NARP & Vuchic Urge Penn Station Connection

NARP & Vuchic Urge Penn Station Connection

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August 24, 2010

The Honorable James S. Simpson
Department of Transportation
Ewing, NJ 08618

Dear Commissioner Simpson:

We appreciate the attention which you have paid to the Hudson River tunnel issue both when serving as Federal Transit Administrator and in your present position. Thank you again for the time you spent discussing this with me on the telephone as Administrator. We also appreciate the time that NJT Executive Director Weinstein spent with me (Capon) and other passenger train advocates in Newark on March 22, 2010.

The main facts and proposed actions we discuss in this letter can be summarized as follows:

(1) A link between the new tunnels and Pennsylvania Station (NYP) is essential and is compatible with both items (2) and (3).

(2) Eliminating the 34th Street Terminal offers both transportation and cost-saving benefits (with comparable combined capacity at an expanded Penn Station or by proceeding directly to Grand Central).

(3) Deferring construction of the 34th Street Terminal combined with increasing capacity at NYP can also be considered, particularly because NJT does not expect to fully utilize total Hudson River tunnel capacity in the initial years after the new tunnels open.

(4) Alternatively, taking NJT’s original plan for a 34th Street terminal and restoring the New York Pennsylvania Station link to it can be done with a 2.5% gradient, which is steeper than NJT’s preferred 2.1% and yet less than an existing NJT 2.7% grade at Rahway. To our knowledge, the gradient question has not been discussed, or at least not adequately. Adhering to ideal engineering standards is, as always, desirable, but in this case its cost of such adherence is unacceptably high. 

An important fact in the decisions about the presently planned Trans-Hudson link is that it was planned and approved prior to President Obama’s initiative to start a High-Speed Rail Program, which has changed fundamentally attitudes toward intercity rail in our entire country. Washington-Boston is the most important corridor for high-speed rail and the Trans-Hudson tunnel is the critical link along that corridor. Reevaluation of tunnel plans is therefore obviously needed.

Indeed, the project could become eligible for high speed rail funding by connecting the new tunnels to NYP, based on benefits to the intercity service—flexibility and additional, highly beneficial slots at this critical point on the Northeast Corridor.

Importance of Link Between New Tunnels and NYP

It is inevitable that capacity enhancements will eventually take place at NYP. The link between the new tunnels and NYP is critical if NJT is to take advantage of those investments. Clearly, NJT will need the capacity the link would provide. NJT’s projections of revenue train movements at NYP, as shown in the recently published Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan (NECIMP), will rise from 387/day now to 612 by 2030 (NECIMP, page 18, computer page 37, downloadable here).

If the ARC goes forward limited to the present design — offering limited frequencies at 34th Street and with no connection to NYP — the danger increases that the default solution will be new highway investments that are costly in financial, environmental/quality of life as well as energy consumption terms. In other words, highway capital investment avoidance is an additional and very significant benefit of designing this project to be as useful as possible.  Obviously the redundancy benefits to NJT, Amtrak and future cross-NYP regional rail services are substantial. Without the new links, any blockage in the existing, century-old tunnels would have a catastrophic impact on the ability to provide both regional and intercity services.  Put another way, connecting tracks between the new tunnels and NYP are vital both to improve overall reliability of NJT, NYP and the Northeast Corridor as well as to provide added Trans-Hudson capacity. The two work hand-in-hand. 

Because the link is not in current plans, Amtrak has been pushing plans for fifth and sixth tunnels. However, we do not expect the resources to be available in the foreseeable future to construct such tunnels ($10.5 billion price tag in the NEC Infrastructure Master Plan). This makes it imperative that the third and fourth tunnels be as flexible and useful as possible.

Penn Station Focus

Connecting the new tunnels to NYP where incremental investments in capacity increase have been made, and eliminating the separate 34th Street Terminal, would provide capacity for NJT and Amtrak (and cross-New York City services that might be developed with Metro-North and/or Long Island Rail Road). The following numbers are instructive:

  • New tunnels can accommodate up to 25-30 trains per track per hour.
  • 34th St is planned to accommodate 25 trains per hour in theory, although NJT’s operating plan describes a utilization of 23 trains per hour, and NJT initially plans to run only 11 trains per hour through the new tunnels when they are completed around 2018.
  • With sufficient incremental capacity investments, NYP could utilize the capacity of the new tunnels.

Total costs and benefits are much more favorable under Moynihan/Penn Station First than under NJT’s current plan. Moreover, the 34th Street Terminal devoid of tail tracks would be inefficient and unable to fully utilize the new tunnels’ capacity.

We are concerned that the current, flawed plan stems partly from animosity between previous governors of New Jersey and New York and from NJT’s desire to have total control over the railroad from the 34th Street Terminal west to the junction with Amtrak’s mainline. That desire is understandable but it must not be the basis for actual planning.

Restoring NYP Link to Existing Project

We strongly argue for elimination of the 34th Street Terminal. However, in light of NJT’s strong commitment to that terminal, we want to make clear that restoring the NYP link to the project is also compatible with the 34th Street Terminal. Our understanding is that this link can be constructed with the #7 subway extension in place but with a 2.5% gradient. While this gradient is steeper than NJT’s preferred maximum 2.1%, it is less than an existing NJT 2.7% grade at Rahway. Indeed, the 0.4% difference between 2.5% and 2.1% represents a relatively minor technical compromise when compared to increased capacity and flexibility of the entire Penn Station complex. Put another way, there is a need to balance the cost and operating implications of a 2.5% grade against the flexibility and capacity benefits the added link would provide.

Many electrified regional rail systems have gradients up to 4% and some high-speed rail lines have similar standards. It is relevant that, in this case, the gradient is in the right direction: uphill for decelerating trains, downhill for accelerating trains. This feature sometimes is deliberately designed into electrified rail systems to achieve major energy savings and shorter travel times. We are aware that restoring this link to the project would involve some redesign, and hopefully only a (second) supplemental EIS which will focus only on the relevant elements of the project including of course the junction with the planned tunnels.

Conclusion

Most of our colleagues with extensive rail experience are aghast when they learn what the project as it currently stands will not do. If the project goes forward with no change, imagine what people will say 20 years from now when interruptions or capacity issues in the old tunnels make NYP-New Jersey moves impossible, and it is clear to everyone that rigid adherence to an engineering standard is the reason.

We intend to raise this issue with Senators Lautenberg and Menendez and Secretary LaHood.

There is still an opportunity to get the right functionality out of this huge endeavor. Please carefully consider doing what you can to implement this, and let us know if we can provide any further information or if a meeting would be helpful.

Sincerely Yours,

Ross B. Capon
President & CEO
National Association of Railroad Passengers

Dr. Vukan R. Vuchic
UPS Foundation
Professor Emeritus of Transportation