Street-Running LRVs on the Interborough Express Line is a Bad Idea
Winding Streets Are Not a Good Place for Light Rail Vehicles
The MTA’s principal excuse for selecting a Light Rail mode for the IBX transit line is that a tunnel at Metropolitan Avenue, extending approximately 500 feet under part of All Faiths Cemetery, is only wide enough for two tracks. It is too narrow for multiple, separate transit and freight tracks. The MTA’s proposed solution is to use Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) which would “leave the cut of the freight rail corridor and travel along the street for approximately two-thirds of a mile along Metropolitan Avenue, 69 Street, and 69 Place before returning to the corridor after Juniper Boulevard South.” (See below).
MTA’s proposed LRV street-running route at Metropolitan Avenue
This is a truly bad idea. The MTA reports have not said how it proposes to deal with the many potential problems, saying only, “operation in the street may affect streetscape conditions, which will be studied in future project phases.” The lack of a plan is disappointing, to say the least.
I have suggested to the MTA that the IBX line use the same kind of subway cars used on NYC Transit’s numbered lines (IRT cars) and have them share one track in the tunnel with two to four freight trains each night, for an hour or less. No new or specialized car design is needed. (See Comment 4 on this site). The MTA has responded, “In light of current and future of freight mobility needs in New York City and the region, operationally sharing CSX’s trackage with through [sic.] the Metropolitan Avenue tunnel in Queens is not an option for the MTA.”
In this post, I will discuss some of the major potential obstacles to street-running LRVs on the proposed route. I’ll say more about freight trains and track sharing in a future post.
Using the MTA’s projected frequencies, its plan would put about 400 LRV trains on the streets of Middle Village each weekday. At rush hours, with the MTA’s planned 5-minute headways in each direction, an LRV would enter those streets every 2½ minutes. Because of the four traffic signals, four turns and short distances between turns, LRVs are unlikely to go faster than Select Bus Service vehicles, which average 8.9 mph. (Applying that speed to LRTs on the MTA’s proposed street-running route probably is optimistic, because most parts of Select Bus routes are straight and have a dedicated lane). At that speed, an LRV would take about six minutes to go two-thirds of a mile on the proposed route. That also means that—at all times during rush hours—at least two LRVs will be on the proposed route. In the event of a collision with a motor vehicle, service on the IBX line could be interrupted for hours.
The length of LRV trains would be a serious problem when running in the winding path of the proposed route. Vehicle length is indicative of the likelihood of obstructing other vehicles and pedestrians. Based on LRV manufacturers’ specifications, the “off-the-shelf” LRVs having the 360 rider capacity described in MTA reports, would be about 160 feet long. That is about 2.6 times the length of NYC Select Bus Service articulated buses, 2.9 times the normal length limit on NYC streets for tractor-trailer trucks without special permits, and about ten times the length of an average automobile. The potential for interference between LRVs and pedestrians, NYC Transit buses, school buses, thru trucks, delivery trucks, sanitation vehicles and automobiles, both stationary and moving, especially during rush hours, is obvious. Unlike buses, LRVs cannot go around lane blockages. (Indeed, Select Bus Service vehicles reportedly encounter serious problems with blockage of dedicated lanes).
A stationary car blocks tracks in Philadelphia
It is not at all clear where the MTA envisions that LRVs might make its transition between the cut and Metropolitan Avenue. As shown below, two pedestrian crosswalks, and driveways for the Christ the King High School, the Middle Village Preparatory Charter School and part of the All Faiths Cemetery are located just East of the cut. Two more cemetery driveways are across the street. (See below where the tunnel is indicated by dashed lines).
Metropolitan Avenue at All Faiths Cemetery
Another potential problem would be the placement of the IBX station at Metropolitan Avenue. The cut appears to be at least 25 feet below street level. Allowing for a moderately steep incline of 5%, the tracks would need to begin rising at a point at least 500 feet south of Metropolitan Avenue. An additional distance would be required for the curving turn onto the avenue. That would preclude placing a station at the logical place, in the cut, adjacent to the existing M subway line terminal at Metropolitan Avenue. If the LRV station could not be placed there, a logical place to consider might be along Metropolitan Avenue. That does not appear to be practical.
Metropolitan Avenue is not a broad boulevard with a wide central median for trams, like those—for example—where the T3 trams run in Paris France. The avenue is approximately 50 feet wide with two traffic lanes in each direction. It is a major East-West Street, used by the NYC Transit bus routes 38, 54 and 67. It is designated as a required “Local Truck Route.” There is insufficient room and too great traffic to provide a dedicated right of way for LRVs. The street cannot be significantly widened, because of the cemetery on either side.
The MTA has not yet indicated whether LRVs tracks might be in the center, or on one or both sides of Metropolitan Avenue. That probably will depend in part on the minimum turning radius of the selected LRVs. Regardless of whether the tracks are placed at the center or a side of this street, LRVs travelling in each direction would have to make a turn across oncoming traffic on Metropolitan Avenue.
Traveling north, the next potential obstacle is at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and 69 Street, where LRVs would have to make a 110 degree turn. Such turns cannot be made quickly. Guidance for truck drivers in the NYC Smart Truck Guide says, “a safe left turn is 5 mph.” (See below).
Intersection of Metropolitan Avenue & 69 Street
I have observed that, typically, five automobiles are able to turn left from Metropolitan Avenue onto 69 Street during the left turn signal at that intersection. Therefore, it is likely that the duration of the left turn signal would have to be three times as long as it is now, in order to permit both an LRV and a reasonable number of motor vehicles to make that turn in one cycle of the traffic signal. Traffic signal cycles also would be affected by arrival of an LRV on an average of every 2.5 minutes at rush hours. Preferential signaling for LRVs at that frequency would be likely to badly disrupt other vehicle traffic. All of that seems likely to wreak havoc in traffic on all streets at intersections on the proposed route.
Turning truck blocks intersection at 69 St & Metropolitan Avenue
Another major congestion point would likely be at the intersection of 69 Street, 69 Place and Juniper Valley Road, adjacent to elementary school PS128, which includes a school for autistic children, P255@PS128.
The northern-most obstacle is at the intersection of 69 Place and Juniper Boulevard South where LRVS would transition between the street and the existing cut. (See below). The MTA has not explained this transition. It appears that some buildings would have to be removed and that an LRV transitioning between the street and the cut would block both streets at the intersection. As in the case of the other intersections, delays and incidents are likely at and near this intersection. (See below).
Intersection of 69 Place and Juniper Boulevard South
For all of these reasons, the proposal for using street-running LRVs on the IBX line is a bad idea, especially when compared with the advantages of using standard IRT railcars, which will be discussed in future posts.
The MTA should promptly discuss these issues with NYC traffic officials and if it decides to proceed with the LRV plan, promptly publish the details of proposed street-running. Because its pending Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study may kill the idea of street-running LRVs, the EIS study should include a parallel study of how conventional IRT subway cars could be used on the IBX line. These studies should be given priority, because—if a decision is made to use IRT cars rather than LRVs—the cost and time for designing a 14-mile catenary system for LRVs could be avoided.