New York Rail: Rising from the Ashes

18 February 2008 (Last Updated February 18th, 2008 18:30)

Howard Johnston takes a look at New York's rail revival following the atrocities of 9/11.

New York Rail: Rising from the Ashes

Through its sheer size, a key role in the history of the US and frequent representation through entertainment and news media, New York City occupies a place in public consciousness around the world.

Although the visual aspect is largely based upon images of just one of the five city boroughs, Manhattan, the metropolitan area is the country's largest, home to over 20 million inhabitants and growing.

The striking geography includes the tapering neck of 'mainland' containing The Bronx and Westchester County between two vast waterways (the East River and the Hudson), three islands (Manhattan, partly rural Staten Island and the intensively developed western end of Long Island), plus the lengthy New Jersey shore to the west which houses around one third of the metropolitan area's population. The distances involved and the natural obstacles have had a profound influence on how the
population gets around.

Nearer the centre, notably in Manhattan, the population displays a near un-American characteristic: relatively low car ownership and with an even lower propensity to use a car for the daily commute. Although increasingly appreciated for its environmental soundness, reliance upon public transport creates its own tensions, not least between passengers and operating authorities who have a form of mutual dependency.

Rail is significantly New York's most important public transport mode, the principal transport operator being a public sector body, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

The MTA has responsibility for the subway system – which provides around one third of the city's commuter journeys – and some commuter lines (8%) as well as buses (14%) and ferries (0.4%).

"Pennsylvania (Penn) Station is the busiest station in the US, handling around 600,000 passengers on weekdays."

Increasing take-up of MTA services is indicated by ridership growing at a greater rate than the population.

Longer-distance rail services of various organisations are handled via tunnels primarily at the famous Grand Central Terminal ('Station' in common usage) and Pennsylvania (Penn) Station. The latter is the busiest station in the US, handling around 600,000 passengers on weekdays, around four times the number of the physically larger Grand Central.

Described in a New York Times editorial in late 2007 as 'among the dreariest public facilities anywhere', Penn Station has been the subject of long-running redevelopment studies such as the Moynihan Complex, although no specific project has yet been approved.

A BIG AND BUSY METRO SYSTEM

Running in tunnel and on elevated sections, the 26-line MTA-operated New York subway is the world's longest metro system with over 650 track miles. It also is the fourth busiest by passenger numbers. A 24-hour operation that unusually features express as well as all-stops services, the present system evolved from the lines of three separate companies, the first subway opening in 1904.

"The 26-line MTA-operated New York subway is the world's longest metro system with over 650 track miles."

The 1980s were a low point when the subway became a byword for crime and infamous for its rundown state. Great strides were subsequently made to restore the standards of an infrastructure that is vital to the functioning of the city. In 2005, the highest level of ridership for over 50 years was recorded at 1.45 billion.

In spite of the system's recovery, most of the core infrastructure is many decades old and has not increased significantly in recent years.

In 2007 the MTA quantified the costs it felt would be needed to get significant numbers of current car users to transfer to public transport. For new buses and terminals to serve lines in the suburbs and city, plus 46 new subway cars, station and service improvements, the cost over five years would be $767m.

Several major projects are in hand, however, with others likely to proceed subject to funding. Signed in 2002, the biggest single order in the system's history, worth $2.3bn, was for up to 1,700 new subway cars replacing older vehicles. Delivered from 2006 onwards, types R160A and R160B are being built mainly at US plants by the French company Alstom Transportation and Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries respectively.

NEW PROJECTS FOR NYC

In April 2007 ground was ceremonially broken in preparation for constructing the Second Avenue subway, a project first forwarded in 1929 for a line from 125th Street to Lower Manhattan. Due to open in 2013, the first phase with three stations will run from 96th to 63rd Street.

"For new buses and terminals to serve lines in the suburbs and city, plus new subway cars, station and service improvements, the cost over five years would be $767m."

Also targeted for 2013 is the $6.3bn 'East Side Access' project to redirect MTA's Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to new platforms beneath Grand Central, in order to better match the area where the majority of commuters work, as well as easing congestion at Penn.

Construction should begin in 2009 on the Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel (THE Tunnel) project for a new twin-track tunnel beneath the Hudson.

This will greatly increase capacity over that of the present tunnels, with new bi-mode rolling stock to allow longer-distance trains from the west to reach Manhattan at Penn Station. Completion before 2016 seems unlikely.

Under consideration are new tunnels to give direct access to Lower Manhattan for LIRR's more southerly route to Jamaica station in Queens, also an interchange for the subway and AirTrain JFK. The immensely successful AirTrain operation could also be integrated with the new infrastructure for change-free travel between John F. Kennedy International Airport and Manhattan, including at the new World Trade Center hub.

NEW YORK'S REVIVAL AND RENEWAL

The terrorist attack that destroyed the 'twin towers' at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 inevitably became synonymous with New York's identity. Relative to the horror of the events, the effect on transport was understandably merely a footnote in the story at the time. Nevertheless, the need to restore the infrastructure destroyed or made temporarily unusable has been part of the recovery of the city.

"The need to restore the infrastructure destroyed or made temporarily unusable has been part of the recovery of the city."

The '9/11' events ended the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey subsidiary) cross-river service that had terminated at the World Trade Center station dating from 1971. The flooded tunnels also rendered Exchange Place – which then could not function as a terminus for a cut-back service – on the New Jersey side unusable.

These circumstances led to the round-the-clock 13.8 mile PATH system losing 100,000 (40%) of its daily ridership. Operations were restored in November 2003, with a temporary $323m World Trade Center station once more facilitating a cross-Hudson rail service to Lower Manhattan's business district from Hoboken and Newark.

Repairs and renewals for Exchange Place, reopened in June 2003, and the tunnels cost almost $500m.

Experiencing the type of controversy that attaches to some other aspects of the 16-acre World Trade Center site redevelopment (that will include the 1,776ft-high Freedom Tower), the temporary PATH station is due for be replaced with a new $2bn terminus (World Trade Center Transportation Hub), scheduled to open fully in 2009.

Expected to handle up to 250,000 daily, the interchange station on Church Street will give access to pedestrian tunnels for MTA subway lines and ferry landings as well as serving PATH. The striking design, which includes an opening roof and access for natural light for the platforms 60ft beneath, is the work of Santiago Calatrava. The Spanish-born architect and engineer is famed for, among other notable developments, stations such as Lisbon's Estação do Oriente, the new
Liège-Guillemins and the Gare TGV at Lyon airport.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT TO TAKE ITS TOLL?

Launched for debate in 2007, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has supported a congestion-charging scheme in an attempt to deter private car use into areas of Manhattan most prone to gridlocked traffic.

"Voters remain firm in their opposition to congestion pricing, but they would support it if the money is used to improve mass transit."

South of 86th Street a proposed levy of $8 would apply, with the intent of proceeds going towards mass-transit schemes such as guided bus ways, the Second Avenue subway and the LIRR extension to Grand Central.

Findings released in January 2008 by the independent Quinnipiac University Polling Institute indicated a mixed response to the Bloomberg proposals. The director of the Institute said: "Traffic is a horrendous problem, New Yorkers agree. But they reject all the ideas that are being talked about to ease it.

"Voters remain firm in their opposition to congestion pricing, but they would support it if the money is used to improve mass transit."

The growth of the New York metropolitan area looks set to continue, as does the need for commuting to service the demands of this international economic and cultural giant. The political courage needed for change and funding a public transport system equal to this task appear to be challenges as great as the technical aspects.