Nov
25

Remembering the Train (to the Bus) to the Plane

By

Over the next few hours, hundreds of thousands of people will flock to airports around the country. Some will take buses and taxis while others take subways and commuter rails. Many will rely on monorails to navigate through terminals, and others will have a short walk to the gate all in a mad dash to get somewhere before Thanksgiving.

It is, then, fitting that Michael Grynbaum started the day on The Times’ City Room blog with a paean to the Train to the Plane. For New Yorkers old enough to remember the 12-year subway experiment, the Train to the Plane was a three-car subway that made seven stops in Manhattan — three in midtown along the 6th Ave. line with a switch to the 8th Ave. line south of W. 4th St. — and one at Jay st. in Brooklyn before going express to Howard Beach. In the days before the JFK AirTrain, airport-bound passengers then had to take a shuttle bus to the terminals.

The fares for an express bus with luggage racks and on-board officers weren’t cheap. The ride, as Grynbaum, relates, cost $3.50 in 1978 (or $11.60 in 2009 dollars) and rose to $6.75 by the time service was discontinued in 1990. The train remains part of subway lore though, and Grynbaum tells more of the story:

After a year, the train was handling about 2,000 rides a day, or 12 percent of all trips to J.F.K. from Manhattan. Gas shortages and two strikes on the city’s bus lines helped attract interest — not to mention the infectious theme song, composed by Charles Morrow, a celebrated jingle writer and one-time collaborator with Simon & Garfunkel.

But there was backlash. The train ended before the actual airport, so passengers had to switch to a bus. “Internally, we used to call it ‘take the train to the bus to the plane,’ ” said Trudy L. Mason, who helped oversee the express train service at the transportation authority.

And everyday subway-goers had to be reminded not to step onto the specially marked express trains, which loaded at the regular subway platforms. “One erring passenger did find his way aboard,” a reporter for The Times noted in May 1979. “When the conductor tried to collect the $3 fare, the man apparently thought he was being shaken down and refused to pay.”

The trains, graffiti-free and patrolled by a police officer, were the cleanest in the system, which some riders seemed to resent. “These brand new air-conditioned J.F.K. trains pull into stations with horns blaring,” Joseph J. Filippone of South Ozone Park, Queens, wrote to The Times on July 18, 1979. “They go gliding by, almost always at least three-quarters empty, while thousands of commuters are resigned to stuff themselves into already overcrowded, hot and dirty trains.”

By June 1980, The Times was already wondering: “JFK Train: Wasteful or Wonderful?” The train was running a $2.5 million annual deficit, and officials began discussing an early demise.

As passengers eventually realized that they could reach JFK by taking a slightly longer trip but paying just the regular fare by riding the A train, the Train to Plane fell to the wayside. Every few years, City officials begin a push for a true raillink, a dedicated track that would connect Lower Manhattan to the JFK Airport. We missed an opportunity to build one out to then-Idlewild when Robert Moses built his highways, and due to an estimated cost of nearly $10 billion, we saw a recent effort die in spite of a guaranteed $2 billion federal grant.

And so we remember jingles and long-gone express trains. As many travel for the holidays, we take moderns trains to modern monorails to over-capacity airports. One day, our Train to the Plane may come, but it won’t arrive any time soon.



16 Responses to “Remembering the Train (to the Bus) to the Plane”

  1. Nowooski says:

    That jingle is going to haunt me for days!

  2. Ed says:

    “The train to Howard Beach” would have been more accurate but doesn’t have the same ring.

    What a stupid idea, given there already was a train to Howard Beach.

    They did better on the second try, putting in a new train that EXTENDED instead of DUPLICATED the existing subway system.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The Lower Manhattan-to-JFK link is a waste of money. There’s already a link from JFK that goes almost to Lower Manhattan, the LIRR to Flatbush. All they need is to extend the LIRR to Lower Manhattan, which would be useful for both air travelers and commuters.

  4. Niccolo Machiavelli says:

    However, the abandoned Rockaway Branch of the LIRR could simply and cheaply be configured to run JFK to Manhattan Midtown in about 35 minutes, or a slightly more expensive configuration could re-establish the former double loop configuration abandoned when the A train took over that right of way from Rockaway. Every time I hear the Queens politicians cry about how the MTA underserves Queens I offer up that unused, direct to Midtown route. They all know its true but don’t have the fortitude to take on a couple dozen NIMBY neighbors (so alike their kinfolk in Long Island that veto the LIRR mainline third track to the detriment of Queens reverse commuters to Nassau, oh well).

    • Alon Levy says:

      One of the reasons the LIRR abandoned the double loop is that double loops are an operational nightmare, and have been ever since the BMT tried to run loops through Lower Manhattan.

      The old ROW from the Main Line to the Rockaways would have pitiful ridership, too low to justify the electrification. Part of the problem is that the LIRR isn’t designed with Queens commuters in mind: it has low frequency, high fares, and no good transfers except at Jamaica and Penn Station. In addition, the areas near the line are not very dense, and have limited commercial development at potential station sites. The most natural station site, Atlantic for a transfer to the Atlantic Branch, is entirely industrial and would generate no traffic of its own.

    • AlexB says:

      What’s the double loop configuration?

  5. john says:

    A -> Howard Beach -> Airtrain is really a pretty good way to get to the airport, considering the expense of offering additional service past that point. I can’t see why it’s worth any more investment than that. If I was really in a hurry I’d take LIRR -> Jamaica.

    • KB says:

      The E -> AirTrain option isn’t bad either. The E runs a pretty mean express in Queens especially weekdays before 7:30pm when it bypasses two additional stations.

      • SEAN says:

        Alon Levy says:
        November 26, 2009

        Part of the problem is that the LIRR isn’t designed with Queens commuters in mind: it has low frequency, high fares, and no good transfers except at Jamaica and Penn Station. In addition, the areas near the line are not very dense, and have limited commercial development at potential station sites. The most natural station site, Atlantic for a transfer to the Atlantic Branch, is entirely industrial and would generate no traffic of its own.

        Forest Hills isn’t dence? Go over to Austin Street & Contenental Avenue or travel just south of the Forest hills station into the Gardens subdivision & tell me again that areas along the LIRR aren’t dencely populated. Same for Kew Gardens & Woodside. Although the frequency & fares do leave a lot to be desired.

        The LIRR wasn’t designed for reverse commuters unlike MNR wich have Stamford, White Plains & to a lesser degree Bridgeport with dence downtown cores of office towers & residential buildings.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Forest Hills is on the Main Line. If you look at the density of the neighborhoods along the Rockaway Cutoff, it’s not very high, and the major intersections are industrial rather than commercial. You can see the land use maps for Queens CB 9 and CB 6 – the multifamily housing and commercial development are all near QB and the Main Line.

          And it’s not just about reverse commuting. Queens in principle has an express rapid transit line from Jamaica to Penn Station. In practice, this rapid transit line has a schedule and fare structure that make it useless to most people who live west of Jamaica.

  6. bklynbpr says:

    can someone explain to me how the ‘express’ train didn’t immediately catch up with regular service A trains and have to piggy-back them the entire way?

    i’ve never understood how this would be a seamless, ultra-fast option since it was forced to share the tracks with regular-stop express trains.

    • My mom, who remembers riding this train, couldn’t tell me. I wondered the same thing.

      I think the answer has to do with some unused center tracks along the A line after Euclid Ave. and a switch prior to the Aqueduct stop.

      • John says:

        I think the A ran local on the Fulton Line the whole time so the JFK Express had the Fulton Express to itself. Not sure what happened after Euclid Ave.

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  1. [...] television ditty from the early 1980s. “Take the train, take the train to the plane,” went the jingle. It was an advertisement for a supposedly super-fast airport subway service that ran express on the [...]

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