Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Light rail in New York City?

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.


Alon said...

Independently of FRA issues, there's a simpler reason not to do tram-trains in New York: the tram segment would be too slow or not connect to anything interesting. If you're building rail on the Rockaway branch, you want to connect it to Manhattan. This can be done by subway or LIRR; if it's light rail, then you'd needlessly putting the line on-street for a couple km on Queens Boulevard and the Queensboro Bridge. Connecting the line to the Lower Montauk means missing the Forest Hills/Rego Park business district, and having to again slog on-street to get to the Queensboro Bridge.

The specific use of tram-trains* is for when,

a) You have a rail ROW that goes almost to but not quite where you want to go, and

b) The projected ridership doesn't justify putting the connection from the ROW to the destination underground.

The first condition holds for the HBLR, where the legacy ROWs are close to Exchange Place but require some additional segments to get to where the highest density is. The second... meh. The HBLR's construction costs make the line look entirely greenfield on-street, rather than 80% on existing ROW.

East of the Hudson, there is not a single place where the first condition holds. The railroad terminals outside Manhattan fail both conditions. West of the Hudson, I can kind of sort of see a tram-train from the Erie Lines to either Newport or Exchange Place, but honestly the projected ridership for an underground Manhattan connection is high enough that it should be built instead.

*These can be mainline tram-trains as in Karlsruhe, but also separated light rail, as in North America. The key here is that a tram-train is light rail that's fast on the outside and slow on the inside, the opposite of a subway-surface line.

Patrick O'Hara said...

Freight traffic on Long Island is increasing pretty rapidly. On the average weekday the Lower Montauk sees about 10 different freight trains (most of which traverse the Lower Montauk during the day) and daily traffic is close to 180-200 cars these days.

It also wouldn't be that unreasonable to apply this idea to the Bushwick Branch too. That would link a small, but under-served area of the city, and the former Bushwick Terminal is only about a block away from the Montrose Avenue L station. This segment also sees a substantial amount of freight traffic, however, despite it's short length.

And all of this could also be applied to the Bay Ridge Branch, and all the arguments about the Triboro RX would surface (and many of those arguments would probably also apply to any sort of rail, light rail, or subway implementation on the Lower Montauk, Rockaway Beach, or Bushwick Branches as well).

BruceMcF said...

A streetcar either in a dedicate street lane, or in lane dedicated to light rail and express buses but closed to mixed vehicle traffic, would offer substantially better more predictable rail transit than a mixed-traffic streetcar, which translates to quicker turns, tighter layovers and so more trips per vehicle per day ... but even at a five minute frequency, the route would have to be intermediate between a regular bus route and a route that can support a four car or longer commuter service to be appropriate for that role ... more along the lines of a circumferential route that connects to mass transit stations and secondary employment centers than a main backbone route to a primary employment center.

fbfree said...

There's a few factors that go into making elevated trains quieter. You covered:
1) Weight of the train, especially the unsuspended components.
2) The material of the structure. There's a few different effects here though.

What you didn't cover is:
a) Eliminating or reducing rail gaps by using continuously welded rails, frog switches, and higher quality turnouts.
b) Steerable bogies on the cars.
c) Improved track maintenance. BTW, lighter rail cars also help keep the track up to spec.

I haven't experienced transit in New York, but I've experienced both Skytrain in Vancouver and the Chicago 'L'. Growing up in Vancouver, I didn't understand why people, and especially New Yorkers, were so vehemently opposed to elevated rail. Chicago convinced me that traditional els are a detraction.

Around New York, compare the 7 to the JFK airtrain. The latter of follows at least the first 4 or 5 points above (using the same technology as Vancouver).

Matthew said...

I think there are only a few places where it would make sense to build streetcars in NYC, and where it would be political possible, as well as fiscally affordable. I think it is possible that we could upgrade a few of the best performing Select Bus Service routes to streetcars. Most of the infrastructure which was put in for SBS could be reused for a streetcar. All of the off-board fare collection machines would be kept, the improved bus stops would be kept and modified with a ramp for boarding, and since most of the SBS routes already have dedicated lanes, the streetcars or light rail could run in the dedicated lanes and not have to deal with all of the political opposition from drivers, while we can still also run buses in the streetcar lane, so that overall the service improves.