Written by Corey Kilgannon
Ask a New Yorker their opinion regarding trains, and you will likely get an earful about the sputtering subway system or the less-than-reliable commuter rail lines that stretch into the suburbs.
But few New Yorkers have ever glimpsed, or even heard of, the New York & Atlantic Railway, a freight train that would seem more familiar rumbling across the Great Plains, not chugging through crowded city neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, bearing cars loaded with food, scrap metal, construction materials and even beer.
Now the little-known railroad’s profile is about to get much bigger.
City officials have been working to reduce the inundation of trucks on New York’s streets. The trucks carry about 90 per cent of the city’s freight, more than most major US cities, contributing to the city’s worsening gridlock and pouring greenhouse gases into the air.
By contrast, the city’s rail lines transport just 2 per cent of New York’s cargo.
To change that, city officials are investing tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the freight train’s corridors, including modernizing several rail depots.
The railway will also handle more freight because another little-known piece of the region’s transportation network will soon be expanded: a service that floats rail cars from New Jersey across New York Harbor by barge to Brooklyn, where they connect with New York and Atlantic’s line.
“That rail line has an important but unsung job of diverting truck traffic, and it is key to the future of freight transport for New York City,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-NY, who has long advocated rail freight, including supporting building a tunnel under New York Harbor connecting New Jersey to Brooklyn.
The New York & Atlantic line now is in the surprising position of having its big diesel locomotives — and the sooty, graffiti-strewn boxcars they haul — pegged as a progressive, environmental choice for New York.
“Anything with rail freight in New York City has to come through us,” said James Bonner, the railway’s president. “We’re the conduit to a lot of growth. It all kind of hinges here.”
New York & Atlantic operates on a handful of freight-only lines in Queens, Brooklyn and eastern Long Island mostly by sharing commuter lines run by the Long Island Rail Road, per a 1997 agreement.
The short-line railroad receives most of its loaded cars from trains operated by CSX Transportation, one of the nation’s largest freight railroad companies, and other railroads from north of the city. They snake through the Bronx and over the Hell Gate Bridge into Queens, to New York & Atlantic’s cramped rail yard in Glendale, which has the Manhattan skyline for a backdrop.
New York & Atlantic then takes the cars and distributes them to businesses along its lines where they are often taken onto tracks leading to a customer’s property. Some trains end up at rail-to-truck hubs, where goods are transferred to trucks for local deliveries.
The hubs are vital to rail freight expansion since trains cannot reach all parts of the city. Several truck transfer points along the railway’s Brooklyn line will be improved under a $100 million plan by the city’s Economic Development Corp. to upgrade the city’s maritime and rail freight distribution system.
“New York City’s rail infrastructure provides significant untapped capacity, whereas our aging highways are at maximum capacity, which limits our ability to remain globally competitive,” said Ryan White, director of freight initiatives for the Economic Development Corp.
New York & Atlantic’s volume has grown to 30,000 cars, from roughly 10,000 cars in 1997, Bonner said.
Since one rail car can haul as much as four tractor-trailer trucks, those 30,000 cars eliminate some 120,000 truck trips.
Trucks, and the traffic they cause, helped rally support for a recently approved plan to charge drivers to enter Manhattan’s busiest neighbourhoods. A congestion pricing panel formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018 recommended imposing the highest fees on trucks.
New York & Atlantic, which serves about 80 customers in the city and in Long Island, has about 60 employees, including eight train crews that must obey strict traffic restrictions and follow a timetable scheduled around the Long Island Rail Road, the country’s busiest commuter rail.
Most deliveries are done at night when there are fewer commuter trains. “We have to operate in a very tight window,” Bonner said.
In many ways, the train crews practice railroading as it was done a century ago, from assembling the train in the yard and coupling one car to another, to climbing down to the tracks to maneuver heavy hand switches.
As they lumber along through the dense urban landscape, passing highways, parks, cemeteries and shopping centers, the freight trains draw curious stares.
“The surprise on people’s faces when we go through their LIRR station — they’ve never seen anything like it,” said Alex Raia, 50, as he worked the throttle and brake on a 2,000-horsepower diesel locomotive to thread it between tight rows of sooty freight cars in the Glendale yard. He likened the task to “playing a game of chess every day.”
The cars can carry scrap, recyclables and construction material, including nearly 1 million tons of gravel from quarries in Connecticut each year.
Walking the yard, Bonner pointed to a Providence and Worcester railway train that had just arrived. His crews would take over those cars and deliver them to a large yard in Maspeth, Queens.
A rail car then passed by bearing concrete pieces for a new tunnel being built from Queens to Grand Central Terminal that would be used by the Long Island Rail Road.
The railway also handles so many cars of flour and beer that Bonner has nicknamed it “the pizza-and-beer railroad.”
During peak beer drinking times — think St. Patrick’s Day and the Super Bowl — that can mean 30 rail cars of beer a week — each car can hold 3,500 cases — including Modelo Especial and Corona that has rumbled by train all the way from Mexico.
Several other ideas to increase rail freight have been discussed by transportation experts, but are far from becoming reality. They include expanding the use of commuter rail lines for freight and allowing freight trains on a new rail tunnel planned between New Jersey and Manhattan for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. The Regional Plan Association, an influential urban planning group, has proposed combined passenger and freight service on underused freight tracks stretching 24 miles from Co-op City in the Bronx to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
For now, about 15% of New York & Atlantic’s rail cars are floated over from New Jersey, but that percentage will increase because of an expansion of the Cross Harbor Rail Freight Program, one of the country’s few remaining floating systems for rail freight.
The barges provide a gateway into the city from the west and the south, since the Hudson River effectively cuts New York off from much of the nation’s rail freight network — the closest rail bridge is about 150 miles north of the city.
Rail cars that arrive at a yard in Jersey City are taken across New York Harbor to a yard in Sunset Park on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Since taking over the barge operation in 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has increased the cross-harbor volume from 1,000 rail cars per year to 5,000, but has been limited by having only one aging barge, which has a capacity of 14 rail cars.
The authority is set to add two new barges, each with an 18-car capacity, said Matt Masters, general manager of the authority’s port rail program. Within five years the cross-harbor system is expected to transport nearly 25,000 rail cars a year.
Bonner said that the increased focus on his railways would not only benefit his railroad’s bottom line, but also the public at large.
“Hopefully,” he said, “we can play a role in what New York City needs.”