INTRO: The backlog of under-investment in New York’s urban railways has been made good, and they are now poised to expand. Integration to create a true regional network is seen as the way to support economic growth and enhance mobility

BYLINE: William D Middleton

WITH A population of nearly 20 million and an annual economy worth more than US$600bn concentrated in less than 34000 km2, the New York metropolitan region accounts for 9% of the United States’ gross domestic product. Reflecting this concentration of population and economic activity, the region depends upon rail transit to a degree unequalled anywhere else in the USA. New York’s railways carry almost half of all US rail transit passengers, with over 1323 million passenger-journeys in 1994.

Over the past two decades, massive public investment has reversed an alarming deterioration in the region’s rail infrastructure. Now transport agencies and regional planners are moving towards further rationalisation and integration of the network. The essential aim is to ensure that people are mobile enough to maintain the region’s competitive position well into the 21st century.

Fragmented routes

The railways of New York’s tri-state, 31-county metropolitan area reflect both geography and their largely unco-ordinated development by competing private companies. Three railroads developed commuter services to the north and east of Manhattan, while no fewer than six lines served the New Jersey suburbs west of the 1·6 km wide Hudson river.

The lines into the city from the Connecticut and New York suburbs to the north crossed the Harlem river to reach Grand Central Terminal in mid-town Manhattan at an early date. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s tunnel and terminal completed in 1910 provided a central station for its New Jersey suburban services and its subsidiary Long Island Rail Road, but the other New Jersey lines continued to use ferry terminals on the Hudson’s west shore.

Development of the metro network was almost as fragmented. In New York City, the subways were run by three separate companies until consolidation in 1940, while the Hudson & Manhattan, a separate private company, developed the Hudson River tube to link Manhattan and New Jersey.

The shift to public ownership began in 1962, when the bankrupt H&M was taken over by Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp, a subsidiary of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. In 1965 New York state acquired the LIRR and formed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to oversee a massive publicly-funded rebuilding and modernisation programme. Over the next two decades MTA expanded to encompass New York City Transit (subway and bus) and the various commuter lines north of the city.

Connecticut assumed ownership of commuter lines in that state, contracting their operation to MTA’s Metro-North Railroad. And across the Hudson, New Jersey Transit assumed operating responsibility for commuter routes in 1983.

Until now, the public agencies have directed their efforts almost entirely to rehabilitation of the badly deteriorated rail infrastructure. This has required enormous investment. Since the beginning of 1983, NJ Transit has spent or committed $3·3bn in rail programmes. In the 15 years from 1982 to 1996, MTA’s rail capital programmes totalled over $20·6bn.

Now the lines are well on the way to a state of good repair, the agencies are beginning to shift their attention to capital projects designed to achieve a better integrated network which can meet the region’s mobility needs more effectively.

Regional Express

The urgent need to enhance the region’s rail network was highlighted in A Region at Risk, a strategy for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. This was published last year by the Regional Plan Association, an independent organisation responsible for co-ordination of planning in the region. While lacking direct authority over local political jurisdictions, RPA is highly influential; its two earlier plans are credited with helping to shape much of the region’s growth and development in the past 67 years.

Recognising that virtually all recent employment growth has occurred away from the existing centres, RPA emphasised the need to strengthen the central business district covering Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the Jersey City waterfront, and to invest in 11 regional centres at New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, White Plains, Poughkeepsie, Hicksville, Mineola, Jamaica, Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton.

Key recommendations underline the need to boost mobility by better rail transit, including development of a cross-town Manhattan light rail route and improved access to Lower Manhattan and the Jersey City waterfront.

The most ambitious proposal is to set up a Regional Express Rail System to enhance access to the airports, the central business district, and regional towns. RX would also permit travel between suburbs or regional centres that the existing largely radial, Manhattan-focused network is ill-equipped to handle.

Envisaging construction of 40 km of new route, and establishment of new services on the existing infrastructure, RX is based on European models such as the Paris RER, which involve interconnection and through working between metro and suburban lines. It would include: