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Ask George: Does New York Need the West Side Railyards?


Hudson Yards
George Haikalis believes the LIRR’s West Side Yards, opened in 1987, were not necessary in the first place. In his view, the MTA should eliminate the yards, but keep one platform with two tracks to run a shuttle on the existing tracks between the Hudson Yards development and Penn Station. This would eliminate the need for the $1 billion deck over the yards and significantly increase the value of the land by adding a link to the region's rail hub.

Haikalis is a civil engineer/transportation planner who co-chairs vision 42, a citizens initiative advancing a plan for an auto-free light rail boulevard on 42nd St. which is sponsored by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. (IRUM), a NYC-based not-for-profit corporation. IRUM also hosts the Regional Rail Working Group, an informal collaboration of rail advocates from the NY-NJ-CT metropolitan area.

He is here to answer your questions about transportation and the West Side, including Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, and ARC, for the next two weeks. We'll call it “Ask George."

“For 77 years the LIRR operated without a West Side yard,” Haikalis said. “Their operations were such that the trains would either return to points in Long Island carrying passengers in the reverse peak direction, or would be operated without passengers to Long Beach, Babylon, or Jamaica where there was more yard space and they would stay until the evening peak. That added operating costs but nothing compared to the cost of building the yard, which was originally estimated at $100 million but turned out to be $230 million.”

Haikalis estimates that, in today's dollars, the added cost of returning LIRR cars to yards further east for midday storage would be about $8.2 million per year, small in comparison to the value MTA would gain from clearing the yard and selling it as raw real estate, with a good access link to Penn Station.

He points out that even with the Penn Station/Hudson Yards shuttle in place, the city's plan for the #7 line extension adds important additional connections to subway lines, particularly on Manhattan's East Side. Yet he is concerned that it may not be worth the cost. Soaring construction costs are slowing the pace of major MTA projects, including the #7, and the Fulton Street Transit Center has already been sent back to the drawing board.

Haikalis thinks the LIRR shuttle train would require little capital cost and could be placed into service quickly. “In this day and age if you were to build only a small two track platform and ran more trains in reverse peak hours to Long Island you would come out way ahead,” he said. Furthermore, linking Hudson Yards to the Penn Station transit hub furthers the establishment of a regional rail network in the city.

Please submit questions or comments on this and other transportation issues and Mr. Haikalis will be happy to address them.

GH is off base on this one

I have a lot of resptect for Mr. Haikalis and the energy he dovotes to these issues, especially the 42nd St Light Rail. But he's way off base on this one. I recently went to a lecture by one of the planners involved at the time and the WSY increased LIRR capacity during the peak by nearly 50% by allowing 3 tunnels to be run in the peak direction instead of 2. All the additional capacity was used by the opening of the Ronkonkama direct service shortly after the WSY opened. Plus all that deadhead movement (even if yard space were available) costs money in energy and crews.

To claim the LIRR doesn't need WSY because it didn't have it for 70+ years is deceptive. Long Island was mostly farmland and the commuter flows were much smaller. Just look at the number of trains and people coming in during rush hour and it's clear the system is operating at a very high capacity that would not be possible without WSY.

The cost of building the WSY in the past is completely irrelevant - that money is spent and destroying the yard won't get it back. Claiming that as a point is a cute rhetorical trick, but only adds to distrust of the entire premise.

Why the West Side Yards were built in the first place

Mr. Haikalis' asserts that the West Side Yards are somehow an unnecessary luxury that the MTA can ill afford. On the contrary, they are a vital asset serving a valuable function and must remain in place. Any development that takes place there must be in the form of an overbuild, precisely the process that is being pursued today. Of course, the MTA has a fiduciary responsiblity and an obligation to the public to maximize the proceeds it receives from any scheme to the greatest extent possible.

Mr. Haikalis leaves out two critical points. First, he neglects to give the reason why LIRR trains are stored there at all. In the late 1980s, it was forseen that the ability to handle traffic growth at Penn Station and in the East River Tunnels would be impeded as long as the tunnels were being used to send back empty trains east after their morning runs. Building the yard allowed trains to move west after unloading their passengers, getting out of the way of succeeding trains and freeing up additional slots in the tunnels for more trains to be added. A similar operation takes place for NJT trains which move to Sunnyside Yard in Queens for daytime storage after their morning runs.

Second, there is no room at the LIRR's existing yards on Long Island to support more storage, and the possibility of easily building new yard capacity will be difficult. The LIRR already discovered this in the late 1990s, when trial balloons about new yards were floated in Suffolk County and were immediately met with stiff local resistance. That is not to say they that new yards shouldn't be built; in fact they will be needed in the future so that East Side Access and the proposed additional track on the Main Line can be worked to their maximum advantage.

Mr. Haikalis may respond to this by saying that Penn Station is not being used effectively today because of its inherent design as a through station, and that sending LIRR trains to NJ in continued service is more efficient. This should be pursued in the future if we are to ever have an effective regional rail system. He may also point out that the East Side Access scheme is flawed and should be dropped (it is not flawed; it is a very expensive and ambitious project that needs to be finally built). However, these are not valid reasons for giving up the West Side Yards. They must remain in place.