Last week I talked about the practical differences between light rail, streetcars, subways and commuter rail. We have light rail right across the river in Hudson County, and there have been several proposals for streetcars and light rail here in New York City. I want to mention a few possibilities and discuss their technical and political feasibility.
As I pointed out last week, the lower construction cost of streetcars and light rail comes primarily from shorter, lighter trains and lack of grade separation. These in turn limit your capacity and speed, meaning that if you build the wrong system you can wind up with overcrowded trains and frustrated passengers, and not get as many people out of their cars as you could with a heavier system. The consequences of this in turn are that if you can afford light rail, don't build a streetcar. If you can afford a subway or an el, don't build light rail.
With that in mind, consider Raanan Geberer's suggestion, "How about light rail on the old Rockaway line?" Geberer is clearly a supporter of transit and he's trying to be helpful, but the old Rockaway Beach Branch is completely grade-separated. It should be returned to Long Island Rail Road trains, or connected to the subway, along the lines of Capt. Subway's proposal, to take full advantage of its potential.
Some of the supporters of rail on the Rockaway Beach Branch have mentioned the possibility of running light rail from Rockaway Park or Ozone Park onto the old "Lower Montauk" branch to Long Island City. The problem is that there are at least two freight trains a day that use those tracks. Because of the Federal Railroad Administration rules, the only way to run light rail would be to limit the freight trains to overnight hours. Unfortunately, I don't see enough potential ridership to justify that time separation. It might be more feasible to run a short diesel-multiple-unit shuttle, especially if it could be done without paying a lot of conductors.
So why do people like Geberer seem to think light rail would be so much better than subways or commuter rail? They are claimed to be quieter, but this is not really true. Yes, the heavier the train the more noise it makes, but that's a relatively minor factor. The noise is primarily a function of the supporting structure. The #7 train is elevated on reinforced concrete in Sunnyside and plain old steel everywhere else. You can have a conversation under the el in Sunnyside, but not in Woodside or Corona. This would not change significantly if you ran light rail trains on the same structures.
The main argument given by proponents of light rail on these lines is that it is somehow more modern than subways or commuter rail. This is nonsense: many of the tracks of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw trains long before subways ran in New York City, and many of the cars in use on the New York subway and the Long Island Railroad are newer than the cars on the HBLR.
Sadly, this seems to be another case of what Ryan McGreal called "cargo cult urbanism": if it works in Jersey City and Phoenix and Seattle, it should be the hot new thing here in New York. (Cyclists who promote "BRT" as a panacea seem to have a similar shallowness of thinking.) In part, it's because many of the most ambitious new train lines are being built as light rail in places like Salt Lake City and Charlotte.
The thing is that those lines are being built as light rail for two reasons: (1) freight railroads have been abandoning their less-used lines all over the country, and (2) any new rail lines have faced such stiff competition from new highways that ridership projections haven't justified grade separation. Neither of those apply here in New York City. There is still a market for freight trains on the Bushwick, Bay Ridge and Montauk Branches and the Oak Point Link in the Bronx. None of these railroads are going to be abandoned any time soon. And there is such demand for transit that we could pack any new light rail trains that are run.
So I've pretty much ruled out mixed-traffic streetcars and legacy-freight light rail here in New York City. The one area where light rail or streetcars would make sense here is if we can dedicate lanes to them. If we can dedicate lanes to buses, we can dedicate them to streetcars or light rail. I looked at this issue almost six years ago, but it might be time for a re-look soon.