Dec
05

Forever losing the option for transit

By

A schematic shows the Rockaway Beach Branch service from 1955 until it was shuttered in 1960. (Courtesy of Railfan.net)

As creative urban parks go, New York City’s High Line is a great success story. The city, with fiscal help from private donations, turned an abandoned and decrepit freight rail line that no longer went anywhere or connected to the rest of area’s transportation network into a popular park that weaves through a neighborhood teeming with residents, businesses and tourists. Now, everyone wants a piece of the action.

Across the country, urban activists are eying the nation’s dying rail infrastructure not for transit but for parks. In Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit, community groups are searching for the “next” High Line — some infrastructure that can be turned into a park that will revitalize a neighborhood. It’s not quite that easy as New York’s High Line runs through a densely-populated neighborhood that already was a big tourist destination before the park opened, but that minor point isn’t stopping anyone.

Even within the city, New Yorkers are also looking for the next spot for the new High Line. Every few months, the Delancey Underground effort earns some press, and now an old initiative from Queens is gaining ink as well. On Friday, the Daily News explored how Queens residents are once again trying to turn the LIRR’s defunct Rockaway Beach Branch into a park. This isn’t a new plan; it last garnered coverage back in 2005. But with the High Line’s success, residents are emboldened to try again.

Lisa Colangelo has more:

Encouraged by the success of the High Line in Manhattan, a group of Queens park advocates are rebooting a proposal to rehabilitate an abandoned rail line into a greenway. The old Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, which went out of service almost 50 years ago, stretches from Rego Park to Ozone Park, cutting a swath through Forest Park.

“This is such an exciting idea,” said Andrea Crawford, the chairwoman of Community Board 9 who is helping organize supporters of the project. “It’s green, yet it has economic development opportunities. It would tie us in with other rail-to-trail projects happening all over the country.”

Crawford was part of a group of civic leaders who met with city agency representatives this week to discuss preliminary plans for a greenway along the route. Remnants of the line are visible throughout the area. The tracks ran along trestles above Metropolitan Ave. and Union Turnpike. The path is mostly clogged with trees and overgrown vegetation, but it still includes some train tracks and signal equipment and towers. The tracks, which lead into Forest Park just south of Union Turnpike and Woodhaven Blvd., are owned by the city.

As Colangelo explained, Community Board 9 supported the idea a few years ago, but Community Board 6 declined to authorize a feasibility study for a park. Residents in Forest Hills had raised concerns focused on “security and the impact on private property.” Today’s activists aren’t going to let obstacles from a few years ago hinder them.

Now, outside of the practicality of it — what money will turn this abandoned rail line into a park and is it in a part of the city to which people will travel to experience such a transformation? — there’s another issue: It’s part of a long-term effort that removes transit infrastructure from its intended use. By turning the West Side Line into the High Line, the city ensured that it would never be used for rail transportation again. If the Essex St. trolley terminal suffers the same fate, it too will never be a part of the city’s transit infrastructure.

The Rockaway Beach Branch has been fetishized by transit advocates for decades. The MTA once considered using the line as part of a one-seat ride to JFK or for Airtrain right-of-way before NIMBYs in Queens killed that idea, and an extensive thread on a popular transit message board traces the various ideas for reactivating the rail line. In his 40-year plan for the MTA, then-agency head Lee Sander mentioned restoring transit services to the line as well. Turning it into a park would immediately dash any of those hopes.

Therein lies the tension with old infrastructure: How long should a former train route lie fallow before we can accept other uses for it? Should the city be willing to discard half-formed plans to activate train lines that could provide useful service because someone else is louder or better connected? Turning the Rockaway Beach Branch into a rail trail will forever preclude using it for transit just as turning the Essex St. Terminal into a park or shopping area would do the same. That’s a decision that should not be made lightly.



Categories : Abandoned Stations

54 Responses to “Forever losing the option for transit”

  1. Thank you for bringing this up. Rail-to-trail projects are one of those seemingly great things you’d be crazy to argue against. Except that, in certain places, they are very short sighted. Historically the US overbuilt it’s rail infrastructure and in many places long abandoned ROWs do make for great parks. But in others it’s obvious (to most, anyway) that if we destroy this chance at preserving space for future demand then we lose it forever.

    Queens has a famous case of this back when Robert Moses built the Van Wyck Expressway with no space for mass transit. Had there been space left the AirTrain would have been much cheaper to build (or would have been a real extension of the subway).

    In a generation when gas prices are higher then anyone today can imagine and the auto-oriented development in Queens becomes too costly for most it will be interesting to see what will happen to this line. If we turn it into a park then it will no doubt raise hell if the MTA proposes building a subway extension over it.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      You really, really, need someone who is a sober-minded judge of these things. Some rail fans can never be happy unless every inch of track is being used for passenger service. The High Line is a perfect example: there was no credible service that could have been offered there, but some buffs were still unhappy that it was turned into a park.

      I haven’t studied the Rockaway Branch closely enough to assess whether it is practical to re-activate it. I do know that rail fans are not the right people to ask.

      • BrooklynBus says:

        The Canarsie line could have been extended northward as far as 72nd Street once upon a time. Would have made more sense than a park. The line is not an el and could have been integrated into new buildings built over and around it.

        • Alon Levy says:

          The question is, who needs that? The West Side’s subways are not at capacity, and the far West Side needs east-west connectivity to Midtown, not north-south connectivity eventually bending over toward Union Square.

          • pea-jay says:

            Extending the L out to 10th Ave and turning it northward for a few stops would serve the area better than the Eight Avenue Line and improve crosstown connectivity. But you would not need the Highline to do that. That railroad’s viability depends on the revival of industrial uses along the Hudson which will not occur.

    • Christopher says:

      Which is why there is a burgeoning rails AND trails movement. The new purple line in DC’s northern suburbs will be lightrail, though and along a park. Paris’s ring lightrail lines also integrate light rail within a parkway setting complete with tracks embedded in the grass. It’s possible to have both. The ideal here is to stop thinking of either-or and thinking about and. Either-or thinking has plagued planning for way too long. It was either cars or pedestrians or bikes or streetcars.

      • Alon Levy says:

        I think you’re badly misrepresenting European tramways. Although they’re in a grassy median, the grassy median is by no means a park; it’s a dedicated ROW for trams, which excludes cars by design since it’s not a paved road. Moreover, this is space that was appropriated from former traffic lanes, making this exactly either-or thinking.

    • David says:

      Turning former rail lines into trails across the depopulating Red Midsection is better than doing nothing.
      The High Line was beyond reusing, but Seattle and other cities are struggling with closed rail lines and no money.
      Adding a trail but keeping space for future transit is what everyone wants, except the republicans.
      As a recent transplant, does anyone know WHY the AIRTRAIN was built instead of just extending the A Train or any of the other dozen nearby lines?

      • Clarke says:

        Majority of reasons, mostly involving Port Authority/MTA/City/State politics and policies, government funding, etc.

      • pete says:

        Because Airtrain was built with FAA $, not USDOT $. The terms of FAA money only permit it to enhance the airport, and nothing else. MTA NYCT employees aren’t airport workers and don’t work airport property, therefore they couldn’t operate the system because having the MTA run it would cross subsidize non-airport facilities. TLDR= turf war.

      • t says:

        It was federal money, the funds need to be used a stand alone line. Pretty stupid. that’s why it does not make stops along the way.

    • R.B says:

      I agree. The MTA never officially abandoned the ROW so there must be some back burner plan to reactivate this line. The MTA could reactivate this line and possibly install sound proofing walls like on the interstates. This would benefit the city and tri-state region as a whole by providing a one seat ride from the Manhattan CBD to JFK airport. Yes the High Line is a nice feature for the far West Side of Manhattan but would a linear park in this low density area be as successful? The High Line at this moment has subway access located on 8th avenue and when the 7 extension opens it will have access from the 30th street entrance to the park. I would think the reason transit advocates want the ROW reopened is due to the fact there’s little transit access in the area so how does spending millions to convert the line to a park benefit the city? This is one case where I say build the link.

  2. Walter says:

    At least the MTA isn’t SEPTA, or else half the Harlem and Hudson Lines of Metro-North would be rail trails right now.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The Harlem Line is a trail north of Wassaic. The line originally went much farther north and met up with the NYC mainline near Albany.

      And, pardon the heresy, but the line would not be harmed if it were turned into a trail between Wassaic and Southeast. It carries so little traffic on that segment that the main schedule lists trains between Grand Central and Southeast, and relegates Southeast-Wassaic to a little box near the corner.

      (The Hudson Line is different in two ways: first, it’s an intercity mainline, and second, it has a much less steep dropoff in traffic beyond the boundary of electrification.)

      • Walter says:

        A straight shot north up the Harlem from the City to Chatham could have been a potential HSR route to Albany, but now it’s simply not to be. I would bet the Wassaic portion of the Harlem Line does see more ridership than the entire Port Jervis Line, for what that’s worth. It’s only on a separate box on the timetables because it wouldn’t fit on the main timetable.

        My point is that the MTA does not have a history of abandoning its lines (unless, say, tearing down the Third Ave El counts), while SEPTA has pretty much stifled any chance at increased service in suburban Philadelphia by ripping up rails for trails.

        • Alon Levy says:

          The curves on the Harlem Line are worse than on the Hudson Line. There aren’t all that many legacy ROWs that are usable for HSR, and those that exist are all in flat areas, i.e. not Westchester. If you want HSR from New York to Albany, there’s no way around a greenfield ROW, with some tunnels under the Hudson Highlands.

      • Hank says:

        Having used the Wassaic branch a number of time (albeit almost exclusively on the weekend for trips out of town), it’s always seemed fairly occupied. It would be a shame to eliminate it.

        I recommend it to anyone seeking a day or two escape from the City.

      • ajedrez says:

        But what advantage would there really be in turning it into a rail-trail if the population density is close to nothing up there.

  3. The Silence says:

    The reason the park is not going to get off the ground on the Rockaway line anytime soon is the fact that no one has ever filed with the Federal government to abandon the line. It’s disused, but it’s not abandoned. There’s a legal distinction here.

    • Alex C says:

      The City of New York owns the ROW, correct? I know there’s different states of ownership regarding abandoned lines, and I think someone on SubChat mentioned the line being owned by NYC.

      • Stu Sutcliffe says:

        The MTA does not own it; the City does.

        • pete says:

          The city owns NYCT (Remember the Board of Transportation?) and the Subways. NY State owns LIRR (and therefore the Rockaway line) I think.


          In 1966, New York State bought the railroad’s controlling stock from the PRR and put it under the newly formed Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority (renamed Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968). With MTA subsidies, the LIRR modernized further and grew into the busiest commuter railroad in the United States.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LIRR

          • Researcher says:

            Not any longer, Pete. The Rockaway Beach line was returned to the city more than 20 years ago. The Board of Transportation was replaced by the original Transit Authority in 1953. There was a second Transit Authority formed in 1955 or so, and that was the agency that became part of the MTA in 1968.

            In any event, neither the MTA nor the LIRR has anything to do with the dormant part of the Rockaway Beach Line.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    A few things:

    1. Rail-trails are a scam; they almost never get converted back to rails.

    2. That said, the local security concerns make me wish that cops treated the local neighborhood people the way they treat protesters. (This is purely knee-jerk – I don’t actually think it should be done.)

    3. Not all former transit infrastructure is useful today. Some is more useful as something else, like a park, or new space for housing. For example, the High Line was discontinuous, could not be easily connected to any existing subway line, and serves an area whose existing north-south subway (the 1) is not at capacity while providing not meeting the demand for east-west connectivity. It was thus not very worthwhile to keep for rail, and based on its current success is very valuable as a park.

    4. Let’s apply 3 to the situation at hand. For the record, I’m fairly bearish on the Rockaway Cutoff’s utility for rail service: connecting it to the JFK AirTrain would be hell in terms of both technical incompatibility with Bombardier’s linear induction system and constructing a new viaduct from the line to the AirTrain. In addition, airport connectors are a low-demand service, which would force low frequency, making ridership even lower. The existing AirTrain-to-LIRR transfer is annoying for tourists, but for locals it has the advantage of connecting to a very high-frequency commuter line, piggybacking on Jamaica’s preexisting volume of trains.

    • Christopher says:

      Actually the rail line that new purple line is being built on in suburban Montgomery County, MD, is going in a previous rail to trail. It’s going from rail to trail to rail AND trail. The Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC is also a rail AND trail project.

    • Nyland8 says:

      Rail Trails are not a scam, Alon. The reason they rarely get returned to rail usage has nothing to do with having become a linear park – it has to do with there being little or no political will to advance rail infrastructure. The fact is, rail trails preserve thousands of miles of ROW across the country, and should there finally come a day when the cost of energy become so high that the public starts to clamor for more mass-transit solutions, those ROWs will still exist.

      With most elevated HSR designs, having a greenway underneath is not only feasible, it’s desirable from a security standpoint. So Rail-And-Trail should be the wave of the future.

  5. Alex C says:

    This idea, it’s awful. KILL IT WITH FIRE.
    This line can’t be lost to such an awful idea. A damn trail? This is in residential Queens. There’s no tourism or any other use for this as a “trail.” The area is already surrounded by endless acres of parks anyways. Not restoring for either LIRR or subway service is a failing in its own right, but killing this valuable ROW for good would be catastrophic.

  6. Bruce says:

    The fact that we have a “One Seat” ride option to JFK so readily available, but allow it to be squandered is a perfect example of the waste and ineffectiveness of having two separate fiefdoms (the MTA vs. the Port Authority) at cross purposes with each other planning transit in New York. If this branch of the LIRR had been rebuilt, along with an extension across the JFK parking lot to the central terminal area, we would not have needed an Airtrain to Jamaica in the first place.

  7. Eric says:

    There is nothing special about the High Line except its location – in an area of Manhattan with a high population density and few parks, so there was a high unmet demand for parkland before the High Line came along. In any other location in the US, a thin elevated park would be attract few people, because it would be less accessible, more isolated and crime-prone, and less useful than the “normal” parks located nearby.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      There is something special about the High Line: its uniqueness. Try to name another park that is similar.

      Let’s not forget: the alternative to the High Line Park was not re-activating it for rail service. The alternative was demolishing it, which was at one time the leading option. The idea of turning into a park was met (initially) by a great deal of skepticism. Many in the community doubted that it would work.

      • Steve says:

        Naming another park is easy: the High Line was modeled on the Viaduc des Arts in Paris.

        But your point is taken: there was no realistic plan to reactivate the High Line as a railroad, and with good reason.

  8. Miles Bader says:

    “Rails-to-trails” and the equivalent seem like a generally very bad idea (albeit in a fuzzy puppy costume, so the public loves them). They take a resource which is usually extremely costly to acquire—but which cannot be sold for anywhere near the same cost, so there’s little good from selling it—and just sort of tosses it away for a use which while commendable could just as well be accomplished using much less valuable land. Promises that the land will later be returned if necessary seem disingenuous.

    Maybe there are cases where it’s basically impossible that the land will ever be used for transit use again, but I suspect that the people promoting these uses do not typically go to great lengths to prove it. If there’s any doubt such conversions should be rejected.

    [This always struck me as the true tragedy of the 1960s BR rail implosion—that not only did they stop the services and close the stations, but they sold off the rights-of-way... The former two may have been justified in many cases, but I find it harder to believe the latter was.]

    • Anon256 says:

      The BR closures were much worse because the land was often sold off piecemeal for private/residential development so many of the abandoned ROWs are hopelessly discontinuous now. Rail trails at least avoid that problem, keeping the full line as a single parcel.

  9. Scott E says:

    A reason this plan has a good chance of going through is that according to common perception, like investments in schools, only a child-hating grinch would oppose such a thing. But as long as the Rockaway line has a potential to serve a purpose, and isn’t posing a safety or financial liability (which some may argue it does), then it should remain an option.

    Look at the LIRR Whitestone branch. Although not turned into parkland, enough construction has occurred over it’s right-of-way that there is no chance of restoring rail access to this transit-inaccessible part of this outer borough. Today, I’m sure a rail or subway spur to northeastern Queens would be a welcome addition if it were possible. If there is any example to be cited as to why the Rockaway branch shouldn’t be permanently deactivated, I think this is it.

  10. Larry Littlefield says:

    “The City of New York owns the ROW, correct?”

    I believe it is “owned” by the people alongside, who are gradually making it “their” property. The are in effect seizing a public resource for themselves.

  11. David Krulewitch says:

    Hi,
    I am involved with the Regional Rail Working Group and we have been actively studying the Rockaway Beach Branch. I wrote a graduate urban planning paper on reactivating the rockaway beach branch. Feel free to read the whole paper here:

    http://davidkrulewitch.com/Roc....._Paper.pdf

    I narrowed it down to three options.

    1. Have the R train branch off from the Queens Boulevard line and run to the rockaways via the Rockaway Beach Branch. This would involve tunneling in and around Rego Park. Send A train to Far Rock, C train to Ozone, and R train to Rockaway Park 116th. This would improve train access to rockaways, new stations in central queens, and better access to the howard beach station of the airtrain.

    2. Reactivate the line with a special new hybrid airtrain/lirr compatible train that doesnt currently exist. This would allow a 1 seat ride from Penn (and after ESA, Grand Central) to all JFK terminals. New trackage would have to be built from Aqueduct to the air train at jfk. The Port Authority put a provision in the air train to make it compatible with LIRR if someone could design a rail car that had both 3rd rail shoe and linear induction.

    3. Remove subway access from the Rockaways and only run LIRR to rockaway via the Rockaway Beach Branch and LIRR far rockaway line. This would also allow for quicker access to air train because the LIRR would stop at howard beach. Under this configuration, all A trains would end at Ozone, and the rockaway beach branch would be reactivated for LIRR use only.

    Regarding the rails AND trails option: Some sections would allow this configuration, but many would not. I walked the entire right of way and there is not enough room on the bridges to allow for bicycles. Perhaps some smalller connection into Forest Park would be possible, but definitely not for the whole ROW unless all the bridges were torn down and built from scratch.

    Regarding eminent domain: The city currently owns all the land that could be used for reactivating the line. All land that people “claim” as theirs is under a lease agreement with the city and could be terminated.

    Read my paper, you’ll get a great understanding of the history, I have some great photos comparing photos of the stations as they looked in 1950 and how they look today.

    • Frank B. says:

      I think your paper is quite brilliant, and I find option 1 to be the best option.

    • Matthias says:

      Just build new ped/cycle bridges–much cheaper than rebuilding combined-use bridges.

    • Evan says:

      I haven’t read your paper yet, but I have read your ideas in this comment and think that these are the best ideas I’ve heard in a while.

      However, unless you can get enough people to read it, I’m not sure your plans would ever see the light of day in the public forum.

      Personally, I recommend that you publicize these as much as possible. Tell your friends, have them tell their friends, maybe write something in the papers; I don’t know, just try anything. This is because with my experience, I can tell you that having a good idea is one thing; having it seen through, let alone get it into the public consciousness is a whole other issue.

      But, once again, it’s great ideas you have, and I can’t see how they can’t become popular.

    • Alex C says:

      Idea 1 has my support.

      • ajedrez says:

        I’d just prefer extending the Rockaway Park Shuttle up to Woodhaven Blvd. Sending the (R) there would make it too long, and it would also be a pretty circuitous route to Midtown (not that the (A) is much better, though)

        • Alex C says:

          Ideally I’d combine the Rockaway line with the Queens superexpress that never happened. Quick ride directly to midtown.

    • pea-jay says:

      I’m leaning towards an altogether new service that uses standard LIRR vehicles but in a Premium service sort of way. Follow me here:

      * Current JFK gripe is that is that there is no One-Seat Ride to the airport and;
      * The existing options take too long.
      * Adding new subway service wont improve times
      * The cost, hassle and unpredictability of using multiple train technologies is a recipe for disaster.

      So do it this way.

      – Create a non-stop NY Penn / JFK line that just goes back and forth, endlessly
      – Use separate cars (but the same rail LIRR EMU technology) with a distinct name and livery
      – For Penn, isolate an island platform and use flat fare metro card (or successor) turnstiles to access.
      – For JFK, construct a new underground station under terminal one, also with turnstile access. This way, you don’t need conductors. Labor savings.
      – You could probably use LIRR with 2×2 seating with wider aisles though. Easier access.

      Now for the Route

      – Leave Penn, divert south of Rego Park on the Rockaway ROW.
      – Follow that ROW to just north of the Howard beach A stop, and cut in with a new low slung elevated trackway. It’s mostly parking lots. (it helps to use google maps)
      - Hop over the AirTrain, Bergin Basin and through the tank farms. Some will have to be relocated.
      - Follow Commissary Road towards the Van Wyck and the parking lots, cutting a route southward. At some point the route would need to be cut-and-covered into the terminal area.

      - No intermediate stops. The value to the city and the PA would be higher with a faster one seat ride. The key would be to do this in under a half hour. This way the marketing gurus could market it with catchy names and slogans “Go from Penn to Plane with out the pain.”

      With under a half hour ride, that would beat the pants off the subway, Jamaica LIRR and even cabbies. Charge top dollar rate, something like $20 and charge air carries at least double, if not higher for Terminal one access. Premium service, baby.

      This might need to be a PA project. Even better if they continued the line out THE OTHER direction and connected straight up to Newark Liberty, again Non-stop to the terminal.

      Now if we could only do something about La Guardia

      • pea-jay says:

        Measured the trackage using a GIS tool, it’s 15.4 miles. With no stops, and modern rails, that should be doable in 20 mins? That would allow plenty of boarding time at either end and the use of clock face scheduling. This could probably be run with 2 train sets, maybe 4 total (for peak/spare use). One engineer per train – can these EMUs be OPTO? – and one to take care of the doors, assist passengers.

      • Bruce M says:

        I think this is a great plan, and relatively feasible as far as construction costs go. I might suggest an above-ground terminal in the JFK central terminal area to save even more time & money. Perhaps each terminal could have a people-mover connect to the train terminal in the center.

        I also think the extension to EWR makes even more sense.
        These would finally elevate our international airports to something more on the level of “world class” instead of embarassments.

  12. Christopher says:

    I’ve heard Rails AND Trails… But apparently the Rails to Trails conservancy calls it Rails WITH Trails. Here’s their toolkit on working in active corridors. It is possible and I think we’ll see more of it.

  13. Think twice says:

    As a park wholly-owned by the city, a line could be built beneath the ROW or above it. Preferably below to keep it away from much of the elements; unlike the current Brighton Line.

    • Peter says:

      Here’s my solution, at least from Rego Park to Forest Park: Run the tracks underground, build a bike/hiking trail above. Train service is restored, noise is mitigated, Forest Park is connected to Rego Park. Win-win-win.

  14. t says:

    Ride the q37 bus, or take any bus at queens center from even, or drive woodhaven blvd you will see them need to reopen this line.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] few weeks ago, I explored an on-again, off-again movement in Queens to convert parts of the unused Rockaway Beach Branch line into a park. At the time, I was skeptical of the move because once these rail rights-of-way are [...]

  2. [...] for the so-called QueensWay, a rails-to-trails project that would forever sacrifice the rail option for the Rockaway Beach ROW, had a different take, and it is probably the group’s most [...]

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