Off the Rails

Jim Venturi and ReThinkNYC want to revolutionize how NYC handles train infrastructure

City Terrain East Transportation
Platforms either side (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)
Platforms either side (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

Jim Venturi has a habit of being a rogue planner with his team at ReThinkNYC. Last year, he suggested using Riker’s Island to expand La Guardia airport and now he is taking on New York and New Jersey’s suburban rail network.

The current rail network (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

The current rail network (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

His plan counters the current federal Gateway Project which proposes a high-speed rail link into Manhattan and the creation of a new terminus at Penn Station. Due to open in 2024, the plan aims to alleviate bottlenecking by adding 25 new train slots for use at peak times by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit (NJT) along the North East Corridor (NEC) between Newark and New York City. Currently, those tracks are at full capacity.

If realized, the project would see the demolition of  Napoleon Le Brun’s St. John the Baptist Church which dates back to 1871, a historic piece of French-Gothic architecture that is a well established part of Manhattan’s urban fabric. Of greater importance for Venturi, however, lies with the continual use of Penn station as a terminus and not a through station.

From an infrastructure perspective, capacity problems arise with terminuses: trains have to enter and leave, creating more traffic, while passengers often have to alight to catch their connections, which leads to overcrowding. This happens to the extent that trains often wait up to ten minutes before entering the station and passengers queue at platform escalators, something that train schedules have since incorporated as status quo.



Penn Station is already the busiest station in the country. It’s platforms, in comparison to other regional stations, are very narrow. Since the addition of escalators and the advent of other modern day needs, available space has further decreased. To counter this, ReThinkNYC has devised a system whereby tracks are surrounded on either side by platforms. In this scenario, people can alight on one side and embark on the other, thus potentially improving circulation with people no longer getting in each others way.

Platforms either side (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

Platforms either side (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

ReThinkNYC also proposes that Penn Station becomes a through-station. This is nothing new. Indeed, the station is already a through-station for Amtrak services though is not for the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and NJT.

Speaking to AN, Venturi spoke of how terminuses are all too commonplace in a region which currently holds three, run by four operators—MetroNorth, NJT, LIRR, and Amtrak. Efficiency and connectivity are the crux of ReThinkNYC’s plan, with services being more accessible for passengers. “We need to think bigger,” Venturi says.

Commuter Rail Transfer Options from NYC Trunk Line -Post ReThinkNYC Plan (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

Commuter Rail Transfer Options from NYC Trunk Line -Post ReThinkNYC Plan (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

The current proposed plan, Venturi explained, is a “quick fix” bereft of longterm foresight and the result of of a system that is seldom fed any infrastructural ideas. He said this situation stems from a growing disparity between revenue and power centers between Washington D.C. and New York.

“Our plan is very boring” he adds, going on to say that in “any other country, our idea is completely normal.” And he’s not wrong. Across Europe, through-stations in cities have become commonplace, with Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof leading by example, running tracks through the station on three levels in different directions.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Courtesy Deutsche-Bahn)

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Courtesy Deutsche-Bahn)

“As far as I can tell we’re the only city in the developed world that is building new terminals,” as opposed to through-stations, he said. Paris and London are two notable beneficiaries of modern day through-service plans, and even closer to home, Philadelphia has done the same.

If the Gateway project were to be a through-station, Venturi explained, Amtrak services could continue up to Queens and the Bronx. A “trunk” line where all four operators overlap running through Penn Station would be established between Secaucus Junction (NJ) and Sunnyside in Queens.

At either side of these stations, services would then diverge; most on the Queens side would go to Port Morris in the Bronx where a new rail yard would be located. This would then prevent Amtrak from reaching capacity at the Sunnyside rail yard and allow NJT services to run through Penn Station.

Rail yard locations (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

Rail yard locations (Courtesy ReThinkNYC)

This system, which is very much like the Paris, London and Philadelphia examples above, would allow sidings (i.e. freight stored in a train yard) to sit on the periphery while allowing the “core” to be a place where passengers can transfer onto the subway system and other suburban rail services

For this to happen, though, NJT would have to move their terminus eastward to Port Morris while LIRR would have to follow suit in the opposite direction to Secaucus.

While Venturi’s scheme calls for the construction of three tunnels and a new viaduct (see video above) to essentially connect the Hudson and Harlem lines and the NEC, the plan also utilizes much unused infrastructure. Track beds that were never filled would be electrified and the Hell Gate bridge, which was originally built to hold four tracks would finally be used as such.

For ReThinkNYC’s plan to be realized, Venturi has broken it up into five phases as can be seen below.

Electrification however, is another issue. Metro North and LIRR use two variations of the “3rd rail” electric connections to power their trains (one is a high contact platform, the other is low). To make things more complicated, 3 different catenary (overhead electrification) standards are used, so in the cases of lines that use overhead contact, 3 variations of voltage/Frequency output (Voltz/Hertz) are also used.

This, of course, can all be changed, accommodating all these systems takes up valuable space in carriages and is generally seen as impractical. In comparison to Europe, two forms of electrification dominate the rail networks. Known as Electric multiple units (EMU’s), trains make use of a 3rd rail/overhead hybrid contact system which has become commonplace, thus allowing freight and passenger rail services to cross borders without hassle. In the US, however, a lack of standardization appears to be halting progress in this respect.

Though a major overhaul, the practice of setting such standards in the UK was achieved after WWII when the railways were nationalized and the 25 kV 50 Hz overhead system was installed and the 3rd rail system developed in the South East with the exception of the Eurostar service.

In light of all this, there is still room for improvement. Venturi explains how a connection between Trenton and New Haven could be easily realized. “It seems obvious,” he says. “Just draw a straight line between Trenton and New Haven.” In this case, similar types of rolling stock could be used due to the way these lines are electrified.

Despite the ominous outlook of the East coast’s rail network in comparison to the rest of the developed world, Venturi is adamant that a “rail revival” is happening, or at least underway.




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