Sunday, August 25, 2013

Five rail-trails we'd like to see reactivated

Last month, the (Greater) Detroit Free Press told us of a section of trail the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (near Marquette) that had once been an active railroad, and will now be converted back to freight rail. "This is how it’s supposed to work," Humboldt Township Supervisor Joe Derocha told the Free Press, but it doesn't work that way as often as it should. In honor of that railroad, let's take a look at five rail-trails in the New York area that I'd like to see converted back to passenger use.

  1. The Harlem Valley Rail-Trail

    The Berkshires and Taconics are beautiful in the fall. A hundred years ago you could have taken the train up to Copake, Chatham and even beyond to Pittsfield, North Adams and Boston. But if you're up for some leaf-peeping, your only option is the slow bus that winds its way up Route 7. And you can't even get to Millerton without a car - unless you take the train to Wassaic and ride your bike for over an hour on this trail.

  2. The Joseph P. Clarke Trail

    Villages like Piermont, Sparkill, Orangeburg and Nanuet grew up around junctions where the old Erie Main Line intersected with north-south lines. These towns have decayed since the railroad stopped running. They have recovered a little with Rockland County's population boom and the popularity of Route 9W among racing cyclists, but they can't compete with the Thruway-fueled strip malls. If you want to live in a cute village like Piermont you can get halfway decent buses to the city, but local bus service is woefully inadequate. Regular train service, ideally connecting to the city through the "new" Main Line or the Northern Branch, would breathe new life into these towns.

  3. The South County Trailway, North County Trailway and Putnam Trailway

    If you go to a place like Ardsley or Elmsford, you'll find a cluster of buildings very similar to what you'd see around a railroad station, and there's a good reason for that. When the buildings were built, there was a station there. Now these places are stuck in the middle of Westchester, and the people who live there have to take the bus or drive to stations on the Harlem and Hudson lines. Businesses that depended on a steady flow of commuters shut down long ago. In northern Westchester and Putnam County, bus service is so spotty that villages like Yorktown Heights and Mahopac are car-dependent.

    These trails are popular with families on weekends, but during commuting hours they're essentially abandoned. Instead, they could run passenger service direct to Grand Central, or possibly even be connected with the subway system.

  4. The walkway Over the Hudson and Dutchess County Trailway

    The Northeast Corridor, our country's highest volume train line, has a tremendous vulnerability: there is one single train line, with two to four tracks. If anything happens to that line, as it has several times over the past few years, all traffic in that section stops. There were once many parallel lines, but some have incompatible power systems and many don't have tracks anymore. The Poughkeepsie Bridge Route offers a valuable alternate route that in the past has allowed trains to bypass New York City and its tunnels completely, while still allowing New York-bound passengers to transfer to any of five radial lines.

  5. The Nyack-Piermont Trail

    I've written before about the problems with New Jersey Transit's current plans to reactivate passenger service on the old Erie Northern Branch. The main challenge, from the point of view of funding, is a lack of what Jarrett Walker calls an "anchor" on the northern end. Villages like Norwood, Northvale, Demarest and Closter are too small to pencil out in the transit planners' metrics, and the planners can't imagine anyone being willing to upzone, so the planners build large park-and-rides to try to capture people who will drive from the sprawl further north.

    We'd really want to see the planners ditch their crappy proprietary models and look at induced demand. But we can also look at strong anchors, which means Nyack. Nyack doesn't have the population of Englewood or even Tenafly, but it has enough to provide a nice anchor for the Northern Branch - which was why it ended there in the first place.
    To get to Nyack means running trains through the part of the Northern Branch that's now the Nyack-Piermont Rail Trail. Which is unfortunate, because it's a nice trail with great views. But trails don't get people out of their cars. Trains do.


crzwdjk said...

The Poughkeepsie bridge in particular would be very useful for freight rail service to NYC and southern New England. Right now the only option for trains coming from the south or west is to go all the way up to Albany, or get on a carfloat, or unload in New Jersey and move the freight by truck via the Lincoln Tunnel or GWB.

Sigmund Floss said...

Tiny quibble: Wassaic to Millerton is under 12 miles, someone in reasonable shape can bike it in about an hour.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks! I haven't ridden it, so I looked on Google Maps, but looked up the walking time when I meant to click cycling.

Alon said...

Reading the first four, I was already planning my "But the Northern Branch to Nyack is way more important than all of those" comment.

GunHillTrain said...

The last mile of the Putnam Division in the Bronx is being sold off piecemeal. An apartment building has been completed on the ROW and two shopping centers (one at the Stella D'oro site) are encroaching on other segments.

It would be quite expensive to bypass all that - a tunnel probably would be the only option.

Christopher Parker said...

Years ago, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New Haven railroad had a plan for a new freight tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn. Periodically the idea resurfaces, including recently. I think that would be a better bypass than Poughkeepsie, which is too far north. Plus I think there would be a market for Brooklyn - Washington passenger trains (And Brooklyn - Boston too).

Alon said...

There already are tracks from Brooklyn to Boston.

neroden@gmail said...

I'd add the Upper Harlem Line. All the other routes out of NYC suffer from flooding: the Hudson Line, the New Haven Line, and the tunnels under the Hudson. The Harlem Line is the sole route which will stay above sea level in a hurricane.

It needs to be reconnected to the national reail network.

Unknown said...

Remember that it's always about the money. While it would be wonderful to see trains cross the PRB and on the Erie Northern branch to Nyack, who will pay for it? NJ Transit, being funded by NY & NJ, which are for the most part bankrupt, will demure from such huge capital projects. Therefore it would be up to CSX and/or Norfolk Southern to foot the bill. I do support these efforts, and sad to say that we may have been leveraging our future when all of these lines were abandoned and removed in the 70s and 80s. When some unforeseen crisis occurs and the NE Corridor or another heavily used freight line is out of service for an extended period, you will then see action, through most likely eminent domain, to reactivate these abandoned lines.