Friday, July 31, 2015

Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel: Changing the Traffic Patterns in New York?

The Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel (or Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel), black under the Upper Bay, would link Norfolk Southern's line to New York (red, Newark) with the Bay Ridge Branch (red, Brooklyn), which would then continue to the Providence & Worcester connection across the Hell Gate Bridge (black, Bronx). Such a connection would change freight traffic patterns not just in the New York area, but throughout southern New England.
The Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel is a slowly advancing project that proposes to link Norfolk Southern's (NS) Greenville Yard (part of the Oak Island yard complex) with the Long Island Railroad's Bay Ridge branch. Estimated at $7 to $10 billion, such a project is not cheap, but it is definitely moving along, having recently completed a DEIS. The basic plan is to either provide a tunnel or a (much cheaper, order of magnitude less capacity) carfloat operation to a new terminal facility "in Queens" -- the idea being, that this new rail route would help link together New York City's piecemeal freight network.

As it stands, most mainline freight in the New York area either originates or terminates in New Jersey -- mainly in Newark. This is an artifact of the way American railroads were created and maintained: at one point, half a dozen railroads came up to the Hudson River's west shore, while half that lay on the east shore. Carfloats linked the two together. One still survives. At one time, a long-distance bypass of the city used a bridge at Poughkeepsie -- this is no longer in service -- requiring any train originating or departing New York City to clear what is known as the "Selkirk Hurdle," heading north to the first active rail crossing of the Hudson just south of Albany. (Making things worse is that the Hurdle is run by NS' competitor, CSX.) Unsurprisingly, this means that the vast majority of freight traffic either in the city, or transshipping it, goes by road: even with jams, crossing the George Washington or Tappan Zee is, by an order of magnitude, shorter.

So the idea is that a new freight terminal on the New York side of the Hudson from points west will help alleviate trucking congestion on the road Hudson crossings -- especially for trucks headed to Newark's vast land- and seaports. Carfloating, even significantly more intensive carfloating, would not be enough; a fixed link is what's needed.

This ... isn't really enough of a justification to drive an $11 billion investment. But something else is. To understand what is, though, first we must look at NS' and CSX's current Northeastern mainlines and traffic patterns.

Linking the Northeastern Markets
Norfolk Southern's northeastern mainlines. Note relative circuitousness.
Conrail, the phoenix of the old Northeastern rail net, had a network that linked together all the Northeastern cities. When NS and CSX split it down the middle in 1999, each side took the parts of Conrail's network that extended their own operations.

CSX already had a mainline from DC and points south and west into Newark. This route runs through the hearts of the Northeastern cities -- DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia -- and connects to mainlines to the west and south. Augmenting this, CSX took control of the West Shore Line, Selkirk Yard, and the old Boston & Albany, as well as a new western mainline, the so-called "Water Level Route" from New York to Buffalo.
The competition: CSX's Northeastern mainlines
NS, meanwhile, had no real access to the Northeastern markets (other than DC) prior to 1999. So what it acquired out of Conrail was the lower Northeastern network it had kludged together to replace its predecessor's mainline -- the one Amtrak now runs Acelas on. Calling it a "mainline" would be rather unkind, though -- it would be far more accurate to say that it was a series of terminal branches that radiated from Conrail's "Broad Way" mainline from points west to Harrisburg, PA. That is, what the NS got was, was this mainline and its terminal yard (Enola) as well as the branches to Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Wilmington. It connected this with its own railhead at Hagerstown, MD, and would later assemble a route into Boston via Scranton, Binghamton, and Albany.

CSX got the more direct route and NS the more circuitous one. But the CSX line suffers one key competitive disadvantage: because of no fewer than three tunnels under city streets, CSX cannot, in fact, run Plate K-clearance (double-stacks, auto racks) trains north-south. One of these, in Philadelphia, conveniently came with a bypass in the Conrail purchase; another, in DC, is being rebuilt to expand capacity. The third, in Baltimore, continues to split CSX's mainline in two. It can't, in fact, run a double-stack train from New York to Newport News, VA, without an enormous detour through Ohio!
Due to clearance restrictions, CSX is actually at a disadvantage when it comes to intermodal flows
Meanwhile, the NS mainline avoids the most-heavily-populated areas, for the most part. That means that NS trains you see in the cities either just departed from their terminals or are about to arrive at them. And, other than the circuitous Harrisburg-Boston alignment, its terminal branches from Harrisburg are reasonably direct.

This brings up what does justify dropping $11 billion on the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel: New traffic patterns. Specifically, one involving a direct route from Harrisburg to Boston via New York City.

How, exactly, does the NS get to Boston?

NS developed its Boston gateway -- the "Patriot Corridor" -- not on its own tracks but rather via what are known as trackage rights, which are (quelle surprise) the right for one company to run its train on another's railroad tracks. In this case, the trackage rights extended across two other railroads: the Canadian Pacific-owned Delaware & Hudson (D&H) from Sunbury, PA to the Albany area, and the Pan Am -- once an airline that went bankrupt whose branding got bought by a railroad -- from there on to Boston. Later, NS would buy the D&H portion outright as its owners culled what was, for them, non-core trackage.

There are several major problems with this alignment. First, it's really circuitous. And second, it's a mountain road: it follows the Susquehanna River all the way to Binghamton, NY, and from there runs along the back of the Catskills into the Mohawk Valley. And once there, getting into New England requires crossing another mountain range! Freight operators prefer low-grade routes, and the NS' is anything but.
Linking up with the P&W (black) gives the Norfolk Southern a second way into New England
From the NS' perspective, a more direct, low-grade water level alignment would be preferable. A candidate railroad does exist -- the Providence and Worcester (P&W) -- but the problem is, it lacks a direct connection with the NS. And this is where getting onto Long Island comes in handy: the P&W runs over the Hell Gate Bridge, terminating at Fresh Ponds in Queens. Make that connection and you've just landed yourself a brand-new freight alignment, one that also hits all the smaller ports on the way. Transshipment at the docks: now that will actually start to cut down on truck congestion, as well as provide a revenue source for the railroads. Win-win-win, and we're looking at something now that might actually be worth $11 billion.

The Drawback

Ah, but there is one more thing about the New York market that makes life complicated. It's the nation's largest and busiest passenger market, and while the NS doesn't really have to worry about it so much due to a convenient quirk of Victorian-era line placement, the P&W doesn't really have a choice. It isn't just the Hell Gate Bridge: the P&W's mainline and the Northeast Corridor are one and the same.

What that means is that -- while you get a straight, flat, fast route -- you also get one with limited freight slots and whose clearance is determined by overhead wire. And, just to make things all that much more annoying, the part with the greatest passenger-traffic density, New York to New Haven, has very limited, if any, bypass options. So, while the NS gets a nice shiny new tunnel and a new partner railroad, it also gets its partner railroad's baggage -- 10 tpd's worth of slots instead of 20 or so, and serious clearance restrictions to boot.

While double-stacks can be hauled under wire for short segments -- the Norfolk Southern does under SEPTA wire in Norristown, and CSX probably does (also under SEPTA wire) out around the Oxford Valley from time to time -- freight haulers generally prefer not to.* And this route has an unavoidable stretch of haulage under wire all the way into Connecticut, even if your New England intermodal terminal is Worcester.

What this means for NS is that they will have two partner railroads into New England, but both present inferior routes relative to the CSX's (a natural extension of the Water Level Route, albeit one requiring a stretch of mountain railroading). Despite the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel's design allowing double-deck transit, the run-through unit trains an NS-P&W partnership would entail would have to be somewhat ... squatter.

What does this mean for passenger rail?

The effect for Amtrak, MNRR, and LIRR operations would be minimal. It's very likely NS-P&W trains would only be given night slots, due to the daytime congestion of the New Haven line.

But the biggest effect would be on Triborough RX. The Triborough RX proposal [i]as it stands[/i] requires half the Hell Gate's track capacity, and more importantly, the ramp connecting the bridge approach with the Bay Ridge branch.

While Triborough RX can be built at the edge of the Bay Ridge branch right-of-way, either as the Sea Beach Line is, the Canarsie Line (and also able to tie into both), it's very likely the freight requirements would conspire to eliminate the trackage available for Triborough RX. Remember, even though the freight connection can operate with a single track, the subway will need at least two, which means there is an unresolvable conflict of interest on the Long Island approach, where only two tracks are available.

If we agree the main purpose of Triborough RX is linking Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx together, then that erases the line's main advantage, at least in its current form; Triborough RX would need an entirely new connection over or under the East River to remain viable.

Looking Forward

Finally, a freight connection directly linking the Norfolk Southern's Oak Island Yard with a P&W connection at Hell Gate would solve one major New York transportation problem -- it would finally surmount the Selkirk Hurdle -- but at the same time, it would bring into focus the next logical issue: inadequate infrastructure to support operations between New York and New Haven.

While several analyses of needed investments to improve that section have been done, a Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel would throw a new need into the mix: a freight route, preferably one that accommodates double-stacks. (The two potential solutions are to either widen the existing railroad or build a new alignment alongside I-95.) And that, in turn, would drive need for more slots across the East River -- a condition that would turn Hell Gate into a chokepoint.

The long-term effect of the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel, therefore, would be the establishment of eight tracks of throughput demand across the East River at Hell Gate -- and while long distance, HSR, regional, and commuter trains can all be blended onto the same infrastructure, NS and P&W requiring 25 or 30 slots (instead of 10) per day may not be able to. And Triborough RX, requiring separated infrastructure, definitely can't.
* That said, there has long been the claim (which I haven't been able to substantiate) that double-deck intermodal trains run under wire in China.

1 comment:

  1. There's nothing wrong with running doublestack intermodal trains under wire, as long as the wire is high enough. The problem is that the wire on the New Haven Line is very low even for some relatively conventional freight and passenger cars (I think it's too low for MBTA double-deckers to run under), and raising the wire is going to take a huge amount of effort. In terms of getting to Boston, the northern route is, and will continue to be, better because of its better clearances and better capacity, especially since it'll never really be useful for passenger service.