NYTIP – transforming commuter rail: introducing regional rail by leveraging weekend ridership

Welcome back to my NYTIP series! This post serves as my brand-new introduction to “regional rail” improvements on NY’s commuter rail systems – Metro-North (MNR), Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), and NJ Transit (NJT). Many advocates – myself included – use the term “regional rail” to describe systemwide improvements such as lower fares (and fewer fare zones), service increases, and “through running”; an excellent report by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC) describes each of these elements in detail.

While it’s true that COVID-19 has decimated weekday commuter rail ridership in NY, a different picture is beginning to emerge on weekends:

[Figs. 1, 2] Screenshots from MTA’s website taken on 10.14.2022 showing MNR and LIRR ridership over the last 7 days.

That’s right – weekend commuter rail ridership has not only fully recovered – it is now exceeding pre-pandemic levels! Surprisingly, I have not heard MTA or local politicians highlight or celebrate this fact. (If they did, I must’ve missed it.) In this post, I will explore ideas for using these weekend ridership gains to jump-start regional rail improvements in – and through – NY.

Note: This is an introductory post that explores ideas that can set the stage for regional rail. Capital investments, such as rolling stock acquisition, grade separations, infill stations, etc., as well as possible “crayons”, are beyond the scope of this post – I’ll get to those in the future.

I. FARES

Flattening the Peak

Both MNR and LIRR charge distance-based zonal fares (longer distance = higher fares), plus a higher “peak fare” for travel during peak hours. Both railroads charge peak fares for any train arriving at terminals between 6:00 AM and 9;59 AM and departing terminals from 4:00 PM to 7:59 PM; peak fares also apply for reverse-peak MNR trains departing Grand Central Terminal (GCT) from 6:00 AM to 8:59 AM. At present, it costs as much as $9.75 on MNR and $10.75 on LIRR to travel within NYC – to say nothing of travel to or from suburbia. While MNR charges lower “intermediate” fares for riders not heading into Manhattan, the same is not true of LIRR – the price point for any station west of Jamaica is the same as its terminals. (LIRR does have “intermediate” fares of its own, but only from Jamaica to points east.) Clearly, the existing fare structure is inequitable – and with telework and hybrid work paradigms not going anywhere anytime soon, it’s small wonder that weekday ridership on both railroads hovers around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, while weekend ridership has exploded.

Recommendation #1: Abolish peak fares. The off-peak fare should be the prevailing fare at all times. The money that the railroads would “lose” with lower fares would be made up – if not more so – through increased ridership.

Fare Reciprocity

Transit advocates of all stripes – whether individuals like yours truly or organizations like the aforementioned TSTC – have called for a simpler fare structure that generally lowers fares and does not discourage travel within NYC. However, an even more radical proposal has emerged from an unlikely place – the Westchester County Mobility Plan.

That’s right – a proposed bus system redesign for one of the richest counties in the nation includes a plan for lower rail fares! While such is unfortunately tied to replacing most bus routes in northern Westchester with “microtransit” (similar to the Circuit currently serving New Rochelle), it would be nothing short of revolutionary if implemented. Called “fare reciprocity”, the Westchester Mobility Plan proposes reducing MNR fares for travel within Westchester County to the same level as a bus ride. To put this in perspective, one would be able to travel as far as Peekskill on the Hudson line, Croton Falls on the Harlem line, or Port Chester on the New Haven line for a mere $2.75! (Current intermediate fares are as high as $7.25, $8.75. and $4.00, respectively, and fares from The Bronx are somewhat higher.)

The equivalent on LIRR territory would be Nassau County. A fare reciprocity plan similar to that proposed by Westchester County would place 6 entire branches (Port Washington, Oyster Bay, Hempstead, West Hempstead, Far Rockaway, and Long Beach), as well as all stations up to Syosset on the Port Jefferson branch, Farmingdale on the Ronkonkoma branch, and Massapequa Park on the Babylon branch, within a putative reduced fare zone.

A secondary effect of such “fare reciprocity” plans is reducing the total number of fare zones in the rail network, effectively lowering fares for all riders. This echoes recommendations by organizations such as the Regional Plan Association; RPA proposed four fare zones for NY’s commuter rail network in their T-REX report.

Recommendation #2: Implement fare reciprocity and reduce the total number of fare zones. Reducing rail fares in a manner similar to the Westchester Mobility Plan would be a game changer for both urban and suburban travel. Given how wide-reaching such fare reciprocity plans would be, I’d imagine NYC would be its own zone (say “zone 1”), while Westchester/Nassau would be zone 2 and counties further still would be their own zones. Alternatively, the fare zones could be divided in a manner similar to that proposed by RPA, with NYC and surrounding “inner suburbs” as zone 1.

One CityTicket To Rule Them All

MNR, LIRR, and NJT all have a variety of discounted tickets, such as weeklies, monthlies, and multi-trip passes. However, MNR and LIRR have two ticket types that could work very well with fare reciprocity – CityTicket and Atlantic Ticket. CityTicket, sold on weekends only, allows travel within NYC – including terminals – for just $5. This does not override lower intermediate fares, such as MNR’s $3 fare for travel within The Bronx. On LIRR, the Atlantic Ticket is a reduced-fare ticket for travel between Queens (except stations west of Jamaica) and Atlantic Terminal.

To further streamline fares, the CityTicket and Atlantic Ticket should be unified.

Recommendation #3: Implement a unified, all-day CityTicket for travel within NYC to the core. Under NYTIP, the core consists of Harlem – 125th Street, Grand Central, Penn Station, and Atlantic Terminal. Intracity fares for travel to or through these stations would equal the current CityTicket fare ($5), while fare reciprocity would apply for travel anywhere else within the city ($2.75).

Recommendation #4: Enable through-ticketing. With Grand Central Madison (GCM) due to open in a few months, and Penn Station Access (PSA) coming sometime within the next decade (hopefully sooner), passengers should be able purchase a single ticket for travel to or from anywhere in MNR, LIRR, and NJT’s respective service areas. Simplifying fares, fare types, and fare zones would make such through-ticketing seamless; moreover, it could serve as a precursor to a key improvement suggested by many advocates – through-running.

II. SERVICE

Despite the changing nature of work, MNR, LIRR, and NJT have not meaningfully adapted. The three major railroads still orient their services around the so-called “peak of the peak” – the height of rush hour. Worse, the peak-hour service paradigm requires riders to catch specific trains at specific times, lest their commutes get jacked. In the year of our Lord 2022, this is no way to run commuter rail service.

That said, the blueprint for better service lies within current weekend service. The aforementioned TSTC report recommends 15 minutes or better (15-or-better) service within NYC and 30-or-better service in the suburbs, while RPA’s T-REX plan generally calls for 15-or-better service within NYC and the inner suburbs and 30-or-better beyond the inner suburbs. Many stations served by MNR, LIRR, and NJT already see 30-or-better service on weekends; however, there are many glaring gaps. To give some examples of this, several stations in The Bronx and Queens only get one train per hour – and St. Albans, Queens only gets a train every two hours! Some stations in Queens and New Jersey don’t get any weekend service at all! Additionally, some rail schedules make travel within a borough or county difficult. All of these problems, however, are solvable.

Addition by Addition

A key problem with weekend rail service in the NY metro area is that 30-minute service is woefully insufficient in the inner suburbs and NYC, as demonstrated by recent ridership growth. Further compounding the problem is a common practice on the railroads – running consists with closed cars. This represents wasted capacity that can – and should – be put to use.

Recommendation #5: Open all cars on all revenue trains, and redistribute any “excess” cars to allow service increases.

And speaking of service increases…

Recommendation #6: Implement 15-or-better service at all stations within NYC and inner suburbs, and 30-0r-better beyond.

The idea is to whet passengers’ appetite for more service – and crucially, build momentum for transforming commuter rail into regional rail. Since weekend service on MNR and LIRR is now exceeding pre-pandemic levels, this is the perfect opportunity to boost service. All stations within NYC should be served at least every 15 minutes. Suburban stations served half hourly would get service doubled to every 15 minutes. To the extent possible, outlying stations – e.g. those on MNR’s Waterbury branch or LIRR’s Greenport branch – should be served at least once hourly, though every 30 minutes is preferable.

To achieve this with existing assets, there must be minimal variation in stopping patterns. Here again, weekend service provides a useful template since most railroad branches on MNR, LIRR, and NJT see local service, express service, or both.

Enhancing weekend service in this manner could serve as a baseline for off-peak rail service in general, which then becomes the baseline for peak service. The main challenge for peak service is simplifying the service patterns. Balancing local services closer to city center with express services further out – and ensuring each runs at a usable frequency – is key.

In future posts, I will propose specific recommendations for the railroads based on existing assets similar to the enhanced NYC subway (note: post update for v1.0.0 coming soon), followed by capital investments that yield further improvement.

III. THROUGH-RUNNING

One of the greatest potential improvements to NY’s commuter rail network is through-running. This is because there is currently little to no coordination between MNR, LIRR, and NJT in terms of services, schedules, or fares. However, projects currently under way may offer opportunities to implement through-running.

I have not settled on specific plans for this as yet, but the most obvious test case is a through-run of Northeast Corridor services combining NJT’s Northeast Corridor line with MNR’s proposed PSA service. (Amtrak trains already provide through service on this corridor, but as an intercity service, trains typically make limited stops and can be expensive due to airline-style pricing.) If New Jersey completes the Midline Loop, one could theoretically run a local service from North Brunswick to New Rochelle or Stamford via Penn Station. Express trains could potentially run on this same corridor, going further south in New Jersey and further north and east in Connecticut.

Recommendation #7: Transition from hub-and-spoke commuter rail service to a fully-integrated regional rail network with through-running.

Obviously, not all trains would be able to through-run. Even after Gateway gets built, there would still be finite capacity in the tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers. Moreover, one must account for fleet differences due to differences in electrification methods and the lack of electrification in many areas. While each of these issues is resolvable, it is not necessary to wait until such issues are resolved before beginning the regional rail transition.

SUMMARY

NY’s commuter railroads have emerged from the post-COVID predictions of anemic ridership recovery. Roughly 70% of weekday pre-pandemic riders have returned to the rails. Soaring weekend ridership offers a golden opportunity to jump-start the regional rail transition in the Tri-State area. Simple changes, like abolishing peak fares and increasing off-peak service to 15-or-better within NYC and the inner suburbs and 30-or-better beyond, could create a positive feedback loop that yields further investment and improvement. By realizing the full potential of NY’s rail network, the Tri-State area can meaningfully address the plague of road and highway congestion and improve mobility for all.

Simplified Summary

This post describes three key ideas for improving NY's commuter rail network. These three ideas are reducing fares, increasing service, and through-running. Weekend ridership now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, which affords an opportunity to implement these ideas. In doing so, the Tri-State Area can begin the transition from commuter rail to regional rail.

discuss respectfully!

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