Electrification of the Region’s Rail


One of those subtle aspects of life that serves to normalize auto transport as the only thing going is the way most maps are designed to barely include railroad tracks and stations, presumably so as to avoid interfering with roads and Interstates and their giant identification shields. But when we plug some fun data into Google mashup mapping, it is clear that the rail system serving the metropolitan area is extensive, probably more extensive than most people realize. This screenshot shows the location of stations served by New York City’s four passenger railroads: Metro-North in blue, NJ Transit in green, the LIRR in red and Amtrak in purple.

Below those pushpins are the roads, where it is hard to imagine that in 30 or 40 years electric cars will not have advanced into everyday use. Electrification of the automobile fleet is rightly seen as a way to continue to enjoy the benefits of mobility while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring, to borrow a phrase from Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, that none of the money we send oversees to buy oil comes back to us in the form of terrorism. Electrification of the auto fleet is an important project that will take enormous investment if it is to succeed. Electrification of rail transport, on the other hand, was perfected more than a century ago. It has not yet been fully implemented in our area, though it ought to be. Below the fold is a map showing the portions of the New York City regional rail system that remain to be electrified.


Stations marked in green are served by electric trains, those in brown, diesel. There are clearly a lot of sections that remain to be electrified. Specifically, these are:

Long Island Rail Road

  • Montauk Branch
  • Oyster Bay Branch
  • Port Jefferson Branch east of Huntington
  • Ronkonkoma Branch east of Ronkonkoma

Metro-North Railroad

  • Hudson Line north of Croton-Harmon
  • Harlem Line north of Southeast
  • Danbury Branch
  • Waterbury Branch
  • Port Jervis Line
  • Pascack Valley Line

New Jersey Transit

  • Main Line
  • Raritan Valley Line
  • Bergen County Line
  • North Jersey Coast Line south of Long Branch
  • Boonton Line north of Montclair State University
  • Pascack Valley Line 

Caveats Emptor: 1) Diesel-powered trains are orders of magnitude less polluting than automobiles when measured in terms of people moved per mile. 2) Electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. But not all of it.

15 thoughts on Electrification of the Region’s Rail

  1. The same goes for the subway. It is unbelievable that Google hasn’t picked up the mashup of NYC subway routes: http://www.onnyturf.com/subway/

    I agree with your caveat: I don’t think electric cars will lower greenhouse emissions. It will take non-motorized transportation and transit oriented development to get us off that track.

    The issue of diesel v. electric trains seems to be an issue of displacing the pollution from where the larger number of people are exposed to it. Not lowering greenhouse emissions.

  2. Also, electric trains are about 2-3 times more fuel-efficient than diesel trains, so yes, it does lower total greenhouse emissions. Plus, they’re noticeably faster, thus more attractive to potential customers, and quieter, thus less of a nuisance to residents.

  3. Elecrticity in NY State is largely nuclear and natural gas (with coal and hydro almost equal at 17-18 percent).
    At a quick glance it seems to me that using this particular mix of electricity would be better for the environment (CO2 emissions) than diesel.
    But we would have to crunch the number to be sure.

    Would be even better if we were making more wind power during tha day when people travel the most.

  4. I guess the real issues from a oil independence perspective are that electricity is both more efficient than diesel and can be produced from many, many different sources than diesel. A side benefit is much less ground level pollution in urban centers.

    But from a greenhouse gas perspective, the idea would be to get as much electricity from clean renewable sources (solar, wind, tidal, river hydro, methane from trash, wood, etc) and realistically choosing new Liquified Natural Gas facilities over coal. We should also be modernizing many power plants with combined process steam recapture that are much more efficient than older power plants.

    What I really like about electricity is that you have a standard output that can be produced from variety of sources. Liquid fuels like diesel will continue to rely on imports of oil.

  5. My understanding is that half-mile-long frieght trains currently (and unfortunately) can only be powered by diesel because of the amount of power required and because almost no freight lines are electrified nationally.

    That doesn’t mean that the diesel can’t be cleaned up significantly, though.

  6. Jeez. Green and brown markers… you couldn’t have picked a color combo more impossible for color-blind readers (~10% of males!) to decipher. It’s all the same color to me…

  7. The Amtrak line that runs by and under Riverside Park and the Hudson river Park is also not electrified. The tracks could inexpensively support light rail or existing subway cars.

    If electrified, this could be a great route from the Bronx, Inwood, and Washington Heights into Penn Station, with an easy-to-build stop @ 72nd Street, where it runs directly past the garage parking in one of the newly-constructed Trump buildings. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a station at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive? At Penn Station they could even join up with the A line.

    I don’t know why the greatly underutilized riverside Amtrak rails are always overlooked in the NYC transportation scene.

  8. > My understanding is that half-mile-long frieght > trains currently (and unfortunately) can only be > powered by diesel because of the amount of power > required and because almost no freight lines are > electrified nationally.

    The Trans-Siberian Railroad was electrified from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean in 2002. The rail line to the Artic Ocean at Murmansk was electrified last Christmas eve,

    Check out:


  9. Metro-North plans to run Hudson line trains into Penn Station, using their dual-mode locomotives, on Amtrak’s Empire Line underneath Riverside Park once East Side Access frees up enough space in Penn Station for this to happen.

    Rail line electrification is quite expensive so that cost has to be factored into the cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes there might be better priorities such as double-tracking lines and increasing train frequencies.

  10. Mfs’s understanding “that half-mile-long frieght trains currently (and unfortunately) can only be powered by diesel because of the amount of power required…”

    Mfs must not have heard Queensland Rail which operates the largest 25kV 50Hz AC electrified rail network in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite having a gauge of only 1067mm, the QR operates the some of the longest trains in teh world, including round-the-clock running of 2km long coal trains hauled by 4 or 5 electric locomotives.

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