OPINION: Little-used Brooklyn, Queens freight lines could become light-rail routes
The running debate over the proposed BQX streetcar line, which would run from Long Island City, Queens, to Red Hook, Brooklyn, brings to mind other proposals for light rail lines in the New York City metro area. Many have been proposed since the 1970s or so, but only one — the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line across the river in Hudson County, N.J.
Light rail lines are often built within the roadbed of abandoned or lightly used railroad lines. This is definitely the case for the Hudson-Bergen line, which uses rights-of-way that once belonged to the Central Railroad of New Jersey and the New Jersey Junction Railroad.
Here in Brooklyn and Queens, the Long Island Rail Road has two such little-used freight rail lines that could easily be totally or partially converted to light-rail or other passenger railroad lines.
One, in Queens, is the Lower Montauk line, which runs from Long Island City to Jamaica near the “cemetery belt” north of Newtown Creek. The name reflects the fact that in the past, passenger trains on this line continued east to Montauk in Suffolk County.
The line had five stations between Long Island City and Jamaica: Penny Bridge, Haberman, Fresh Pond, Glendale and Richmond Hill. By the 1980s and 1990s, the number of daily passengers at each of these stops was 20 or fewer, possibly because the line didn’t continue into Manhattan.
In 1998, the LIRR introduced new cars that could only be used at high-level platforms. Since the cost of retrofitting these small stations with high-level platforms wasn’t justified by the small number of riders, passenger service on the line ended. I covered one of the last trips on the line for the old Queens edition of Newsday.
This year, a study by the engineering firm AECOM, commissioned by former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, found that instituting light rail service on the line is feasible — but costly. Because freight trains still run on the line, heavy-duty cars would have to be used. Several bridges along the line, the firm says, also would have to be substantially rebuilt or replaced.
The study finds that there has been some growth in population since LIRR service ended. Now, as then, the Richmond Hill station would be the busiest on the line.
Going south to Brooklyn, we come to the Bay Ridge Freight Line, which goes from Bay Ridge through Borough Park and Midwood past Brooklyn College (whose students often feel the rumble of its freight trains) to East Flatbush and East New York. From there, the line briefly enters Queens, where it proceeds to the Fresh Pond yard.
Today, the line is operated by the New York and Atlantic Railway, which specializes in short-line freight service. By most accounts, the NY&A does a good job and has at least partially cleaned up the line’s roadbed, which was littered with old tires and trash when the route was managed by the LIRR itself.
Like the Lower Montauk Line, it was once a passenger line as well. But passenger service on the Bay Ridge Freight Line ended in 1924, probably because it didn’t go to Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn.
Over the years, there have been many proposals to run subway, light-rail or passenger rail service on the Bay Ridge Freight Line. The latest is the Triboro line proposed by the Regional Plan Association. It would take advantages of the Bay Ridge line’s interchanges with other LIRR branches (through the Fresh Pond yard) to run trains over the line, through Queens, over the Hell Gate Bridge and up Amtrak’s tracks in the East Bronx to Co-op City.
The RPA points out that more and more jobs are located outside of Manhattan, and says this line would serve commuters who don’t need to go into the Manhattan central business district. Because it only runs one or two freight trains over the Bay Ridge line a day, the NY&A will be able to share the route with passenger rail, although I leave it to the engineers to find out how this could be done.
As far as I am concerned, both of these proposals deserve consideration. Little-used freight lines have been converted into light-rail and other passenger rail use in other cities. Why not here?
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