The Newtown Pentacle

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

This post gets involved with a serious bit of pondering, and will ask a naive question that I’m sure somebody else has thought of and discovered some insurmountable barrier to it’s feasibility.. Something I’ve always wondered about, even as a young but already humble narrator back during the fabled 1970’s…

Why don’t MTA trains ever carry commercial freight?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The fabled “money train”, garbage trains, and track work flatbed cars prove that you can indeed run freight through the light rail system. Loading, and unloading, cargo is accomplished in a timely fashion. The tracks are generally not “tied up” for long by these specialty trains, nor are they chewed up by doing this kind of duty anymore than they would be during rush hour service when the cars are packed to the gills.

I’m not talking rush hour, but middle of the night sort of bulk deliveries, using a miniature form of the ocean going steel shipping container that is deployed on a specialized (non passenger car) to facilitate speedy cargo handling. How many trucks would that take off the road, and what would decoupling the local food economy from the price of gasoline do for New York City?

The subway is already a sort of distributed node network, which carries a cargo of irregularly shaped meat products from one side of the city to the other, why not just add a second class of cargo and a specialized cargo car. The beautiful part of the cargo containerization concept is that it reduces shipping down to a simple calculation of weight and measure multiplied by distance. A ton of cargo is a ton of cargo, doesn’t matter if it’s engine blocks or rice krispies, as long as it fits in a cargo container it costs the same.

Specify a small shipping container size, make it self powered and wheeled and set it to robotically roll off onto the platform where it’s programmed to and await pickup. Getting it to the sidewalk can be accomplished a half dozen different ways, and I’m not talking system wide either. Load on in Queens or the Bronx, and roll off in Manhattan- where all the trucks are coming from and going to anyway.

Why not?

- photo by Mitch Waxman

As long as the cargo is within the bulk limit of what the tracks and undercarriages are designed to do, and given the proximity to truck depot and railhead alike that so many of the outlying MTA depots enjoy, wouldn’t there be some efficacy to using the subways to move commercial goods around the city? I’m not talking bricks here, but food and dry goods delivered to where the population is densest.

Sure the setup process would be expensive, but amortizing the cost out over a generation or two can’t be that painful. Moving a case of bread or cinnamon buns from a bakery in Long Island City to a supermarket in Harlem using an already electrified third rail and a non passenger subway car which has to be cheaper than using a truck. It would certainly be better for the environment, and probably put a lot of people to work over the course of time.

It would add a new revenue stream to the MTA, and guarantee that items manufactured or cooked or just plain created within New York City were immediately advantaged over any competitors from out of town.

Just asking.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

September 24, 2011 at 2:09 am

One Response

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  1. MTA does have a freight arm. You know of the IRT, BMT and IND. There is also the SBK, (South Brooklyn Railway) However when one starts to carry freight, you also get all the regulations and safety standards associated with it. Hence the current MTA does not operate the SBK as a common carrier.
    One thing to keep in mind, freight trains need a schedule. Customers require a standard and set delivery time. Mr & Mrs Commuter don’t want to have to wait for some freight train to do its thing when they need to get where they need to be.
    The LIRR and Metro-North have freight railroads (CSX for instance) operate over them. Notice that the freight that goes over those lines in mostly non-priority (trash, building materials) Mr & Mrs Commuter strike again. The high value freight stuffs gets dropped off in Bethlehem, PA, Albany, NY and along Jersey’s Waterfront. The trucks take it the rest of the way. That travel time is built into the schedules, and into our price$.

    John

    September 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm


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