Fresh Ponds can also be the result of low crew staffing and equipment count for NY&A when several trains end up at Fresh Ponds. More trains running on these sections will require modern signalling, and track upgrades. More trains will also financially justify more crews and locomotives. That will allow for a greater number of trains to run and move through quickly.

Currently, they need to split the incoming trains up and send them in up to 4 directions. At the same time, the outbound trains need to go out on time (esp trash trains). It can take time for them to get all the cars to where they need to go. NY&A also has to work with New York New Jersey Rail (NYNJ, which is Port Authority NY NJ), CSX and LIRR. This can complicate things as weather delays on current (small and light) car floats can delay NY&A and CSX movements.

Cross Harbor (NYCH) no longer exists. NYNJ is operating the car float.

Some rail cars are also empty and are waiting for shipments at locations that might already have full sidings. Another scenario is that shippers will use the cars for the minimal time necessary. Thus the cars wait until needed.

As for shipment via intermodal means, there are advantages for rail. If the distance is long enough, costs (diesel and labor) will drive shipments towards rail in less time sensitive freight. Some time sensitive freight can go over rail in high speed unit trains. This is especially true on trains with reefer cars and containers, as well as other anti-spoiling measures.

Cement loads can come via trains as trucks can be pricey and limited in capacity. Barges have a potential, but are slow and can have very indirect routes. The same can be said for sand and crushed stone. There is a benefit to aging bridges and roads from a reduction of 40-60 ton GVW trucks.

Eminent domain is not necessary if the designers have any imagination. You can offload trains rapidly with multiple mobile gantry cranes that move alongside a train, offloading intermodal containers and TOFC to waiting trucks.

Alon said...

There already is a neighborhood that sees a disproportionate share of the truck traffic. It's called East Harlem, and has asthma rates way higher than those of NIMBYville, Queens.

Queens Crapper said...

"East Harlem has higher rates of asthma than your neighborhood!" Um, ok. Actually, the Bronx has higher rates of asthma than both. Yet they aren't saying 'please dump more trucks here because we don't want to be called NIMBY and this will help the city as a whole' are they? No, actually, they are screaming to get detrimental things out of their neighborhood and demanding environmental justice. My neighborhood not only has high asthma rates but is also a cancer cluster. Diesel fumes cause both. What neighborhood should be asked to take on tens of thousand more truck trips a day? What about our environmental justice?

As for transport_eng's nice narrative, unfortunately, that is not how transportation is planned in this city. The govt pushes for something, implements it, then the people live with the consequences until more funding can be found to mitigate the problems, if ever. Those polluting hire lobbyists to make sure any laws passed don't force them to use upgraded, expensive equipment. And "eminent domain is not necessary" is really a joke when you realize the entire creek front next to the railroad line is owned by private interests. The intermodal planned for Maspeth is to be many acres long and wide - larger than any of the railyards currently in operation. The cargo is to be offloaded, broken down, stored in huge buildings and then loaded onto trucks. There is no room for gantries or trucks at this point.

Besides, the original post did not discuss cement or non-time sensitive shipments. It said you could get your groceries via train. That's just another exaggeration of the supposed benefits of the Cross Harbor rail project. If you have to stretch the truth to convince people something is worth the time and money, then it probably isn't.

3sigma said...

Without modern transshipment facilities that take up HUGE amounts of land, it is pointless to build such a tunnel.

Also, this project will not take trucks out of local streets "delivering groceries". Local cargo deliveries are an even more serious last-mile issue than in passenger transportation.

In the past, they used horse-drawn cars to move cargo from stations to their final destinations. That is not a feasible solution. Unless you think of gigantic malls built around freight rail terminals with electric golf cart-style mini-trucks and automated systems and conveyors delivering packages to stores (not going to happen), you can't eliminate trucks from where they are most dangerous and intrusive - the local streets close to their delivery route.

transport_eng said...

Crapper:
The Diesel truck makers are swinging R&D over to CNG and electric vehicles due to diesel cost issues. South Bronx already has an electric box truck manufacturer in the works. The soonest a tunnel can be built if they started today with EIS and preliminary design is 2020. Expanded car float or large train ferry can take at least 1-2 yrs to get in place. These vehicles are available now in low quantities. By then, the vehicles should be available in numbers.

As for any doubt alternative fuel vehicles will take off, owner operated delivery trucks and vehicle fleet operators are not dumb. They pay attention to the bottom line. So do vehicle manufacturers. Competition is tough, times are tight and if you don't offer a service or product that can compete on cost or life cycle cost, you will lose market share. You better believe local politicians will push for cleaner vehicles and work to secure financing for low or zero emission vehicles from private and public sources. The fleet owners and truck makers would be happy to have access low interest loans to finance truck purchases. This is where many powerful interests align. Truck, battery, railcar, locomotive, and logistics equipment/software makers, railroad companies, fleet owners, farmers, manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers, unions, politicians in poor air quality neighborhoods, people who work and live in truck heavy and smoggy areas, natural gas and electric producers and distributors all have an interest in seeing this through.

As for eminent domain, I will repeat. If the engineers have any imagination, they will come up with a linear system that rapidly loads and offloads a train. 56 Rd runs alongside one side of the Lower Montauk for over 1/2 a mile (3200'+). The ROW is wide enough to have mobile gantry cranes straddle both tracks. The trucks will load and offload from the curb lane on 56 Rd or within the LIRR ROW. It would look like the way containers get on and off ships at dockside. The trucks will be at the cantilever end, while the train is straddled. There is a large waterfront vacant lot adjacent the ROW the City or MTA can buy (as far as I can tell, the owner is Phelps Dodge Refining) to stage trucks.

Another factor is that a train ferry or a tunnel will bring through traffic. Many trains will not stop in NYC. They will head northeast to Boston or Maine. New England has 14+ million residents. You better believe local politicians in those states will push for facilities to service those markets.

Focusing back on Produce, long distance runs from frost free California, South Texas, and Florida will likely be unit trains that will not stop in Queens. They will head to the Bronx. There, the existing yards and switches will enable the rail cars travel directly to the wholesale markets. A few additional stub tracks and curves might be necessary to speed operation. The cars that need to go back to Brooklyn Terminal Market (there is a fruit distributor there) can head back south from Oak Point Yard.

Produce shipment is one of the most visible reasons for this proposal. However, less time sensitive goods will also benefit lower shipment cost. As we import almost everything we consume in NYC, this will include many non food products that already come by truck, and already clog these neighborhoods. What this does is eliminate large numbers of interstate trucks.

transport_eng said...
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transport_eng said...

Crapper:
The Diesel truck makers are swinging R&D over to CNG and electric vehicles due to diesel cost issues. South Bronx already has an electric box truck manufacturer in the works. The soonest a tunnel can be built if they started today with EIS and preliminary design is 2020. Expanded car float or large train ferry can take at least 1-2 yrs to get in place. These vehicles are available now in low quantities. By then, the vehicles should be available in numbers.

As for any doubt alternative fuel vehicles will take off, owner operated delivery trucks and vehicle fleet operators are not dumb. They pay attention to the bottom line. So do vehicle manufacturers. Competition is tough, times are tight and if you don't offer a service or product that can compete on cost or life cycle cost, you will lose market share. You better believe local politicians will push for cleaner vehicles and work to secure financing for low or zero emission vehicles from private and public sources. The fleet owners and truck makers would be happy to have access low interest loans to finance truck purchases. This is where many powerful interests align. Truck, battery, railcar, locomotive, and logistics equipment/software makers, railroad companies, fleet owners, farmers, manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers, unions, politicians in poor air quality neighborhoods, people who work and live in truck heavy and smoggy areas, natural gas and electric producers and distributors all have an interest in seeing this through.

As for eminent domain, I will repeat. If the engineers have any imagination, they will come up with a linear system that rapidly loads and offloads a train. 56 Rd runs alongside one side of the Lower Montauk for over 1/2 a mile (3200'+) at grade level. The ROW is wide enough to have mobile gantry cranes straddle both tracks. The trucks will load and offload from the curb lane on 56 Rd or within the LIRR ROW. It would look like the way containers get on and off ships at dockside. The trucks will be at the cantilever end, while the train is straddled. There is a large waterfront vacant lot adjacent the ROW the City or MTA can buy (as far as I can tell, the owner is Phelps Dodge Refining) to stage trucks. Some of the land on the side of the ROW opposite of 56 Rd belongs either to the MTA or NYC DCAS. Public Property. Any private activity is due to rent agreements. Look up OASIS NYC or NYC DDC interactive maps.

Another factor is that a train ferry or a tunnel will bring through traffic. Many trains will not stop in NYC. They will head northeast to Boston or Maine. New England has 14+ million residents. You better believe local politicians in those states will push for facilities to service those markets.

Focusing back on Produce, long distance runs from frost free California, South Texas, and Florida will likely be unit trains that will not stop in Queens. They will head to the Bronx. There, the existing yards and switches will enable the rail cars travel directly to the wholesale markets. A few additional stub tracks and curves might be necessary to speed operation. The cars that need to go back to Brooklyn Terminal Market (there is a fruit distributor there) can head back south from Oak Point Yard.

Produce shipment is one of the most visible reasons for this proposal. However, less time sensitive goods will also benefit lower shipment cost. As we import almost everything we consume in NYC, this will include many non food products that already come by truck, and already clog these neighborhoods. What this does is eliminate large numbers of interstate trucks.

transport_eng said...

Presorting rail cars for destination is an aspect of operation that is in use. The modern practice of running remotely operable locomotives distributed along a train to reduce the strain put on freight cars at the front of on mile long trains is use. There is nothing that says a long distance unit train can't have rail cars at the front going to one place and rear cars another. A train can come to a stop in a convenient location (say Cranford Junction or Oak Island Yard in NJ). The front consist decouples and continues to Boston, while the rear takes on a crew for the remotely operable locomotive and departs for SI, Maspeth, Bronx, or LI. As mile long trains can have up to 4 locomotives, it can be separated into 4 consists. Local Class 2 and 3 railroads can repeat this at yards and junctions with their crews and locomotives to further break down trains. It requires some coordination and IT, but shouldn't be a problem with modern logistics software and management prevalent in the RR industry. This presorted stop, decouple and go setup will reduce the need for Fresh Pond to shunt cars and speed operations. If you can't manage this as a private RR, you are seen as antiquated or as an embarrassment in the industry.

If you still need shunting and sorting rail yards in NJ (Oak Island) can handle much of the sorting for inbound and outbound trains. Yards like Fresh Ponds and Oak Point will handle cars for the immediate area adjacent (South Bronx and Maspeth).

As for the need for offloading and large facilities, There are such places. They are along the waterfront in the South Bronx and Maspeth. Everyday, interstate trucks come from far away, and drop off and carry off goods and packages. Some don't even stop as they zip to and from New England and LI. Instead of trucks, trains (that can be electrified) can carry them.

What percentage of the trucks that ply the highways and streets of NYC are interstate trucks. What will happen if these diesel powered vehicles drastically shrink in number? What will happen to total air quality? What will happen to congestion? What will happen to accidents involving interstate Semis? What will happen to the total number of trucks and tonnage of trucks in factory warehouse and distribution heavy areas like Maspeth and if the interstate trucks that make trips to and through that area drop greatly in number due to trains making the shipments? In places like Hunts Point, the rail cars can pull right up to the buildings. In Maspeth, the trucks can make short natural gas or electric runs to and from warehouses. As long distance trucks no longer drive through and in and out of these areas, the roads in the vicinity will see fewer medium and heavy diesel trucks.

July 7, 2012 2:49 PM

Queens Crapper said...

None of what you have mentioned is included in the Cross Harbor proposal. Maybe it "could" be done the way you are proposing, but that's not the plan as it stands.

How about using the waterways for shipping since we are surrounded by them? PA says they are considering it as an alternative, yet whenever they schedule a public meeting, all they bring with them are slideshows and maps showing the rail network.

transport_eng said...

This is part of incremental rail and intermodal improvements to Hunts Point Markets. Just approved a few weeks ago.

https://www.dot.ny.gov/recovery/sponsors/tiger/repository/NYCEDC%20HPTPM%20Application.pdf

http://www.fra.dot.gov/roa/press_releases/fp_DOT68-12%20Hunts%20Point,%20New%20York.shtml

It doesn't include some of the improvements I suggested but it will see the light of day. It makes sense this happens before cross harbor capacity increases.

neroden@gmail said...

The cross-harbor freight tunnel has been needed for a very, very, very long time.

Only one caveat: global warming is gonna destroy most of Long Island and parts of New Jersey not protected by the Palisades, so be careful how you floodproof that sucker.

neroden@gmail said...

"Thinking creatively (if unrealistically) for a second here, is there any potential in technology advancing to cut the noise levels of freight trains"

A lot of the noise comes from poorly maintained tracks, and a lot of the rest comes from poorly maintained wheelsets on the freight cars. The rest of the noise is mostly from sharp curves, switches, and jointed track; you can't fix the first two, you can fix the third.

So practically all of this can be fixed quite easily, given the will. Many freight lines are whisper quiet apart from the horn.

Queens Crapper said...

As predicted, the port authority revealed they are considering the acquisition of 50 acres of property in Maspeth for the intermodal. So much for not using eminent domain.