Everything in moderation

5 July 2017

As the ball at New York’s Times Square dropped on December 31 elsewhere underground the 2.4km tunnels of the Second Avenue Subway were awash in celebration as well. The governor of New York announced phase 1 in operation, timed with the stroke of midnight. For weeks before and after the event media outlets covered the parties, wall-coverings by prominent local artists, pristine subway platforms, dramatic station finishes, 100-year construction history and all the buzz of novelty train rides.

Overcrowded stations this spring were in stark contrast as commuters who need to travel between New Jersey and New York found themselves stranded not on one, but several days with hour-long delays. Among the culprits transportation agencies have listed, there are signal failures, wiring problems, engine failures, and all other aspects of aging infrastructure in the tunnels passing under the Hudson River.

Critics of New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie took advantage of the opportunity to revisit the ARC tunnel he cancelled in 2010 over potential cost overruns. Newly-elected, he proudly brought to a halt the USD 8.7bn project, which would have connected New Jersey to New York through two, single-track 2.26kmlong tunnels. It could have opened as early as 2018.

A preferred alternative has been named for another tunnel project under the Hudson River, see news page 7, with a different alignment than the cancelled project. But for many the findings of a report last year—that the existing Hudson River rail tunnels could very well fail before the newly proposed tunnel is built—loom too heavily to be optimistic.

Meanwhile The New York Times sent a reporter to London to compare, but mostly contrast and fawn over, the city’s Underground. Transport for London is adding an additional 42km of tunnels through its Crossrail project, on which tunnelling started in 2012. Construction is 80 per cent complete with parts of the line operational this year.

There aren’t enough column inches to dedicate to the debate of how to fund building and repairing the New York region’s rail infrastructure. What is worth noting is a recent TED Talk by Silicon Valley’s Elon Musk of Tesla who dove into the topic of reducing the cost of tunnelling per mile. He expects to do so in two steps—first by reducing tunnel diameter, which is very much possible when moving one car through his proposed multi-layer tunnel network on high speed sleds, as opposed to many cars in a multi-lane highway tunnel. This doesn’t provide relief nor financial savings in a city where just under half of its citizens don’t own cars and rely on its Subway