Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What we can learn from Paris

Last week, the Transport Politic ran two guest posts (part one, part two) from Alon Levy about the benefits of Paris's Regional Express Network (RER) and ways to bring them to New York. For many months I've found Alon's commentary to be very well-informed and helpful, and I encourage everyone to read and digest these two posts. Alon's explanation of the benefits of through-running will be useful to any plan for transit in New York, regardless of mode. I have a few quibbles with the analogy, and a few suggestions that I hope will fine-tune Alon's proposal and make it even better.

In some ways, Paris and New York are two very different metropolitan areas. According to Wikipedia, the population of the New York urban area is about twice that of the Paris urban area, and covers almost three times the area. Paris is the capital of France and of the Ile-de-France region, while New York is not even the capital of New York State, and the metro area is spread out across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Still, there are many similarities: both are cosmopolitan centers of finance and culture, and have long attracted and absorbed large immigrant populations from afar. By the early twentieth century, both cities had extensive subway and intercity/commuter/freight rail networks; I've written before about where they diverged, how Paris developed a better rail network while New York stagnated, how the ARC project showed promise for replicating Paris's success, and how it currently seems to be headed down a dead-end.

Now to Alon's proposal. The first place where it differs from the Paris RER is in the initial segments. Alon writes, "RATP bought two unprofitable commuter lines from SNCF and connected them with new subways." These lines (the Saint-Germain and Sceaux lines) also happened to be lines with minimal branches or connections to other lines, which allowed the fare and electrification systems to be implemented in a contained way.

Of course, the isolation of the lines (and of the Vincennes line which was not sold by the SNCF but still used for the RER, and of the five-mile initial branch that was constructed to Marne-la-Vallée) was part of the reason they were unprofitable, and tying them into the network raised their profitability. If not for the RER they might have been abandoned like the Old Put and the New York, Westchester and Boston, or used only for freight like the West Shore and Lehigh Valley lines.

That brings me to my next point - one of my favorite ones: why should we implement any kind of RER-type system in New York? Today we just found out that financial pressures have forced the MTA to push the Second Avenue Subway completion date back another year. Alon wants us to not just finish the subway, but to dig three new commuter rail tunnels deep below Manhattan, two below the Hudson, one below the East River - and another one across the harbor lengthwise.

We're talking billions of dollars here. What would we get for it? That's the question that the politicians and voters will be asking. Now we transit geeks know what we want out of it: a shiny, flashy, speedy new train network. But there are lots of non-transit geeks who would argue that for a mere fraction of the cost we could simply buy one-way tickets to Paris for all the transit geeks to go look at the one over there.

Alon gives some further justification for his plan. The primary benefit he foresees is a huge gain in efficiency from through-running trains instead of turning them in Manhattan and storing them in the nearby yards. Additionally, there is the potential to increase ridership, presumably leading to higher farebox recovery and possibly recouping some of the cost of the tunnels and electrification. Finally, there is the potential for transit-oriented development.

I agree that we should make improvements of this kind here in New York, and I agree with Alon's reasons, but I think they need to be thought out in a bit more detail. That thinking out can quantify some of these benefits more and lead to better prioritization of the steps involved in implementing such a plan, and hopefully to a better chance of selling it to politicians and the public.

So thanks to Alon for putting these posts together, to Yonah for giving him the space, and to everyone who's commented so far. I'm looking forward to a lot more interesting posts on this topic.


Adam said...

I said in the other topic that a much cheaper, though not as direct, way to connect Staten Island to NYC is to go west. Extend the SIR to Perth Amboy where it can connect with the NJ Coast Line, and those who live in southwest SI and work in Midtown just cut 30 mins at least out of their commute.

And as much as I hate to say this, in order for a rail terminal to be effective, it must have six tracks going into it at least. Or, it should have maximum through capacity. So some sort of tunnel needs to be built to access Penn and needs to connect to somewhere else. This is specifically for NJT and Amtrak because LIRR has West Side Yards so capacity is not an issue for them (I believe; correct me if I'm wrong).

Cap'n Transit said...

Good points, Adam, but Staten Island already has a rail bridge to NJ at the north end. It's single-track, but no point in building a new one until that one is at capacity.

Can you explain why you believe six tracks are necessary? That would actually help me with a follow-up post.

Adam said...

Most terminal rail stations have 6-8 tracks in the half-mile or so leading up to the station, and that's just for the long distance terminal; the commuter terminals are separate. At our terminals, lack of capacity forces all the trains together.

In order for trains to access the existing SI rail bridge we need to repair the existing North Shore line, and I think there might be a break in the line between Port Richmond and the ferry. The other problem with that is there's no station on the NEC where it crosses, so it would have to divert up to Elizabeth, at which point it's VERY close to EWR, so it would probably be worth it to extend it to EWR at that point. And then it's close to NWK and the PATH, so you start talking about all these extensions.

And still, this doesn't address Tottenville and the rest of southwest SI.

Alon Levy said...

A two-track rapid transit terminal can move about 24 tph, a limit which is achieved on the 7 at Times Square. Regional rail needs to dwell slightly longer because its trains need more seated capacity which means fewer doors, but even then, the RER A achieves about 12 tph at its ends. The regional rail map will not break 12 tph on any two-track branch; its main capacity issue will be the North River Tunnels (even with 4 tracks), not terminal tracks.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adam, in response to your point about the West Side Yards, the equivalent for Amtrak and NJ Transit are the Sunnyside Yards. Just as trains from Long Island that are not turned are sent to the West Side Yards, trains from NJ that are not turned (or run through on the NEC) are sent through the East River Tunnels to Sunnyside. You can see them being stored there during the day; just take a ride out on the 7 train and look to your left after Queensborough Plaza.

Anonymous said...

Points are amazing....
why you believe six tracks are necessary?

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