Rail freight transportation in New York City and Long Island

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Rail service in the Port of New York in 1910

From the start of railroading in America through the first half of the 20th century, New York City and Long Island were major areas for rail freight transportation, but their location, across the Hudson River from northeastern New Jersey, and thus most of the United States, has always posed problems for rail traffic. Numerous factors, besides geography, influenced the dramatic reduction of the number of freight rail cars that enter or pass through the city to a trickle. Efforts to reverse this trend are ongoing, but have met with limited success.


1912 Pennsylvania Railroad map showing the Greenville Terminal and its car float operations. Rail and barge routes shown on the map are largely the same as those in use today.

In part because of its excellent harbor and its canal connections to the interior, New York City and its surrounding area early on became the largest regional economy in North America. As railroads developed in the 19th century, serving New York City market was vital, but problematic. The Hudson River, a mile-wide (1.6 km) estuary near the city, a section also called the North River, presents a formidable barrier to rail transportation. As a result, most railroads terminated their routes at docks on the New Jersey shore (see 1900 map).[1] Ferries brought rail passengers to and from the city, while car float barges carried freight cars across the Hudson—on the order of one million carloads of freight per year.[2]

Train passing underneath Manhattan's Western Electric complex in 1936.

One exception was a New York Central Railroad line on the east bank of the Hudson that extended into Manhattan for freight service. This West Side Line, brought freight cars to docks, warehouses and industries along Manhattan's west shore.

In the early 20th century, the Hudson barrier was surmounted by tunneling for passenger rail, and, starting with the Holland Tunnel in 1927, the George Washington Bridge in 1931, and the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937, for automobiles and trucks. Trucks could deliver freight anywhere in the city without requiring a railroad siding. The rail tunnels required electric propulsion, limiting their use for freight. A rail freight tunnel from Staten Island to Brooklyn was proposed, but never completed.

Rail freight traffic east of the Hudson that did not cross by barge had to go north some distance to cross the river by bridge. The first rail crossing of the Hudson was the Poughkeepsie Bridge built in 1888. The New York Central crossed just south of Albany, New York, where it continued west paralleling the Erie Canal to create the Water Level Route which competed with the Pennsylvania Railroad's more direct route that had to cross the Allegany Mountains. Even though the Poughkeepsie Bridge was closer to the city, it was less used.

Post World War II[edit]

High Line park at 20th street in Manhattan.

The peak of rail freight came during World War II, when New York industries, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, worked around the clock to support the war effort. After the war, the Interstate Highway System was built, along with many inland waterways, both competing with the railroads. The rail industry went through widespread consolidations and bankruptcies. Containerization revolutionized shipping. The Port Authority developed the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal on Newark Bay. Piers in Brooklyin and Manhattan declined in usage and were abandoned. The 1980 Staggers Rail Act largely deregulated the U.S. railroads. The railroads de-emphasized "retail" railroading—movement of one or a few rail cars from a shipper's siding to a destination siding—in favor of long unit trains for bulk commodities, such as coal and ore. General cargo shifted to intermodal movement, first trailers on flat cars (TOFC), intermodal containers on flat cars (COFC), and then double-stacked containers, loaded on special well cars. Much manufacturing shifted to Asia, particularly Japan and China, leading to a sharp increase in international container movements.

Industry developed highly efficient logistics based on strategically located distribution centers, often serving an entire metropolitan area with a single center. Goods in long distance containers, whether shipped by rail or sea, typically must be unpacked at a distribution center outside the city before being sent to an end destination, such as a retail store.[2]

Heavy industry migrated out of the city. The Navy Yard closed in 1966. The Verazanno-Narrows Bridge across the mouth of the harbor opened in 1964, allowing truck traffic to bypass Manhattan on the way to Long Island. The New York Central Railroad merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central in 1968, which then went bankrupt in 1970.[3] The Poughkeepsie Bridge was closed after a fire in 1974 and has since been converted to a pedestrian and bicycle path. The West Side Line rail yard in Manhattan was sold and Trump City was built on the site. The line itself was converted to passenger use as AMTRAK's Empire Connection in 1991, with the portion south of Penn Station abandoned and later converted into High Line park, a pedestrian path.

The numerous car float operations across New York Harbor shrank to a single cross harbor barge line, the New York Cross Harbor Railroad. It merged with a trucking company, then ran into financial difficulties and sold its cross harbor operation to New York New Jersey Rail, LLC, which was subsequently purchased by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Attempts to revive rail freight in the City and Long Island[edit]

In the late 20th century, government officials sought to increase the amount of freight to New York City and Long island that arrives by rail. To this end, several private and public sector initiatives were undertaken:

  • The State of New York's $375 million "Full Freight Access Program" to allow cars with higher, TOFC clearance (but not double-stack) to reach Queens and Long Island, including construction of the Oak Point Link and the Harlem River Intermodal Yard in the Bronx. The link opened in 1998.[2] The Harlem River Intermodal Yard was intended to handle intermodal containers but none were ever lifted there.[2]p. 21 Instead, it is being used for loading containerized trash onto trains for remote disposal.
Oak Point Link with the Harlem River Intermodal Railyard in background. If a Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel were built, these trash containers could take a more direct route through Queens and Brooklyn, avoiding a 140 mile detour to Selkirk, New York.
  • The Port Authority ExpressRail System, a $600 million investment in improved intermodal rail facilities on the west side of the Hudson in New Jersey and on Staten Island.[4]
  • The rebuilding of the 65th Street Yard, a rail yard at the Brooklyn shore with two car float bridges that allow rail cars to be loaded and unloaded onto barges, by the City and State in 1999 at a cost of $20 million.[5] The car float bridges remained unused until 2012 because of financial disputes between the city and NYCHRR, which used bridges at the former Bush Army Terminal at 50th Street, instead. The 65th Street Yard was restored by the Port Authority for use by New York and New Jersey Rail, which it acquired in 2008.[6][7]
  • The acquisition of the New York and New Jersey Rail cross harbor car float operations by the Port Authority in 2008 for $16 million. The Port Authority then acquired the New Jersey Greenville Yard in 2010 and awarded a contract for its reconstruction as a rail to barge facility in 2011. The authority's board authorized $118.1 million for the overall project.[8] The State of New Jersey has budgeted $89 million in its 2012 budget to bring the Greenville Yard and Lift Bridge to a State-of-Good-Repair.[9]
  • The opening, in September 2011, of Brookhaven Rail Terminal (BRT), a privately financed $40 million, 28-acre transload facility. It is projected to take 40,000 trucks off Long Island roads and transfer 1 million tons of freight a year by 2016.[10] The terminal includes three tracks for construction material, such as asphalt and concrete, and six tracks for merchandise, such as flour and biodiesel.[11]
  • Rehabilitation and reactivation of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (SBMT) along the Bay Ridge Channel in Sunset Park in late 2012. The terminal includes a 77 acre roll on/roll off automobile import and processing facility at the 39th Street pier, and an 11-acre, recycling facility for the city's plastic, metal and glass waste stream at the 30th Street pier. Both facilities are served by newly built rail connections to the 65th Street yard.[12]

Current conditions[edit]

As of late 2013, most rail freight to New York City moves over lines on the west side of the Hudson and is unloaded in New Jersey, where it is brought by truck to the city. Railroad freight cars that enter the City or Long Island do so via one of following three routes:

  • via the Bronx. The main land rail connection to New York City and Long Island from the national rail network is via tracks on the east bank of the Hudson. CSX freight trains from the west cross the Hudson on the Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge, 140 miles (230 km) to the north at Selkirk. From there to Poughkeepsie the two-track line, known as the Hudson Subdivision, is owned by CSX but is leased to Amtrak in a deal announced in October 2011. Amtrak runs 28 trains a day on this segment. South of Poughkeepsie, the Hudson Line widens, first to three and then four tracks, becomes electrified with third rail. This section is owned by Metro North Commuter Railroad.[13] CSX runs four freight trains a day on this line with an average of 75 cars per train, the equivalent of 900 trucks.[14]
Just north of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge in the Bronx, the Hudson line connects with the Oak Point Link, which serves the Harlem River Intermodal Yard and the Oak Point Yard, the latter being the largest rail yard in New York City or Long Island. Freight trains to Long Island move from the yard over the Hell Gate Bridge to the New York and Atlantic yard at Fresh Pond Junction in Queens. The Oak Point Yard directly serves local industry and the Hunts Point Market and also connects to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line to Boston, which is occasionally used by the Providence and Worcester Railroad to haul crushed stone to Long Island. As part of the deal to create the Oak Point Link, The Canadian Pacific Railway was granted trackage rights over the Hudson Line and the link, but it is currently allowing CSX to haul its traffic in exchange for hauling CSX traffic on another route.
Since 1997, the New York and Atlantic, a short-line railroad, has had the concession to provide freight service over the tracks of the MTA's Long Island Railroad, the largest commuter operation in the U.S. The NY&A carries about 20,000 carloads a year, including lumber, paper, building materials, plastic, aggregates, food products, and recyclables, over 269 route miles. As of 2011, it has seven transload facilities, in Brooklyn, Queens, Farmingdale, Hicksville, Speonk, and Yaphank.[15] Clearances along the LIRR (and the presence of an electrified third rail in most locations) prohibit double-stack operations.
A railroad car float in the Upper New York Bay, 1919.
  • by car float barge through Brooklyn: The sole remaining car float operation in the area, New York New Jersey Rail, LLC, carries railroad cars from the Greenville Yard in Jersey City to Brooklyn, where cars either go to local customers or are picked up by the New York and Atlantic and moved over the Bay Ridge Branch to Fresh Pond Junction. In 2004, when it was still run by a public company, New York Regional Rail, it carried 3400 carloads (a carload being one loaded rail car), charging between $250 and $1,500 per carload, and estimated that it needed to handle in excess of 4200 carloads per year to be profitable.[16] The operation, now run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, began using the 65th Street Yard in Brooklyn in July 2012 and hopes to increase annual traffic from 1600 carloads to 23,000 by 2017.[14] Several near-term projects to improve the car float operation were underway as of October 2012, including repairs, track work and construction of a new 4-track barge.[17]

In addition to highway and rail, cargo arrives in New York City by air, barge and, of course, ship, the port being the largest on the East Coast of North America. A major source of freight leaving the City is trash. The closing of the Fresh Kills Landfill in 2001 forced the city to transport its waste material to distant sites. New York City's Solid Waste Management Plan[18] calls for each borough to ship its own trash, the Bronx and Staten Island using rail and the rest of the city using barge.

Rail share of freight[edit]

Measured by ton-miles, about 40% of freight in the United States is moved by rail.[19] However thare are significant regional variations. In the west, 65% of freight moves by rail, while in the north-east only 19% moves by rail.[2]p. 14 Much of U.S. railroad freight consists of heavy commodities that are not significant in the New York economy, for example coal is 44% of total national rail tonnage. Intermodal tonnage is only about 8.9%.[20]

The Panama Canal expansion project, due to open in 2014, is expected to bring more container traffic from Asia directly to the Port of New York, instead of coming via the railroad "Land bridge" from U.S. West Coast ports. The Port Authority plans to spend $1 billion to raise the deck of the Bayonne Bridge to allow the larger New Panamax ships that will use the expanded canal to reach its existing container terminals in New Jersey, and has spent $235 million to buy a 130 acres (0.53 km2) portion of the former Military Ocean Terminal at Bayonne, which is not obstructed by the Bayonne Bridge.

Proposals to increase freight rail use[edit]

Proposed route of Cross Harbor Rail Tunnels (between blue dots) and connecting facilities.

A number of proposals have been put forward to increase the share of rail freight movement within the City and Long Island:

  • Construction of an intermodal rail-to-truck yard at a 100 acres (0.40 km2) site in the West Maspeth section of Queens. The location is near the intersection of I-278 and the western end of the Long Island Expressway (I-495). The project has received intense opposition for neighbors concerned about increased truck traffic on local streets that lead to the highway interchange. A City University of New York (CUNY) study pointed out that "no current demand for a containerized truck-rail facility has yet been demonstrated" in part because intermodal containers generally must be unloaded at major distribution centers, few of which are located on Long Island.[2]p. 22 The study also noted that standard double stack rail equipment is too wide to run on tracks where third rail is used, as it is on much of the Long Island Railroad's passenger routes.
  • Construction of a transload facility at the former Pilgrim State Hospital. This project has also been stymied by local opposition, though Governor Paterson vetoed a 2008 bill that would have killed the project by incorporating the site into a nearby state park. The same CUNY study, commissioned by the state after the veto, concluded that "there is an immediate demand for bulk service"—rail-shipped commodities such as building materials, plastics, paper, and food—that was unmet due to a lack of transloading facilities on Long Island. It identified 12 additional candidate sites besides Pilgrim State, including the Brookhaven Rail Terminal that has since opened.[2]pp. 3, 5, 8, 16
  • Rebuilding parts of the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the Bronx, already a major rail freight destination, to facilitate greater rail use. The market received a $10 million grant in 2012 for this purpose.[21]
  • Construction of a double-stack-ready Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel from Greenville, New Jersey to Brooklyn, at a cost estimated in 2004 at between $4.8 and $7.4 billion, depending on whether one or two tracks are provided.[22] The Port Authority is preparing a new environmental impact statement for the project,[22] which has come under criticism because of its high cost (all the US freight railroads combined spent $10.7 billion on capital expenditures in 2010[23]), modest projected impact on overall truck traffic (around a 5% reduction) and potential impact on local communities, such as West Maspeth.
  • Building a new container port on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront with a rail link to the proposed tunnel. Brooklyn currently has a container operation at Red Hook, but it has no rail connection. (Sea access to Brooklyn is not obstructed by the Bayonne Bridge.)

Active freight rail yards in New York City and Long Island[edit]

Active freight rail yards in New York City and Long Island include:

The New York City Subway system has many other rail yards, but, with two exceptions, these are not connected with the national rail network. See South Brooklyn Railway.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ McCahon, Mary E. & Johnston, Sandra G. (December 2003). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Route 1 Extension" (PDF). National Park Service. p. 3 (Item 8). Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Paaswell, Robert E.; Eickemeyer, Penny (June 9, 2011). "NYSDOT Consideration of Potential Intermodal Sites for Long Island" (PDF). CUNY Institute for Urban Systems University Transportation Research Center. p. 14. Retrieved December 19, 2011. 
  3. ^ Pinkston, Elizabeth (2003). "A Brief History of Amtrak." The Past and Future of U.S. Passenger Rail Service. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congressional Budget Office)
  4. ^ a b The Port Authority ExpressRail System
  5. ^ Operator Sought for Rebuilt Brooklyn Rail Yard, New York Times, August 31, 2000, Joseph Freed
  6. ^ LIRR Bay Ridge Branch
  7. ^ "South Brooklyn Railway". Members.trainweb.com. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  8. ^ "Port Authority Board Approves Purchase and Redevelopment of Greenville Yards" (Press release). Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. May 18, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2011. 
  9. ^ FY 2012 Transportation Capital Program, New Jersey Department of Transportation
  10. ^ Grand Opening of Brookhaven Freight Train Terminal, Carolyn Fortino, September 27, 2011
  11. ^ "Yaphank freight terminal opens". Newsday.com. 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  12. ^ http://www.nycedc.com/project/south-brooklyn-marine-terminal
  13. ^ "Amtrak leases Empire Corridor from CSX - RailwayAge Magazine". Railwayage.com. 2011-10-18. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  14. ^ a b http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/nyregion/65th-street-rail-yard-reopens-in-brooklyn.html
  15. ^ "Anacostia & Pacific Company, Inc | New York & Atlantic Railway". Anacostia.com. 2011-12-22. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  16. ^ "New York Regional Rail Cp NYRR description of business". Hotstocked.com. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  17. ^ NJTPA Freight Committee, October 2012
  18. ^ Final Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan Executive Summary
  19. ^ Overview of America’s Freight Railroads
  20. ^ Class I Railroad Statistics, Association of American Railroads, 2011
  21. ^ http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120620/hunts-point/hunts-point-produce-market-offered-10-million-grant
  22. ^ a b "Cross Harbor Freight Program - Studies & Reports - The Port Authority of NY & NJ". Panynj.gov. 2001-09-11. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  23. ^ Railroads and the U.S. Economy