Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What to Do with the Steinway Tunnel

I'll admit it: my last post was a setup. Thanks - and apologies - go to faithful reader Alon Levy, who proved the perfect foil for my strategy. When I proposed running 9.75 foot wide B Division cars on the Flushing Line, he wrote, "Widening the Steinway Tunnels for this to be feasible is even harder than converting the Contract 1-2 IRT to Division B specs." He's absolutely right. As was discussed in detail in the SubChat thread I linked to, the Steinway Tunnels were built of cast iron between 1886 and 1907 for streetcars, and can't easily be widened to accommodate the B Division cars.

What's that you say? The Steinway Tunnels were built for streetcars? Well, it's been said that good streets include streetcars, and we've got a bad street on our hands. Queens Boulevard has killed too many people, and despite the best efforts of the DOT to change it without really changing it, it's still killing people.

The family of Asif Rahman has called for part of Queens Boulevard to be converted into a bike lane. That call has been taken up by Transportation Alternatives, Councilmember Gennaro and others. One potential criticism of that plan is that unless the new bike lane is full of cyclists from day one, it will represent a reduction in capacity.

That capacity could be maintained by adding a streetcar line to the Boulevard. In other parts of the world it is recognized that adding streetcars can calm dangerous boulevards at the same time as they increase mobility.

It's true that Queens Boulevard is served by several subway lines, but there is no subway service between 49th Street and Broadway, two miles out of the Boulevard's seven mile length. That section has recently been upzoned to encourage density, but it's not as near transit as it should be. Some of that section is walking distance from the subway, but in many parts it's a long walk. For several years the Boulevard had both trolleys and subways, and the demise of the trolley company can't necessarily be taken as an indication that the trolleys didn't work.

Also, the #7 train and the Queens Boulevard subway line are some of the most crowded trains in the city. There are a lot of people who want to go short distances along the Boulevard, and the Q60 bus is often slow and unreliable. If you're going from Forest Hills to Rego Park, or LIC to Sunnyside, it's quicker to hop on a trolley than to go down into the subway and back up again. If you're going from Sunnyside to Elmhurst, it's a lot quicker to take one trolley than two subways.

Even better, the streetcar can serve a lot of people who now take the #7 to Manhattan from Sunnyside and Woodside. Instead, they can get on the streetcar. The tracks can run down Queens Boulevard (in a dedicated right-of-way, naturally) to the Sunnyside Yards, and then go either over or under the LIRR tracks to the portal at Hunterspoint Avenue. From there it's a quick shot through the tunnel to Grand Central, Fifth Avenue and Times Square. That means a lot less people trying to squeeze onto the former #7 train at 46th Street.

If trolleys are too outlandish for the alternative-transportation crowd in New York to get behind, you could do it with Bus Rapid Transit too. It would cost almost as much and look shitty, but it would have a similar traffic calming effect.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Crowding on the #7? Widen the trains

A number of people have complained to me about crowding on the #7 train at rush hour, and they say it's only getting worse. The MTA has recently added more trains, but they say they're already running as many Well, here's a possible solution that's been floating around for years: widen the trains.

The elevated structures that now support the #7 in Long Island City, Woodside and out to Corona, and the N in LIC and Astoria, were built by the City in 1916 as part of the Dual Contracts with the two major transit companies, the Interboro Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company. They used to both be connected through the Steinway Tunnel to Times Square and across the Queensboro Bridge to the Second Avenue El. Like most of the els in Manhattan, and like the IRT routes, the platforms were built for trains that were 8.8 feet wide.

The tracks were supposed to be for the benefit of the BMT, and in 1920 the BMT built a tunnel under 60th Street to connect its tracks to Queensboro Plaza. Unfortunately, the BMT trains were 9.75 feet wide and couldn't fit between these platforms, so everyone had to change trains.

In 1942 the City demolished the Second Avenue El, and in 1949 it assigned the Astoria line to the BMT. The platforms were cut back to accommodate the BMT trains, and the 60th Street tunnel was connected to the line. The result was the service pattern that exists today: the 9.75 foot N and W trains from the 60th Street Tunnel go onto the Astoria line, and the 8.8 foot 7 trains from the Steinway Tunnel go onto the Flushing line.

The #7 train currently runs trains with eleven R62A cars. Each car can hold 182 people, for a total of 2002 passengers. If we cut back the platforms on the Flushing Line, the MTA could run trains with ten R160B cars. Each of these can hold 240 people, for a total of 2400 passengers. In other words, switching to B division trains would allow 400 more people to fit on each train.

(P.S. I highly recommend this SubTalk post).

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Rail Bank and (mis)Trust

Banking operates on trust; many of them used to have the word in their names. When you deposit money in a bank, you expect it to be there if you need it. If a banker ever told you, "Gee, you know, I've actually come to like this money a lot, and I really need it to buy gym equipment," you'd take them to court.

Apparently trust doesn't go for much in the world of railbanking. This process was set up in the late twentieth century when railroads were going bankrupt. The freight business was dwindling, and railroad companies didn't want to pay to maintain lines that they didn't use. At first, they just abandoned them, but then the government recognized that many of them had acquired their rights-of-way with government subsidies.

Rather than give that land away for free, Congress passed laws allowing agencies and nonprofits to buy it and convert it temporarily to recreational trails. There was always the implied guarantee that rail uses for these corridors was still a priority, and that if a railroad wanted the land back it could get it easily. The term "railbanking" deliberately invoked a metaphor with financial banking: you deposit the right-of-way to keep it safe for future use.

Nowadays, with driving and motor freight getting more and more expensive, current rail corridors are getting overburdened. In places like the D.C. suburbs, people are looking at reactivating the rail corridors, and encountering resistance. Many of the opponents object to active rail lines in their backyards or parks, but others object to returning rail-trails to their previous uses.

Because of this, I think it's appropriate to look at rail-trail projects with a certain amount of skepticism. Mrs. Transit and I are members of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and we get their magazine, which is invariably upbeat and cheery. It's full of exciting stories about how this old railroad line has been transformed into a trail with educational exhibits telling kids about its history, and that one is used by commuters in some small city in the Midwest.

What it often glosses over, of course, is the loss of passenger and freight capacity that occurred when the line was abandoned. How the people who lived nearby were forced to drive or take buses whether they wanted to or not, and how the roads were widened to accommodate the increased car and truck traffic. It also glosses over any hint that the right-of-way could or should ever revert to rail use.

There are some times when I read about a trail and think, "well, that's nice, but imagine if they still had commuter rail along that line. Or if this town had Amtrak service three times a day."

Don't get me wrong, I love rail-trails. Plenty of times I want to go for a nice long walk in the woods, but I don't want to climb a narrow twisty hiking path or worry about cars on a suburban road. I've spent many an enjoyable hour on the South and North County Trailways, the Walkill Valley Rail-Trail and other wonderful paths in the region. I think that we need more long-distance corridors for walking and biking that can give people a break from dealing with cars. But I think that often, we have a greater need for trains, and we need to think about that when deciding what to do with particular corridors.