July 2014 Union Strike

A tentative deal between the MTA and LIRR Unions to avert a July Strike has been reached. See this post for more information.

Thursday, January 2

Jamaica Capacity Improvement Project

As the LIRR begins to set its sights on East Side Access, one of the biggest obstacles the LIRR is going to face when it attempts to funnel dozens of more trains towards Grand Central will be the bottleneck that occurs at Jamaica.  Jamaica is the place where the LIRR's Mainline, Montauk Branch, and Atlantic Branch all come together and intertangle.  The current setup of JAY and HALL interlockings do a very good job of getting trains from any one branch on one side of Jamaica and sending them back on their way on the same or a different branch on the other.

However, the layouts of those interlockings can sometimes cause conflicts.  The hopeless maze of steel that overwhelms you when you peer over the edge of the platform at Jamaica does a very good job of getting your train from A to B now, but it isn't that efficient.  And when the LIRR is going to want to use 24 new track slots per hour at Grand Central, they are going to need all the space and capacity they can get.

As Jamaica stands now, it looks something like this:

Just to briefly recap how JAY and HALL interlockings work, the Montauk Branch and Atlantic Branch flyover/under the eastbound Mainline tracks so that they land in the middle of the interlocking.  This way, there is a clear current of flow, eastbound trains can come and go without ever having to cross the path of westbound trains.  The current layout of the interlocking does a pretty good job of that now, but it often poorly handles trains that are traveling in the same direction and need to get to different terminals.  If a train going from Hempstead to Atlantic Terminal is going to meet at Jamaica with a train that is going from long Beach to New York Penn, their paths are going to have to cross somewhere.

However, the Jamaica Capacity Improvement project is looking to make the layout of the Jamaica interlockings a little more workable.  The main basis of this project rests on the construction of a new platform for Brooklyn trains, and by moving all trains to or from Brooklyn to this platform, the switches on either sides of the main station platforms can be realigned to allow for a more streamlines access to the Mainline (which will be carrying all of the trains to Penn Station and Grand Central).

The new platform, platform F, will be situated between the current platforms and the AirTrain building.  The tracks leading from this platform will allow for [relatively] easy access to the westbound Atlantic Branch.  In principle, the new platform will look like the one in this rendering snuck from the Capital Program Oversight January 2013 Committee meeting notes:
(Photo credit: MTA)
While the exact location of where the new platform will go in has yet to be revealed, it will go in someplace around tracks 9, 10, or 11 (with tracks 10 and 11 being the two freight tracks that bypass south of the station currently).  The trains will then be able to work their way over to the Atlantic Branch by using some of the existing, but currently not really used, infrastructure.

Westbound trains could leave the platform and head towards the Montauk Branch flyover that will pass over the current Atlantic Branch alignment.  After that, the trains could work their way down on the lead tracks to Morris Park and the back half of Richmond Hill before finally rejoining the Atlantic Branch in the middle of DUNTON interlocking. 

Eastbound trains would presumably work their way over from the tunnels to the platform by using the Brooklyn Freight Track.  The Brooklyn Freight Track is a little used slither of track that runs from the mouth of the Atlantic Avenue tunnels to track 11, bypassing the station to the south completely.  This routing is currently used by one and only one train each weekday, train 1728.  This is the one train from Atlantic Terminal that skips Jamaica.  The train leaves Atlantic Terminal at 5:29pm and then runs nonstop to Westbury before making the rest of the stops to Huntington.  Since this is the only train coming from Brooklyn that does not need to pass through the station, it can use this track to pass south of the mess entirely.  This video from YouTube user LIRR175 shows train 1728 making its way over this track.Anyways, this track could be used to separately carry Brooklyn trains to the new platform.

Visually, the goal is to turn this:
(Photo credit: MTA)

into this:
(Photo credit: MTA)

A setup like this largely eliminates conflicting moves, since trains to New York or Grand Central and Brooklyn never have to cross paths.  To tie it all together, I modified the track schematics I normally use to show what the new layout of the Jamaica complex would look like.  It's not a perfect rendition of what you might see, as the real tangible plans have not been made known, but it's my best guess as to what it could be:

Not wanting to do huge amounts of painstaking rearranging of tracks in Adobe Illustrator, I showed the new platform F as two side platforms that straddle tracks 10 and 11.  I also "inferred" some track and switch cleanups from the diagrams above and created the tweaks to JAY and HALL interlockings you see above.

Now throughout this post I've been talking about how trains from the new platform F will be able to get trains easily between Jamaica and the Atlantic Branch west of Jamaica.  However, one thing I haven't mentioned so far is how trains will get from this platform F to destinations east of Jamaica.  Well, unfortunately, it looks like they're not going to have the chance. Indications coming out of the LIRR are making it sound like they are quite fond of the idea of relegating the Atlantic Branch to a cross-borough scoot service and eliminating direct trains from places on Long Island.

With this setup, getting trains from the new platform F to the Mainline or Montauk Branch heading east would be very difficult, since the trains would have to make their way over quite a number of crossovers to get back on the proper track (just as train 1728 has to do today), and being able to access the Atlantic Branch east of Jamaica from the new Platform F would be almost impossible if some other major track rearranging weren't done.  I'm not incredibly happy about the direction the LIRR is going in with this, but it seems to be what they have their hearts set on, so hopefully it works. 

What will be left behind in JAY interlocking after you practically remove the Atlantic Branch from the equation will hopefully be a more streamlined track layout that will allow trains to have direct access to the Mainline towards Penn Station and Grand Central.

All told, the LIRR claims that these improvements will afford them a nearly 40% increase in capacity for trains coming from or going to Manhattan during the rush hour.  We can debate the cost of losing direct Brooklyn service another time, but it seems like the LIRR is content with shunning the minority (i.e. nearly 30,000 daily riders) for the benefit of the majority.

When the final bill is presented, Phase 1 of the Jamaica Capacity Improvement project will set the LIRR back roughly $301 million.  Technically, Phase 1 was supposed to be finished two years ago, but here we are in the first couple days of 2014 with the project showing up as 0% complete in the Capital Program Dashboard.  The project's current schedule indicates that the design process is supposed to be finished by October of 2014 and actual construction would start "in 2014."  The projected completion date of the project is now listed as sometime in 2018, a little more than a year earlier than the scheduled completion date of East Side Access (making it just barely).

And this is all Phase 1.  If they're talking about "phase 1," chances are there is a "phase 2" or maybe even a "phase 3" or "phase 4" coming down the line.  For these later projects, all sorts of things from flyover tracks that pass over the station completely for express trains to other sort of wacky things to make the LIRR's most stigmatized station more workable.  Since it appears that any later phases of this plan are still quite some years away from even being seriously considered, we'll leave those subjects alone for now and approach them as we get closer. 

In conclusion, a 40% increase in throughput through Jamaica station will certainly become extremely valuable when it comes time to add a lot more trains to Grand Central.  While the end results for some riders will not be pleasant as the LIRR continues to move towards a Manhattan-centric way of thinking, a large majority of the LIRR's ridership base will benefit substantially from this project, so let's get going.


  1. Would that eliminate cross-platform transfers to Atlantic trains? Seems like those would be especially important if they turn it into a scoot.

    1. It would...you would have to transfer up-and-over to the new platform F to get to Atlantic Terminal. Not the most attractive idea in the world, but that's what they want.

  2. Still easier to do than get to the subway under Archer. If they charge Metrocard fares and no fare barriers at all at Atlantic Terminal, I can see it. They could also run trains with 2 man crew.

  3. What is planned by the upper level MTA management is to sell the lower Atlantic Branch and make it privately owned apart from the LIRR. The unions are currently fighting the railroad from making this agenda go through.

  4. Might as well sell it to NYCT and convert it to a subway line.

  5. No, keep the Atlantic for an eventual loop that connects GCT with Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica. With Rock Park reactivation, a Manhattan-JFK express line could be viable.

  6. Why can't the Brooklyn scoot be run from the middle of Jamaica, keeping cross platform transfers? Isn't leaving from the middle the entire premise of JAY interlocking?

    1. It is, and using platform C should be feasible. But this is what they want to do. You know the saying: "The LIRR: designed by geniuses, run by idiots."


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