Through-Running at Penn Station: Benefits and Barriers

(From the archive: July 28, 2015)

Earlier this month, MTR explored the concept of transforming the tri-state area’s commuter rail network into a regional rail network. The plans covered differ in scope and detail, but all have one major component in common: changing Penn Station from a terminal to a run-through station.

Currently, many Amtrak trains run through Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor journey between Boston and Washington. So does, infrequently, the joint Metro-North/New Jersey Transit train that brings fans from Connecticut and Westchester to the Meadowlands for football games on designated Sundays.

But what would the benefits of through-running be if implemented across the board? The most important effect might very well be to relieve the capacity crunch that the station is experiencing. With trains making a stop instead of performing their beginning and end-of-run preparations at Penn Station, each track would be able to handle trains at a higher frequency (just imagine if subways lingered at Times Square, Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Center like they do at terminus stations in Coney Island, Flushing or Inwood). Run-through trains would also make journeys from one non-Manhattan destination to another much faster and easier.

Through-running could also make the Penn Station Access project—which will one day bring Metro-North New Haven Line trains to Penn Station—significantly easier. While that project involves very new infrastructure and received $250 million in capital funding in the 2015-16 state budget, it is still years from scheduled completion because it cannot be implemented until some Long Island Rail Road trains are diverted to Grand Central. But with more delays for East Side Access, the opening of Penn Station Access—a significant new transit option for eastern Bronx communities and commuters from farther north–could be a decade or more away.

There are, predictably, some technical barriers to through-running. There’s the pair of narrow (and rapidly deteriorating) tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey, which will eventually be addressed by Amtrak’s Gateway plan (though nobody knows when). And then there’s the issue of electrification systems. Metro-North, LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak use a wide variety of electrification systems on their lines, and there are few rail cars or locomotives equipped to operate on all, or even several, of them. Only Amtrak and NJT currently own equipment capable of operating on the Northeast Corridor both west of the Hudson and east of Sunnyside Yard in Queens. Those barriers to interoperability is why it is so important that the MTA has the funding to order M9 cars in the next capital plan. While the first order of M9 cars won’t be equipped with third-rail “shoes” capable of running both under (on the LIRR) and over (on Metro-North trackage) the electrical supply, there’s still hope that future orders may have the equipment necessary to make interoperability possible.

Technical barriers are entirely surmountable (with the right amount of funding), but the real challenge are the political barriers. Sarah Laskow of Capital New York said it best:

Absent political pressure, it’s exactly the sort of project that none of the existing agencies are going to fight for… The idea of a unified regional rail system has been around for years, along with plans to create a unified fare system and to make it easier to reach the New York airports. But however nice they might sound, there’s no agency, commissioner, or politician who really has both the incentive to push for them and the power to make them happen.

12 Comments on "Through-Running at Penn Station: Benefits and Barriers"

  1. adirondacker12800 | July 29, 2015 at 3:40 pm |

    Right now they are able to run 26 trains an hour through the tunnel. Rearrange everything so all the trains run through. They’ll be able to run 26 trains an hour through the tunnel.

    Just this past week they had serious problems with signals and power on the New Jersey side. Not only would that delay passengers to and from New Jersey but as an added special attraction all the people who use the trains that run through to Connecticut or Long Island! Same thing would have happened a few years ago when lightning struck just out of Jamaica and they couldn’t get the signals to work for hours.

  2. David McCluskey | July 31, 2015 at 11:15 am |

    Can’t the M-8 cars CT has that runs in Amtrak overhead AC and MTA DC third rail into GCT operate on all lines?

  3. Aside from what was mentioned, one of the biggest obstacles is the inability of the three supra-transportation agencies (MTA, NJTransit & NY&NJPA) to work for the common good. Too much self interest by this bunch!

  4. Todd Richardson | July 31, 2015 at 2:55 pm |

    The operational flexibility and possible one-seat ride would be great if there was a unified system, but we have ingrained interests at cross purposes with not enough money to go around. smart idea without hope of implementation

  5. Frank alfred | July 31, 2015 at 5:41 pm |

    Article generally covers items correct. However MNRR is under running 3rd rail and LIRR is over running 3rd rail. As well the North river tunnels have over running 3rd rail as well as 12 KV overhead Catenary
    Correct that M-9s are equipped with only under running 3rd rail as well as pantographs for 12.5 KV Catenary Rochelle to New Haven.

  6. Mr. Transit | August 1, 2015 at 4:59 pm |

    While there are some operational efficiencies to through-running and it is useful for special events like football games in the Meadowlands, I am not convinced that it would be a wise investment of very limited capital resources of the MTA or NJT. How big is the market for a one-seat ride from Hicksville to South Orange? From the Jersey Shore to Stamford or Waterbury?

  7. Clark Morris | August 2, 2015 at 4:50 pm |

    As I understand it, the M8 cars can not operate on 12 thousand volts, 25 cycle current (transformer limitations). This means they can not operate in New Jersey or in the East River tunnels on alternating current. I think that the M2 and other New Haven predecessors can operate on 12 thousand volts, 25 cycle current.

  8. With sunnyside on the east, and cammermer on the west most trains do effectively “through-run”. So the efficiencies you keep claiming are minimal. Outside of football is there really any demand for LI to NJ service? I doubt it.

  9. The main key is to increase efficiency by making every train into and out of Penn Station a revenue move. The one-seat service to Hicksville or South Orange is useful to some, but not many. To Jamaica and Newark Airport, though, surely, is quite beneficial. There might not be too many people who live on Long Island that work in Newark today, but after 5 years of running this service you can bet there will be a lot more.

    Of course agency and governmental turf issues make this politically difficult to achieve, but if you can overcome that then the benefits are clear.

  10. The fools who are denigrating the value of through-running need to get this through their heads:

    Right now, at any given time, they run an active LIRR train and a deadhead (empty) NJT train through the East River tunnels. With through running, that would be reduced from TWO trains to ONE train, leaving room for more trains.

  11. Sorry I missed this when it was posted, but I have been wondering if the Metro North Penn Access Phase 1 and 2 (for the Hudson line ) might be operated as a run through Penn, where as someone could take a train from Coop City and have a one seat ride to a potential stop in the West 60’s as has been proposed. I am also thinking that it would be more beneficial time wise verse using Penn as a terminus for both lines.

  12. •••


    (No Subject)

    Chris Swendsen to you

    September 11Show Details

    When will the MTA treat all their rail commuters fairly. 
    The MTA should stop the two class system when it comes to commuter rail.The first class  are the electrified lines who in general have more through  train service to a Manhattan terminal such as Penn Station or Brooklyn. The second class rail lines are the non-electrified rail lines which have limited or no through train service to  a NYC terminal such as Penn Station without changing trains.

    This problem  can be fixed without  expensive electrification.

    Please read  the information below for details.

    It’s a shame that the Long Island Railroad doesn’t have interstate train service between Metro-North’s Upper Hudson Division and the Long Island Railroad Upper Port Jefferson Branch via Penn Station. This would give more through service to Penn Station from non electrified areas. It will also give Hudson Division and LIRR customer’s better access to Yankee Stadium . it would also stop to need for people to drive from non electrified areas of the of the North Shore to Ronkonkoma. People keep talking about the east side access to Grand Central but that is for electric trains only not for diesel. To say it can happen Amtrak ran a train from Albany Rensselaer to Shea Stadium on June 14th 1997. Most of this route includes Metro-North Hudson Division, which is part of Amtrak Empire Corridor. People have to realize if given the track space you don’t need electrification to go to Penn Station what you needed to empower locomotives which Amtrak and Metro-North use extensively. through service between Metro-North and the Long Island would also increased track space for various railroads who use Penn Station. This also can be done for trains operating east of Babylon east of Ronkonkoma and even the Oyster Bay branch which is not electrified East of East Williston. If there are any problems with crews between both railroads, can be changed at Penn Station between Metro North and the Long Island Railroad to operate in each other’s territory. This is done somewhere between Metro North and New Jersey Transit when they operate the football train between Secaucus junction and New Haven. People have to remember as I said before the e
    Eastside Access is only for electric trains.The talked about this and their assessment book between 2014 and 2034. they proposed with the right equipment have train from various railroads operate on each other’s territory . Electrification is to expensive and it doesn’t  include rolling stock.

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