Thursday, November 22, 2012

Real Rockaway train service

As I've written before, the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the least sustainable places in the New York area. This sand bar might be okay for some cheap, replaceable summer bungalows and amusement parks, but it's no place for year-round inhabitants, much less large public housing projects. It's definitely not a place where you'd want to sink lots of money into expensive road infrastructure, but that's what the state has done, and every time it tries to charge people a reasonable fee for maintaining this massive system, they whine about it. The residents also made the mistake of depending for their power on bad sources, first on organized crime and nuclear fission, then on a legitimately underfunded but inept state agency.

For all their tough talk, it sounds like the Governor and the Mayor have passed up the opportunity to dump this money pit. We will rebuild, apparently. We'll rebuild the acres of single-family homes sprawled across the sand. We'll rebuild the parts of the housing projects that were damaged. We'll rebuild the train bridge that makes the commute slightly less polluting. We'll rebuild the telephone poles.

One of the most obnoxious elements of this whole thing was the pride that the MTA staff displayed in putting twenty R32 cars onto flatbed trucks and driving them over to the Rockaways. Don't they get it that this is really bad symbolism? Every time a train car is loaded onto a truck it sends the message that cars and trucks are the "real" transportation, and we have to do all kinds of things with them to get the trains working. On the other hand, these are probably the same MTA managers who live in East Northport and drive to their train yards and bus depots. Their entire lives are spent driving to run a transit system, so how can they ever imagine it could be any other way?

It's not clear how long it will take to restore the trestle across the bay, but the MTA could use some of the reconstruction money to restore the original tracks that went to Rockaway from Valley Stream. That connection came in handy in 1950 when the trestle was destroyed in a fire, and the Long Island Rail Road was able to run trains through Far Rockaway, as shown in this schedule:

Did they learn from that bit of resilience? Nah. In 1956 the LIRR sold the trestle and the peninsular tracks to the city, and in 1958 a quarter mile of track was removed in Far Rockaway. In 1966 the State took over the LIRR, and in 1968 it took over New York City transit, but it didn't rebuild the connection. A supermarket has been built across the old right-of-way, as you can see in this satellite picture:

If the track connection were still there, it would have been a relatively simple matter to move the trains. Better yet, the LIRR could have run trains direct from Penn Station. They wouldn't have to take an hour and a half like they did in 1951, if they went express from Far Rockaway to Valley Stream.

I don't know exactly how much it would cost to buy out the supermarket, rebuild the tracks and adjust the stations platforms for LIRR train cars, but probably only a couple million dollars. For a few million more you could build an elevated trestle over the supermarket and not even have to demolish it. Sure, it's a lot of money, but probably nothing compared to what we're spending to rebuild the trestle across the bay.

On one level, all of this is silly, because we simply can't afford to keep people living on a sand bar year round. It'd be a lot simpler if the train line just had to serve beachgoers; it could be rebuilt every spring if need be. But if we're going to have people living out there all year, they should have some real train service, and despite what Gridlock Sam may say, we shouldn't lower the tolls. That would ensure that they will drive for years more, keeping the trains empty and heavily subsidized.


BBnet3000 said...

I thought I remember seeing a redevelopment plan for that parking lot and area, though I cant seem to find it now (and it may be on hold due to Sandy). Guaranteed that not only does it not include a train connection, but that it would also block one permanently.

Cap'n Transit said...

Good catch, BBnet! There were plans floated in 2007 and 2009, but they seem to have fallen through. The supermarket that sits across the old ROW has been renovated, but apparently most of the cars parked there are park-and-riders from Atlantic Beach.

capt subway said...

Truer words were never spoken. And I've advocated this for years: abandon the line across The Flats, make Howard Beach the last stop on the A, and give back the line on the Rock peninsula back to the LIRR, re-establishing the track connection at far Rock.

And yeah: I worked for MTA-NYCT for almost 37 years. I live in NYC, Queens. But much of senior management at NYCT live is the 'burbs and drives to work, many of them in NYCT official cars. And that's a total crock.

Anonymous said...

FYI, Rockaway/Mott is elevated, not at grade. It might not be so wacky to send the line over the supermarket anyway, even without buying it outright. Eminent domain would still need to be exercised, perhaps, but the market doesn't have to go anywhere. But an elevated structure would be needed regardless, at least to get over the street.

Anonymous said...

What about LRT? Pretty cheap as far as shoring up and service extension goes, can use most existing infrastructure, and is much less costly to fix in the event of a flood. The A could still use one of the existing Rockaway terminals, or terminate at Broad Channel. The new LRT could either use the existing infrastructure and dump people out at Broad Channel, or use part of the existing infrastructure and run at grade parallel to the part that stays with the A. It would simultaneously be a feeder, offer redundancy, and offer opportunities for new service extensions.

And the two obvious at-grade extensions involve going around the airport to get to Jamaica, or crossing Floyd Bennett Field to get to Brooklyn's subways.

Anonymous said...

BTW, love that Broad Channel NYT article's lack of critical analysis: "The A train stops there, but the ride to the financial district often takes 90 minutes. Someone who uses the bridge to get to work will now have to pay nearly $600 a year."

You know, as opposed to the $1068 that months of unlimited MetroCard cost back then?

I agree with you about the absurdity about complaining about paying for that bridge, but hopefully it can be leveraged as a bargain to get East River bridge tolls!

Alon said...

When the entire line minus a few hundred meters of sold-off ROW is already built to mainline rail standards, the only reason to LRTify it is if you've seen LRT work elsewhere in a different context and think importing the technology will import the success.

In truth, the Rockaway branches are hard to serve by rail, not because they're a sandbar (a massive hurricane per century is livable), or because they're far (that's the geography S-Bahns are perfect for), but because the track layout makes the branching very awkward. You can abandon the tracks across Broad Channel and run commuter rail from Rockaway Park the long way around, but that's circuitous; the reason the Rockaway Cutoff opened was to make the service faster. You can do roundrobins, but then you're confusing the passengers, and the extra branch west of the wye means you're still cutting frequency because of the branching. Honestly, the current layout is close to optimal - they just need to extend the subway and LIRR tracks to meet each other cross-platform, time the transfers (yes, this means 15-minute service per LIRR branch, but that's how service should run anyway), and allow integrated tickets.

Jeremy said...

It doesn't make any sense to rebuild the A line connection since it's likely to be destroyed again in the foreseeable future. Limited-stop bus service already exists to the same part of Queens with connections to A and J trains.

Of course the LIRR connection may be the best way to go, and with express service would be much faster than today's A train. The problem is that since we've built the housing projects there we can't expect people to pay the LIRR fares (they choose the long subway ride instead).

Another option would be to extend the 2/5 line south along Flatbush Av and over the channel. Not a bad idea since it would have so many benefits for southeastern Brooklyn including relieving the B41 bus.