Appendix: NYC’s Super Commuter Rail Network

Original post available here.

Alrighty, time for the heavily nerdy stuff. Map for reference:

Note: this analysis reflects pre-pandemic timetables and does not necessarily reflect current services.

Observations about Northeast Corridor and related schedules

  • While the schedule from Boston to NYC does have its sparse spots, the schedule between NYC and Washington is solid, and the schedule between Philadelphia and NYC is bonkers (pretty much amounting to a train departing Philly every 30-40 minutes all day — most North American commuter rail networks don’t even have that). Again, if you want to understand what a powerhouse the Northeast Corridor is — both as a piece of rail infrastructure and as an economic region –, look no further than the Amtrak timetable.
  • Those stops between Philly and Metropark which receive limited service receive very limited service. Even a number of the otherwise-all-stops locals skip them. Situations like this usually have an interesting story behind them, so I wonder what the background is here. Are they picking up passengers heading to NYC, or are they dropping off Harrisburg commuters who work in North Philly or Princeton?
  • Between Philadelphia and NYC, the Keystone and NEC services layer on top of each other to reach that almost-30 min cadence mentioned above. However, there are subtle differences between the two services. For example, most Keystone trains skip Newark Airport, and several skip Metropark. Additionally, while there are a few Keystone trains which originate in Philadelphia rather than NYC, they all have connecting NEC services with timed transfers; that said, I’m guessing few people utilize those transfers, because they are all on trains which depart or arrive in New York during the night. (Which, by the by, might lead us to ask whether the LIRR is truly the only 24-hour commuter rail network in North America.)

Services at the margins

I was a bit surprised by the margins of this map. For example, Alexandria is just across the Potomac from Washington, and Schenectady is only 20 minutes north of Albany (and Albany sees pretty frequent all-day service, given the journey time); surely you could do a super-commute to NYC from these places as well? And as it turns out, not really.

Alexandria’s first morning arrival is the Silver Meteor, at 6:37am. Even this early-morning departure still arrives in NYC at 11am, which to me seemed a bit too late to be reasonable. Moreover, as an overnight service, this train is prone to delays; from Aug 2018 to Sept 2019, the average delay from Alexandria was just under an hour. That’s just too unreliable to use as commuter rail.

Alexandria’s second morning departure was a Richmond-originating Northeast Regional, at 7:52am. That’s feasible for a journey to Philadelphia (arriving 10:30am), but by the time you get to New York, it’s after 12pm. By my criteria, that fails to clear the bar of being able to roll into the office around 10:30ish. 

Alexandria’s problem is twofold. First, it is served exclusively by trains originating far to the south, most from different parts of Virginia; insofar as these trains are targeting super commuters who want to get to the office in the morning, they are targeting the DC market, not the NYC market. These trains would have to leave places like Richmond or Newport News very early in the morning in order to reach NYC in time, and at the expense of the DC market.

Second, Alexandria is hampered by the 30-min locomotive swap at Washington Union Station. Realistically, someone supercommuting from Alexandria should take a Metro train to Union Station and then board one of the hourly departures.

Schenectady’s problem is a bit simpler: despite its proximity to Albany and its frequent supercommuter trains, Schenectady is served only by daily long-distance trains, to places like Rutland, VT, Montreal, Buffalo, Toronto, and Chicago. These trains are not trying to accommodate morning arrivals at the office in NYC. 

If Amtrak/NYSDOT wanted to extend some of the Albany runs up to Schenectady, I suppose they could; the questions would be whether there is enough ridership, and how disruptive will it be to the network overall? (In particular, what will the cost be of tying up one of those dual-mode locomotives for an extra hour? For those who don’t know, all trains running into New York Penn Station need to be electrified, which means that routes like the Albany service — where electrification ends at Croton-Harmon — require special rolling stock.)

The Valley Flyer

The Valley Flyer service to Greenfield, MA is a little bit of a stretch. With the current schedule, someone from Greenfield could supercommute to NYC, but they would need to transfer trains at New Haven (albeit at what should be a relatively painless transfer). And, even when direct, the journey is long: about 5 hours via the Vermonter direct and (ironically) about 4.5 hours via the transfer (I assume because the passenger transfer can be done faster than the locomotive change). 

And there’s only one train that gets you into NYC in the morning — leaving Greenfield at 5:45am.

The evening isn’t much better; the only afternoon-departing journey (via transfer) doesn’t make it to New Haven until 7:25pm, which means you don’t get to Greenfield until 10:23pm. For a two-seat journey, that’s a long trip. 

The stops north of Springfield were a bit of a challenge for this map; unlike virtually every other service on this map, the Valley Flyer is oriented toward someplace other than NYC. If you look at the schedule, it’s clearly designed to be able to accommodate NYC supercommuters, but is more focused on conventional commuters going to Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, which get a choice of two morning trains (albeit with a much poorer evening schedule).

I considered marking these stops as “few trains stop here”, to acknowledge the more marginal case for their inclusion on the map. But the thing is, every train that rolls through those stations does stop there. So at one point, those stops were actually marked with the “major stop” marker, which obviously overstates their usefulness. In the end, I settled on the middle tier, and hoped that my note in the bottom right would be a saving grace: “consult individual timetables before travel”.

NYC’s Super Commuter Rail Network in textual form

Northeast Corridor
Boston South StationMost
Boston Back BayMost
Route 128Most
New LondonMost
Old SaybrookSome
Springfield UnionMost
Windsor LocksMost
Hartford Union StationMost
New Haven State StreetSome
New Haven Union StationMost
New RochelleSome
New York Penn StationMost
Newark Penn StationMost
Newark Liberty Int’l AirportSome
New BrunswickFew
Princeton JunctionFew
Cornwells HeightsFew
Philadelphia 30th Street StationMost
Newark, DEFew
Baltimore Penn StationMost
BWI AirportMost
New CarrolltonSome
Washington Union StationMost
Empire Service
New York Penn StationMost
Keystone Corridor
New York Penn StationMost
Newark Penn StationMost
Newark Liberty Int’l AirportSome
New BrunswickFew
Princeton JunctionFew
Cornwells HeightsFew
North PhiladelphiaFew
Philadelphia 30th Street StationMost
Mount JoySome