Express yourself

Express subway service is one of those burrs in the saddle for DC folks measuring themselves and their city against New York.

Over the past week, there’s been a lot of talk about express train service.  First, in a GGW point/counterpoint, posters weighed the merits of the current Silver Line proposal versus a hypothetical line along the W&OD trail; Matt Johnson noted the technical hurdles of re-using the W&OD right of way; Dan Malouf/BDC proposed running express train service with the currently planned trackage; Steve Offut looked at using the Route 7 corridor for a new transit line, one that mirrors the general path of the W&OD trail.

All of these discussions about express train service begin from the starting assumption that express service is necessary.  On Friday, Matt Johnson provided some much-needed historical perspective.  The takeaway from his post is that express tracks are 1) quite rare in the grand scheme of things, and 2) are only found in much older legacy systems.

Given that, had planners pressed for a four-track system, Metro would either be half the size it is today, would have taken twice as long to build, or would have been killed outright. The debate we’re having with the Tysons/Dulles Silver Line right now is case-in-point. Already the project has been sliced and diced in terms of frill, and it’s still uncertain whether it will ever reach the airport. The first phase dangled right on the cusp of being too expensive for FTA’s criteria, and several times the project looked all but dead. If things like redundant elevators and the familiar hexagonal tiles might be enough to kill the project, can you imagine the reaction of FTA if Virginia demanded four tracks?

These older, legacy systems were built in a different era of construction standards for disruption and process – New York’s massive cut and cover subways come to mind.

With that note, Second Ave Sagas throws in their two cents.  While New York is constantly cited as a system that’s done it ‘right,’ the Second Avenue Subway doesn’t have express tracks in the works.

The real problem though will come in the future. What will we do when trains break down and hold up the line? What will we do when express service is needed because the local trains are at capacity? The untenable solution would be to construct a time machine and convince New York to build this subway system in the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s when the four-track option was on the table. For now, we’ll just have to live with a two-track line if and when it opens.

One commenter also notes that New York’s subway has lots of express tracks in Brooklyn and The Bronx that are unused – ridership doesn’t warrant express service.   Four-tracked lines are extremely rare in the world for a reason – they’re very expensive and usually not cost-effective.  New York’s express trains are also aided by the very close station spacing for local trains, giving express trains an advantage.  However, when dealing with limited resources, using rapid transit with slightly longer station spacing (as is planned for the Second Ave Subway, and as Metro and most modern systems have been built) is a far more prudent use of funds:

Transit watchers were not pleased with the lack of express service. Considering the length of the route and its projected ridership — around 200,000 per day for just Phase I and 500,000 per day for the entire line — Second Ave. was ripe for an express line. Instead, the MTA altered the spacing of the stations and lengthened mezzanine station access to better serve neighborhoods. The 72nd St. station, for example, will have an entrance between 74th and 75th Sts. while the 86th St. station will have a southern egress between 83rd and 84th Sts. Thus, a station stop at 79th St. was deemed to be unnecessarily redundant.

Instead of pushing for the pipe dream of express tracks, we should push for more investment in the core.  That’s the redundancy we want from Metro.

DC’s potential express tracks already exist – they just have freight trains running on them right now.  A massive improvement in MARC and VRE, getting headways up and extending hours of operations, as well as through-routing, would be a de-facto regional express companion to Metro.

Bottom line – express tracks would be nice, but given the choice between, say, express tracks vs. a separated Blue line, you go for the Blue line, no questions asked.  If tunnel boring machines make it economical to bore a 4-track tunnel, then let’s consider it.   Until then, the marginal improvements in service aren’t worth the added cost.

2 comments to Express yourself

  • The North Main in Chicago is a four track elevated heavy rail system used by the Red, Brown, and Blue Lines.

    The Red Line used to utilize “skip stop” service during peak periods. It uses the two inside tracks and runs all stops today. The outside tracks are used by the Purple Line and, at the South End, by the Brown. The Purple Line is an express train from Evanston that skips many stops on the north side, but is the only true heavy rail express running in Chicago.

    Chicago and New York have many commuter rail lines with more than two mains that utilize them for express service.

  • Alex Block

    Indeed, Chicago does also have express tracks. Matt Johnson’s synopsis noted that.

    Still, it’s worth noting that these kinds of lines are quite rare both in the US and around the world. It’s also worth noting that a compromised station spacing (further apart than the old legacy systems in New York, Chicago, and others) means you can still have the same kind of local service while also increasing the average speed of the trains – which meets the goals of express trains.

    In that case, the money spent on express tracks would be better used on a parallel line, instead.

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