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Ask George: Response on West Side Yards

Last week, we received two detailed comments challenging George’s assertion that New York should lose the West Side Yards. Here is his response: Typically, commuter rail lines have yards at their outer terminals in the suburbs, where trains are dispatched to the central business district, and yards close to the core, where cars are stored midday. Rapid transit lines, on the other hand, like our subways in NYC, have a single yard for each rail car. Trains might leave a yard in Brooklyn and end up in the Bronx, but no cars are stored in the center of town. Land is just too valuable. Newer rapid transit lines, with relatively long routes like those in Washington, DC or San Francisco (BART) offer much more frequent service all day long, and store rail cars that are not needed for this higher level of service in the same yards where they are kept overnight. Much of the LIRR is like a long distance rapid transit system. Yet it is run like a 19th century railway, with far less service in the middle of the day than is need. This should change. The suburbs are not just homes for Manhattan-bound commuters, but are busy economic centers with travel needs all day long. By keeping more trains in motion all day long, fewer mid-day storage spaces are needed in the center of the city. With the very high cost of building decks over yards, the need for these spaces can be seriously questioned. In my analysis, it looked like moving rail cars back to yards further east would increase operating cost by $8.2 million per year, or even less if more frequent service were operated all day long. This is a small price to pay to avoid spending a billion dollars or more for decks over the rail yards. hudson yards aerial train tracksIn 1987, when tracks that were needed to reach the yards were placed in service, they were helpful in making the northern portion of Penn Station into a thru-station increasing its capacity. This feature would be retained even if the yards are closed, since trains would continue to a two-track station that would be retained to provide access to West Side development sites. Finally, storing trains overnight in the center of the city, sending them empty to the suburbs to fetch passengers and then doing the same thing at the end of the day is costly. If rail yards cannot be built in the closer in suburbs, then the solution is to increase the utilization of the bi-level, dual-mode locomotive-hauled fleet which can be stored in existing underutilized yards much further to the east. These trains could be operated as thru-trains between points in Long Island and points in NJ. This need not wait for generations, but can be put into place over the next two to three years. This does require institutions to cooperate. Short of a full merger of all three commuter rail lines that serve the region, inter-operability agreements can be accomplished where the political will exists to press operators to move forward. With NY and NJ facing severe fiscal constraints, now is the time for agencies to work toward common solutions that save cost and improve service. The time for the LIRR West Side Yard has come and gone. The stakes are too high to preserve the status quo!