Why The PATH Train Never Grew

The Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) system is the New York City area’s second and, to most New Yorkers, lesser-known rapid transit system. For subway riders who aren’t regularly traveling to New Jersey, the PATH train can easily go unnoticed, perhaps partly because it’s given short shrift on the MTA’s subway map. But PATH is an indispensable pillar of trans-Hudson transportation; in 2019, over 82 million rides were taken on the system. Its status as New York City’s “second” subway system belies the fact that it, like the larger subway, has a fascinating history that includes a number of stories of ambitious but unfruitful attempts at expansion. The PATH system as it is today was completed in 1911, around the same time as much of the early NYC Subway. Unlike the subway, though, there have been no lines or stations added to the PATH system since then. This was not for lack of effort: in the PATH system’s 114-year history, there have been numerous ill-fated proposals for expansion. This post will focus on one of the most recent attempts at transforming the system, and the lesson of its failure for transit planning today.

Today’s PATH network, courtesy of PATH

During the 1970s, the PATH system nearly became the New York region’s answer to the hybrid urban subway-and-suburban rail systems that were becoming popular around the world as cities grew and suburbanization took root. Paris opened the Réseau Express Régional (RER) in 1977 using brand-new tunnels under the center of Paris to link the city’s growing suburbs. Seoul’s first Metro line, which opened in 1974, similarly provided new city-center tunnels for suburban lines. Systems like the Tokyo Metro and Berlin S-Bahn had pioneered the combination of urban and suburban transit decades earlier, providing a template for mid-century systems in Seoul and Paris, and more locally, in the Bay Area, Washington D.C., and South Jersey. Under the most ambitious PATH expansion proposals of the 1970s, it would have been possible to take a PATH train directly from Manhattan deep in to the Union County suburbs, 30 or more miles from Midtown. Why didn’t that happen, and why does our suburban rail still lag behind that of other major metropolises?

Becoming PATH: Transit Under “Political Duress”

The old and the new: original mosaic sign pointing passengers from the IND to H&M Tunnels, and newer PATH signage at the 14th Street station.

The system we know now as PATH was constructed by the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (H&M). Under the stewardship of William Gibbs McAdoo, an enterprising lawyer who later served as Secretary of the Treasury and as a U.S. Senator, the H&M was the first railroad to construct tunnels under the Hudson River. McAdoo’s success was the third attempt at building the tunnel; two prior attempts were made but not completed as the railroad ran out of money. In 1908, the H&M opened the Uptown Tubes, which carry trains from Hoboken to Greenwich Village and up 6th Avenue to Herald Square. The following year, the H&M opened the Downtown Tubes from Jersey City to Manhattan’s Financial District. Providing a connection from New York City to the farther-flung suburbs of New Jersey was always the system’s intention: the H&M’s stations on the New Jersey side of the Hudson—at Hoboken, Pavonia, and Exchange Place—were sited to provide easy access to the waterfront termini of the Lackawanna, Erie, and Pennsylvania Railroads, respectively.

The H&M, also commonly known as the “Hudson Tubes,” aspired to enlarge their system. One of the H&M’s goals was to connect with the growing NYC Subway in more locations, and had proposed an extension of the Uptown Tubes from their 33rd Street terminus to Grand Central Terminal, and a branch from 9th Street to Astor Place. The H&M and various outside groups also tabled several ambitious expansion proposals throughout the years. As the original system neared completion, the H&M suggested a short extension to the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City, and a longer extension from Newark to Orange and Montclair. In 1926, the North Jersey Transit Commission (which included in its membership Archibald Cox Sr., father of the Watergate special prosecutor whose firing would lead to the resignation of President Nixon) suggested expansion of the H&M as part of a larger transit plan to relieve pressure on the “saturated” suburban railroad terminals serving North Jersey. One proposal would extend the line 8 miles west from its Newark terminus to Springfield; the other proposal was for a short extension north through Hoboken’s city center. The commission’s full plan would have also seen extensions of New York’s subway into North Jersey, some using the existing rights-of-way of the mainline railroads. But none of the H&M’s, or the commission’s, proposals were ever realized.

Part of this had to do with the fact that the H&M’s financial struggles never ebbed and, like other railroads and rapid transit operators of the time, the H&M encountered further financial difficulty and declining ridership toward the middle of the 20th century. The railroad spent the late 1930s and early 1940s fighting the Interstate Commerce Commission, eventually taking the case as far as the Supreme Court, for permission to raise fares from 8 to 10 cents, in order to cover costs. Between 1933 and 1947, the H&M incurred losses of $8M—$109M adjusted for inflation—and in 1949, the H&M argued successfully for permission to increase fares to 15 cents, threatening that without the increased fares, the railroad would be forced to close by 1952. This was too little too late, and in 1954, the H&M declared bankruptcy. By then, the railroad’s mounting debt and losses had led to conversations about having it sold to the Port Authority, the bi-state agency charged with operating interstate crossings, ports, and airports in New York and New Jersey. At the time, the Port Authority was seeking to construct the World Trade Center complex on the East Side of Lower Manhattan. Any action taken by the Port Authority required the dual approval of legislators in New York and in New Jersey, where politicians were skeptical of the World Trade Center plan. In order to secure the support of New Jersey politicians for the World Trade Center, the Port Authority moved the proposed site to the West Side, on land then occupied by the H&M’s terminal, and agreed to take over operation of the H&M service. In 1962, the Port Authority takeover of the H&M was approved, allowing the World Trade Center proposal to proceed, and beginning a new era for the ailing H&M.

The circumstances in which the Port Authority took over the H&M were described as “political duress.” But despite their possible disinterest in running the system, once assuming control, the Port Authority quickly set about modernizing the H&M. The system was given its new name, Port Authority Trans-Hudson, and in 1965, new, air-conditioned, and very 1960s-styled rolling stock arrived to replace the aging H&M cars. The Port Authority’s landmark World Trade Center and its connected PATH station were completed in 1973—after which the Port Authority turned their attention to transforming the transit system they inherited.

An Attempt To Save Public Transit

The Port Authority hoped to be the first to finally grow the PATH system. In 1973, the agency proposed an ambitious expansion of PATH to the New Jersey suburbs. Since PATH’s opening, its primary role was shuttling commuters from the termini of suburban railroads to the city, not providing direct city-to-suburb service. The Port Authority’s proposal would see PATH assume the latter role for the first time. From its terminus at Newark Penn Station, the PATH system would be extended to Newark Airport, and on to the cities of Elizabeth and Plainfield, taking over the local commuter service then being operated by the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ). West of Elizabeth, the Port Authority would take over two of the CNJ’s four tracks, and electrify them using the third rail already used on the rest of PATH. The Plainfield extension would add 18 miles to PATH—more than doubling the system’s length—and the Port Authority even suggested the idea of one day extending PATH as far west as Raritan, another 13 miles from Plainfield and 40 miles from New York City. The extension to Plainfield was originally estimated to cost $402M (about $2.6B adjusted for inflation). Part of this investment would go toward additional, more comfortable rolling stock with “larger, upholstered seats,” more suitable for the longer journeys passengers would make than on the existing PATH cars. (Had the extension happened, it’s likely that PATH would look quite a lot like the PATCO system, which had been recently constructed with a similar goal of connecting South Jersey suburbs to Philadelphia).

The operations plan for the extension was equally ambitious. The Port Authority envisioned that rush-hour trains between Plainfield and New York City would run every 3 to 7 minutes—as frequently as the busiest parts of some subway lines—and every 30 minutes during off-peak hours. That timetable would be a radical change for suburban rail in 1973 (and equally so in 2022). Fares would be set at PATH’s flat rate as far as Newark Airport; beyond there, fares would be set at the same distance-based prices as the CNJ’s fares.

New York Times map showing the route of the planned PATH extension, and charts depicting the PATH system’s ridership and operating expenses. Though the Port Authority were investing heavily in the system, ridership and costs still painted a grim picture for public transit.

The large investments in PATH that the Port Authority was planning should not be mistaken for a public transit renaissance, however—the circumstances were quite the opposite. In the early 1970s, PATH ridership had begun to make a small recovery from its late 1960s nadir, but remained nowhere near the H&M’s peak ridership before 1930. The system’s expenses still far outpaced any the revenue it was making. The Port Authority’s investments in the PATH system and its expansion were as much about just saving the existence of public transit—and saving money for the state of New Jersey—as they were about substantially growing public transit overall.

Commuter Rail In Crisis

The 1960s and 1970s were a hugely difficult period for passenger rail across the United States. The CNJ, on whose tracks the Port Authority proposed to extend PATH service, had a particularly difficult time, as it was the only one of its neighboring major railroads to have a New Jersey terminus that remained without a mainline railroad or PATH connection to Manhattan. (Remember that the H&M had proposed serving the CNJ’s Communipaw Terminal, as it did other railroads’ termini, but never built such a connection). This meant that the CNJ were also responsible for the ferry service that carried their passengers from Communipaw to Manhattan, the operating costs of which further compounded the financial woes of the railroad. Starting in the 1960s, the New Jersey Department of Transportation began subsidizing the cost of operations and new rolling stock for New Jersey’s remaining commuter rail operators—the CNJ, Penn Central, and Erie-Lackawanna—which kept the CNJ’s trains running even after the railroad declared bankruptcy in 1967.

The state had also spent an additional $6.1M to prop up the struggling CNJ with the “Aldene Plan,” which rerouted CNJ trains away from the inconvenient Communipaw Terminal to Newark Penn Station, where passengers could change for train service—either Penn Central or PATH—to Manhattan. The Aldene Plan was named for Aldene, NJ, where the CNJ line crossed underneath the tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which provided the connection between the CNJ and Newark. When the plan was agreed in 1964, the state hoped that moving the CNJ’s trains to the more convenient Newark terminal, along with a $3M per year operating subsidy to the railroad, would return the CNJ to “sound financial condition.”

This was not to be; in 1973, the CNJ’s passenger services were still operating at a loss, despite the state’s continuing subsidy, which was then $5M per year. It is clear why the state was then searching for an alternative to railroad operation which could provide an escape from this cost—which attracted the state to the idea of replacing the CNJ’s main line service with rapid transit.

The Port Authority’s Ambition Meets Reality

Given the dire financial state of the commuter railroads, and the desire of public bodies to save transit in New Jersey, implementing the Port Authority’s proposed revitalization of suburban transit should have been smooth sailing. The PATH extension proposal was welcomed by the State of New Jersey, which gave the extension an endorsement in its 1972 master plan for transportation. In that document, the state Department of Transportation recognized that the use of PATH’s tunnels for additional suburban service could reduce the pressure on the single set of (then-Penn Central) rail tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan. “Having one or more [railroad lines] rebuilt for operation on PATH lines,” according to the state, would improve connectivity and be a useful step toward the ultimate goal of “direct service to some point on Manhattan for all lines.” Though the Aldene Plan made it easier, CNJ passengers still had no direct access to Manhattan, and as a result, the CNJ route was a focus of the state’s effort to expand direct service to Manhattan. In the 1972 master plan, the state weighed the PATH extension against a direct extension of CNJ service to New York City:

The options are a PATH extension over this route or extension of CNJ service to Penn Station, Manhattan. The former, an extension of PATH, would provide through service for the greatest number of commuters on this route. It also would improve passenger flow and train movement at Newark and eliminate duplication of equipment and personnel inherent in an end-to-end transfer. A Manhattan Penn Station based operation of the CNJ would provide a more desirable off-peak service and a somewhat higher level of comfort. In addition to the system choice, the desirability of integrating service in this corridor with Newark Airport access is being explored.

A Master Plan For Transportation, New Jersey Department of Transportation, 1972

The state identified several merits of the PATH extension, not just for CNJ passengers, but for streamlining the state’s passenger rail network as a whole. As the project evolved, the state government became its strongest supporter, particularly after Brendan Byrne, who was enthusiastic about the Port Authority expanding its rapid transit operations, took office as Governor of New Jersey in 1974. Byrne more enthusiastic about the prospect of large-scale PATH than the Port Authority itself, battling with the chairman of the Port Authority, and contending with the resignation of a Port Authority commissioner who disagreed with his vision, to keep the PATH extension on the table. Despite the support of the State of New Jersey, and the Governor especially, the Port Authority’s plan quickly became unstuck as they attempted to begin construction.

In 1975, the Port Authority applied to the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) for a $322M grant to start work on the extension, but the Port Authority was met with questions instead of quick approval. The UMTA was unconvinced that the PATH extension was a good use of the money the Port Authority was seeking, one of the highest requests in the UMTA’s history. At the heart of the UMTA’s unease to the PATH plan was a question that remains relevant to transit planning today: why are the outsize capital costs of converting a railroad line to rapid transit service worth it, when improving existing railroad operations could deliver similar benefits for much less expense? Questions of cost-effectiveness also came from within the state. Meeting with passengers, New Jersey’s assistant commissioner of public transportation admitted that electrification of the CNJ main line, which would allow existing CNJ trains to run directly to Manhattan, would cost less than the PATH extension. The state had also agreed to consider keeping some passenger service west of Plainfield—meaning that, potentially, the state would have to fund the costs of PATH construction and continue the railroad subsidies anyway. As the project’s cost-effectiveness was questioned, and tensions between state and federal government continued, U.S. Senator Clifford Case (R-N.J.) advocated the UMTA’s rejection of the PATH extension.

PATH train arriving at Harrison, bound for Newark, in 1969. (link)

The state had presented to the UMTA a number of alternatives for improving transit on the CNJ corridor. The first was the PATH extension, the most expensive option, but the option with the lowest projected annual operating deficit, an estimated $6.4M in 1985. The state also considered three potential enhancements of existing CNJ service: upgraded rolling stock, the addition of a third track on the shared CNJ-Lehigh Valley line between Aldene and Newark, and electrification of the CNJ mainline. Though the rail alternatives could be implemented at a lower cost, they had projected yearly deficits significantly higher that the PATH extension, between $14.8M and $15.9M. These projected deficits explain the state’s enthusiasm for the PATH extension, as it would entail a smaller financial obligation in future years. The UMTA remained unconvinced of the case to hand over a large amount of federal money, mostly to allow New Jersey to save itself money in the future. The UMTA’s director, Frank Herringer, was forthright: “We are concerned that for a great increase in construction costs—more than $200‐million — you get a small saving in operating expenses…we need more substantiation before approving the grant.”

In December 1975, the UMTA rejected the proposed PATH extension to Plainfield. The project was revived in 1976, when the federal Department of Transportation said it would be willing to fund the PATH project as part of a broader agenda for transit in New Jersey. Unfortunately, this revival was extremely short-lived: in 1977, a Supreme Court ruling stated that covenants in 1962 Port Authority bonds prevented the Authority from using its revenue to finance “any commuter rail projects.” In June 1978, Governor Byrne, once the project’s most passionate advocate, declared the PATH extension to Plainfield dead. In its place would be a far-less ambitious upgrade to the equipment used on the CNJ line. The dream of rapid transit to the suburbs was over.

An Alternate Transit History

The PATH terminal at the World Trade Center was described by the New York Times as “[resembling] newer stations on the Paris Metro.” Given that the World Trade Center opened around debut of the Paris RER, this is possibly referring to some of the new RER stations. But without the planned expansion of PATH, the World Trade Center terminal would never serve as a true regional transit hub on the scale of Paris’ RER stations. Nor would the region see the ramifications of the Plainfield extension, which would likely have been felt beyond the PATH system. Had the reuse of mainline railroad lines by PATH been a success, it may have helped to spur on similar proposals made by New York’s MTA, which would have seen subway trains extended on Long Island Rail Road tracks in Eastern Queens. The frequent service would be conducive to stronger integration between bus and rail in the New Jersey suburbs, in turn likely increasing the mode share of transit among commuters. The addition of rapid transit to large swaths of North Jersey would have been transformative. No less accessible by transit from Manhattan than parts of New York City’s outer boroughs, many Union County suburbs—and its urban county seat, Elizabeth—would look very different, likely with lots more housing and many more jobs located in more walkable downtowns.

Map showing what the PATH system would look like today had it been extended to Plainfield.

However, the UMTA was right—fundamentally, the PATH extension plan was flawed. With the Plainfield extension, the Port Authority was attempting to use a major capital construction project to solve what was ultimately an operations issue. There is a popular transit-planning mantra, which originated in German-speaking countries: Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton (organization before electronics before concrete). In other words, transit operators should ensure that less-costly organizational fixes are made before pursuing expensive construction projects. UMTA Director Herringer essentially invoked this phrase, without saying the exact words, in his criticism of the Port Authority’s funding request. The PATH extension failed in part because it took a reverse approach, aiming to fix an organization issue (high operating cost of railroad service) with particularly-expensive concrete (a rapid transit extension). The State of New Jersey might have achieved more material upgrades to transit through electrification of and upgrades to the CNJ main line, while also attempting to lower the operating cost of railroad service. In the 1972 transportation master plan, the state advocates the use of automatic fare collection on the Penn Central lines—which would help lower some operating costs—but that suggestion went nowhere.

The Aldene ramp, which connects the former CNJ to the former Lehigh Valley line to Newark has only a single track, which also contributes to low capacity on the Raritan Valley Line (luckily there is space for another track—let’s add it!) (link)

There were some improvements were made to commuter service on the CNJ line. In 1976, several bankrupt railroads, including the CNJ and Penn Central, were consolidated into the federally-backed Conrail, and in 1983, suburban rail in New Jersey was taken over by the new, state-owned New Jersey Transit (NJT). Some of the suggested upgrades to former CNJ service were made by NJT, which ordered new rolling stock for the line in the early 1980s, but many of the problems of the 1970s remain problems today. The former-Lehigh Valley line between Newark and Aldene remains a bottleneck, as it has only two tracks shared by passenger and freight trains. The line was never electrified; until the arrival of dual-mode locomotives in the 2010s, there was no way to offer direct service to Manhattan. The direct service to Manhattan offered today is very limited because the cross-Hudson capacity problem identified in 1972 was never addressed, meaning there is no room in the tunnels to Penn Station during peak hours for Raritan Valley Line trains.

Finally, PATH expansion is back on the map. The Port Authority plans to spend $1.7B to extend PATH 2.4 miles from Newark Penn Station to Newark Airport. (At $708M per mile, that is a more-than-threefold cost increase compared to the 1970s Plainfield extension, at $200M per mile). It is worth noting that Newark Airport already has a railroad station, served by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains, in the same location as the proposed new PATH stop. The questions raised by the Plainfield extension are again relevant: is this project accomplishing something which cannot be accomplished by organizational or policy-based changes to railroad service? The failure of the Plainfield extension should be a cautionary tale to transit planners today. We need a lot more transit, in North Jersey especially—but we all lose out on better transit, sometimes for generations, when projects undermine their own potential effectiveness by taking a backwards approach to problem-solving.

Map of today’s PATH network, with the proposed Newark Airport extension, courtesy of the Regional Plan Association. (link)

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