Penn Station is the busiest and most important transportation hub on the Northeast Corridor, and yet the station is not operating at its full potential. In its current layout, Penn Station is practically three stations in one, with separate tracks and concourses for Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak. Penn Station has 21 tracks, carrying 600,000 passengers a day while operating primarily as a terminal stub track station. Trains that terminate at Penn Station reverse direction when leaving the station, resulting in underutilized platforms and over-congested tracks.
Terminal stations force all trains to share the limited track access in and out of the station. Because a train enters and leaves on the same set of tracks, trains cross paths as they back in or out, cutting off all traffic to the station as a single train enters or leaves. Through-running, on the other hand, eliminates this inefficiency by running trains through the station. Terminal services are better suited for stations that do not have high ridership and many transferring passengers.
Through-running increases capacity at congested stations, while providing a regional line connecting to the city center.
Through-Running is More Connective and Efficient
In a through-running rail system, trains that carry passengers to and from the urban core do not terminate in the central business district (CBD); instead, all rolling stock travels through the CBD and terminates beyond the central core of the city, often at a much less busy station. In other words, the city center is located along the middle of a train route, not as the first or last stop. This is an efficient system because it decreases the amount of time required for each train to dwell at the high-traffic platforms in the city center. In the case of Penn Station, eliminating the existing conflicts by instating through-running would increase the busy station’s capacity by as much as 25% without adding tracks.
While other cities such as Paris and London have multiple central business districts, New York has one in Manhattan. This means that few passengers are traveling across the city so much as into the city. In terms of train service, this produces a one-way flow – inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. The efficiency of through-running is most evident when comparing Penn Station to stations with similar service loads. For instance, Paris’ Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles serves almost half a million passengers a day who connect between three commuter rail lines and six subway lines. Châtelet – Les Halles has 7 tracks and 4 platforms that serve 120 trains per hour, compared to Penn’s 21 tracks and 11 platforms that serve 100 trains per hour at maximum capacity. Paris’ ability to accommodate a larger volume is made possible by the station’s use of through-running.
Unlike European cities, New York’s commuter system is run by multiple agencies and crosses multiple political boundaries. Unification will require the cooperation of multiple autonomous federal, state, and municipal governments, as well as private shareholders.
Paris before the RER and after. Before Paris’ current commuter rail system was developed, suburban rails terminated at the city center. Now with its RER system, the commuter lines use through-running, with rail yards and terminals at its outskirts. Trains pass through the business district areas, namely at the Châtelet — Les Halles Station, where transfers are available between three commuter lines and six subway lines.
Philadelphia, before through-running (left), and after (right). Before the establishment of through-running in downtown Philadelphia, the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads both terminated in the city center. With the construction of the Center City Tunnel in 1983, the two lines were linked, with the intention of establishing through-running at the busier downtown stations.
Paired vs Non-Paired Through-Running
Paired through-running requires phased implementation of a non-paired system. It eliminates the use of terminating tracks in the central business district, but the last stop on all transit lines remains the same. This requires a physical transition of agencies and train conductors at those final destination stations because disparate agencies are “paired” through the use of the same rolling stock.
Non-paired through-running allows agencies to keep their current rolling stock by continuing trains through the city center to new termini in the city’s outskirts. In New York, trains terminating at Penn Station would instead terminate at stations outside of Manhattan. In ReThinkNYC’s proposal, these new terminal stations would be Secaucus Junction and Port Morris, with a through-station at Sunnyside.
For example, LIRR’s Montauk Line would continue through Penn Station and terminate in Secaucus, New Jersey, just west of Manhattan. NJ Transit’s Bayhead Line would continue through Penn Station and terminate in Port Morris, Bronx. Neither agency would be pressed to overhaul its operations or rolling stock, and Penn would see more efficient service. In a non-paired system, it would be possible to make long term plans for implementing paired through-running and any future overhauls that the city’s system requires.
A train arriving from the east terminates on one platform, and a train arriving from the west terminates on another platform. Each train changes direction, returning to where it originated from.
Paired Through-Running: The same train serves all westbound passengers, and a second train serves all eastbound passengers.
Non-paired through-running: Westbound trains arrive, drop off and pick up passengers, and move on, still westbound. Eastbound trains do the same. The trains do not share service schedules, platforms, operations, but can stagger their service along the same tracks, and use the same railyards.
Implementing Through-Running: Penn Station
Penn Station is really three stations in one: a terminal for Long Island Railroad (LIRR) from the east, a terminal for NJTransit from the west, and a through-station for Amtrak. Penn Station currently largely suffers from intense congestion and capacity limitations, which largely stem from how it operates as a final destination for multiple commuter lines.
The ReThinkNYC plan solves these problems by extending Penn’s terminating train lines to Port Morris, the Bronx (NJT and Amtrak) and Secaucus, NJ (LIRR). The construction of rail yards in these locations will allow trains to continue through Penn Station, alleviating backlog.
Penn Station currently provides the only commuter rail access in New York City along the Northeast Corridor. All Amtrak and NJ Transit trains coming into the station from New Jersey must cross the Hudson River in one of two decaying rail tunnels. The two Hudson River tunnels already operate at maximum capacity, creating a two-track bottleneck. If just one of the tunnels were to be shut down for emergency repairs before constructing new tunnels, train traffic would be reduced by 75-percent, from 24 trains per hour to just six. In order to accommodate existing service and future growth, two new tunnels will need to be constructed, which will make it possible to repair the existing tunnels built over a century ago.
With the planned construction of the new Hudson River tunnels and tracks of Amtrak’s Gateway Project, New Jersey-bound access to Penn Station will be doubled, offering an unprecedented opportunity to transform Penn Station into a through-running station. The symmetrical service that the new Hudson River tunnels will provide makes it possible for all trains to run through Penn Station, with trains from Long Island leaving towards New Jersey, and vice versa.
A video by the Regional Planning Association correctly identifies the overdue need for two new tunnels between Penn and New Jersey.
Penn Station is currently unable to adequately accommodate passenger traffic, especially during morning and evening rush hours. Narrow platforms and limited vertical access create overcrowding and slow circulation throughout the station.
With the expansion of Penn Station into Moynihan, the issue of narrow platforms and passenger congestion will still stand, since the number of tracks will not change. The bottleneck of passengers will only be diffused in the station itself, while congestion on platforms will persist. The platforms at Penn Station are between 16 and 18 feet wide, and are cluttered with columns, staircases, and elevators. Due to these conditions, it is presently not practical or safe to have passengers wait on the platforms before boarding trains. Wider platforms currently exist only at the north end of Penn Station serving LIRR, and have a faster, less chaotic loading and unloading process as trains arrive.
As a through-running station, terminating tracks would be converted into wider platforms across all of Penn Station. These platforms would make it possible to add more escalators and stairs, improving circulation, especially at rush hour.
There are many conditions at Penn Station that make through-running difficult to implement. Amtrak produced a 2014 study that correctly identified some of them – primarily narrow platforms, limited vertical access, and the need to make any changes to Penn without reducing rush hour service.
However, Amtrak’s study incorrectly concludes that it is not possible to implement through-running at Penn without interrupting service. The main reason for this is that Amtrak’s study focuses on paired through-running, which would add undue burden on each train to load and unload passengers without allotting extra dwell time at platforms while conductors switch and trains are reset. With the implementation of non-paired through running it is possible to phase construction of Penn Station without reducing service by running trains to terminal rail yards beyond Manhattan.
How to bring Through-Running to Penn
Widening of platforms is possible without a realignment of tracks, saving time and resources.
The ReThink plan can incorporate AmTrak’s construction of Moynihan Station, while eliminating the need for Penn Station South.
Amtrak’s current proposal squanders the opportunity afforded by the new tunnels by constructing a new terminal just south of Penn Station. Not only does this eliminate the possibility for symmetrical service at Penn, but it cuts off Long Island and the Bronx from the benefits of future growth and development.
ReThink’s Phased Implementation of Penn
ReThink Studio has studied the feasibility of phasing this project, and concluded that with the combined opportunities of the new Gateway tunnel and Moynihan Station, through-running is not just practical but critical to improving commuter service throughout the region.
ReThink Studio’s phased implementation of through-running at Penn Station does not interrupt service, but produces wider platforms, more vertical access, and more capacity. (Click to expand)
Existing Conditions & Compatibility
For paired through-running to work, the equipment (rolling stock, power requirements, platforms, etc.) must be compatible between rail systems.
The New York City commuter rail network includes both electrified and non-electrified lines. Diesel locomotives currently serve the non-electrified portions of the system, but cannot operate in tunnels and are unable to use the electrified catenary power system. “Dual Mode” locomotives are able to run on both power sources and are therefore used on diesel lines connecting into Penn Station.
Dual mode equipment provides excellent performance and operating flexibility in hybrid systems, which allows for electrification to be phased in over time. Versions of this equipment have been operating for many years in New York, and a new generation of dual mode locomotives is operating successfully in Montreal and New Jersey.
Non-paired through-running offers various benefits for the New York City region. While there are several equipment incompatibilities between the NJT, LIRR, and MNR networks, along with varying high and low platform heights, non-paired through-running allows for all of the different operating standards to be supported in the urban core. Each agency will be able to keep its rolling stock until the city phases into all electrified tracks, after which paired through-running will be possible.
Paired through-running requires phased implementation because different power sources are currently being used. As new rolling stock is purchased, it can be equipped to operate on multiple lines. As lines undergo routine repairs, power systems can be standardized.
Across different commuter lines, platforms currently exist at two different heights. The purchasing of new rolling stock in a paired system will have to accommodate both platform levels.
Previous Through-Running Proposals
A shared principal in all through-running proposals is the concept of “paired through-running.” There are, however, several obstacles to implementing through-running in Greater New York City. The feasibility of these plans is based on phasing of implementation, and this is where the creation of a non-paired system makes it possible for paired through-running to be used in the future.
Numerous previous proposals have attempted to reconcile these obstacles to no effect, often because they fail to account for the practical concerns involved.