West Side vs. East Side (Access): Upper West Side May Get Metro-North Stop

With the LIRR diverting some trains to Grand Central, Penn Station could see Metro-North trains if the MTA goes through with West Side Access.

With the LIRR diverting some trains to Grand Central, Penn Station could see Metro-North trains if the MTA goes through with West Side Access.

East Side Access, which will give Long Island Rail Road commuters the choice of arriving at Grand Central Terminal in addition to the current terminus at Pennsylvania Station, may get all the buzz and billions in capital funding, but it’s the Bronx and the West Side that may be getting new regional rail stations.

West Side Access, as the plan is being called, would involve building a number of new stations within New York City, on the West Side and the Bronx, which would see direct service to Penn Station operated by Metro-North Railroad. The plan has been under consideration for decades, but will finally be added to the MTA’s next five-year capital construction program due out in 2014, according to Newsday. Compared to the $8.24 billion East Side Access project, West Side Access would be downright cheap: in the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.

The first phase would see four new stations built in the Bronx—at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point—which would be served along Amtrak’s existing Hell Gate Line, entering Manhattan via the Triborough Bridge and Queens on the Long Island Rail Road’s tracks into Penn Station. Commuters using six stations in Westchester County—New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Rye and Port Chester—would be able to choose trains going directly to Penn Station, in addition to Metro-North’s current Grand Central service. They would use time slots freed up by the diversion of some LIRR trains to Grand Central once East Side Access opens.

The second phase would reactivate the West Side Line, now used by Amtrak, for commuter rail. This line is currently only used for Northeast Corridor service north of the city, and runs beneath Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway. The tracks, once part of the same line that continued south along what is now the High Line, would see Metro-North trains from the Hudson Line enter Penn Station from the west. West Side commuters would also likely get two new stations: one at 125th Street by Columbia, and one somewhere around 57th or 59th Street.

The one at 125th Street is a sure thing, the MTA’s press office told The Observer, whereas the station on the boundary between Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side is under consideration.

Co-op City, the nation’s largest housing complex with a population in the tens of thousands, would be the biggest winner in West Side Access. According to the MTA, the ride from the new Co-op City station to Penn Station would take just 27 minutes—about half the time it currently takes by express bus or a shuttle to the 6 train.

The two new stations on the West Side would be less useful, though, due to American commuter railroads’ antiquated operating practices, which make Metro-North much less attractive than alternative modes with cheaper and more frequent service—the 1 train at 125th Street, and crosstown bus service on 57th Street.

George Haikalis, a transit activist and all-around gadfly (the mere mention of his name has been known to elicit sighs and eye-rolls at the MTA), suggested two more stations for the reactivated regional rail line: one at 42nd Street, and another at 168th Street. The 42nd Street station could sit near the axed 7 train station in Hell’s Kitchen at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, Mr. Haikalis told The Observer by telephone, and the 168th Street station could sit below the Columbia University Medical Center, two miles north of the planned 125th Street station.

Metro-North downplayed the possibility of stops at those locations, however, citing their proximity to Penn Station and 125th Street. “I’m not sure if it was ever looked at, but it’s not being looked at now,” said Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders.

To maximize the utility of the new stations and service, Mr. Haikalis also recommended that the MTA look to Europe and Asia to reform its regional rail practices, running them more like the subway system, with fewer on-board staff, more frequent service and cheaper fares.

“Now that the MTA chair position is vacant,” Mr. Haikalis said, “the governor ought to pick someone who’s knowledgeable about the rest of the world with regards to regional rail. He’s sitting on assets that would be far more valuable for riders, and even for developers”—but not if the new stations are only seeing a couple of trains per hour.