2017-07-19 / Front Page

DOT Releases Study On Lower Montauk Branch Rail Study

BY THOMAS COGAN
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently been informing the public about its Lower Montauk Branch Rail Study, which assesses the possibility of reviving a passenger train line that was discontinued almost 20 years ago because of what was thought to be irreversibly declining use. 

The latest informational meeting was at Queensborough Hall, where Borough President Melinda Katz and NYC Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley welcomed an interested audience and turned the slide show over to two DOT executives, Senior Project Manager Jeff Peel and Aaron Suguira, Director of Transit Policy and Planning.  But before their description of various proposals for the old passenger line, a brief history of it might be helpful.

Before 1998, the Long Island Rail Road had a branch line known as the Lower Montauk Branch, the last six stations of which were located between Jamaica and Long Island City. On weekday mornings, many riders who were either coming in from Long Island or picking up the train at Jamaica or one of the stations beyond it, would take the train to the LIRR stop in Long Island City, disembark and flock to the No. 7 subway station at Hunters Point Ave., where they added to the passenger load on the train headed to Manhattan, the work destination of most of that subway’s riders.  The evening rush would produce the opposite effect, with the Flushing-bound No. 7 yielding those many riders at the LIRR switch point.

In 1998, LIRR service from Jamaica to Long Island City was ended, as it was evidently decided that a concentration of ridership during the morning and evening rush hours and nearly none during any other part of weekdays or weekends could be entirely eliminated, leaving those forsaken riders to get to and from Manhattan along the main LIRR line, whose last stop in Queens is Woodside.

Thus the informational meetings appear to be about reviving the old passenger line, but it’s interesting to see that the study’s first serious examination is about freight activity in and around the that line.  There’s a section on the Cross Harbor Freight Project, a vast shipping proposal that has been through years of preparation and controversy and seems stronger than ever, given the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s announcement in May of a Tier II environmental impact study and design funding. The project would stretch from the ports and rail yards of New Jersey across Upper New York Harbor into Brooklyn and then Queens. One result is that the freight rail situation on the Lower Montauk Branch, serious at present, would become far more so in years to come.  A bullet point in the study about the “Need to accommodate existing freight and possible growth” is an understatement.

Among what the study calls challenges for freight and passenger operations are space issues. They include the fact that passenger and freight operations need additional yard and track infrastructure; and another fact that there are many right-of-way spots that are quite narrow.  Also, everyone has to deal with the feds. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety regulations limit “jointly operating lighter and heavier rail equipment on same or adjacent tracks.” 

There’s also the matter of “crashworthiness”:  passenger rail vehicles have to be judged safe to operate jointly with freight equipment, which is much heavier.  They might have to operate at different times of the day or never operate on the same tracks and be separated more widely than at present while on adjacent tracks.

Probably the most interesting part of the study for passenger rail advocates is the look at the variety of passenger rail vehicles and what makes them move. The first is (a) the electric multiple unit or EMU, familiar on the LIRR.  It needs no locomotive, being operated by third rail power, which would have to be installed on Lower Montauk. It emits little or no pollution and is FRA compliant. (b) Diesel locomotives pulling passenger cars are also familiar. They are FRA compliant and need no electrification, but air and noise pollution issues accompany them. (c) Electric light rail or “modern streetcar” is self-propelled and powered by a catenary, a cable above the tracks that has a suspended trolley wire. This mode of travel is burdened by what the study calls extensive FRA compliance issues; and of course, the catenary would have to be installed. But like the EMU it also gives off little or no noise or air pollution.  (d) Self-propelled diesel multiple units, DMU, are available too.  They have no locomotives and no electrification and the units have what the study calls the availability of FRA compliance options.  They are the size of self-propelled electric cars but do have air and noise issues.  These are not disadvantageous enough, however, to keep the study from recommending them “for concept development.”

In the judgment of the study’s authors, lack of electrification wins.  To electrify, catenary or third rail systems would have to be constructed; and third rail power, for another thing, requires wider track space, which is precious:  it’s a third rail after all.  The DMU, on the other hand, is ready to go.  However, the study admits, though DMUs are less noisy than the huge diesel locomotives and probably less polluting, all diesel trains, large or small, are more sensitive to fuel price fluctuations than are electrics.

If only for the purpose of exposition, the study assumes the passenger train plan will proceed.  What the study also does is display an assortment of hindrances that come between intention and fulfillment.  “Frequent overhead and undergrade crossings may constrain expansion,” the study says, for example.  On the old rail route there were 11 at-grade crossings, seven overhead and two under grade crossings, and all remain. Widening the separation between freight and passenger trains on adjacent tracks is all but mandated by the FRA, but widening track beds for any reason will be major procedures, given the rigid confines of elevated viaducts and under grade cuts.  At grade level, actual buildings or tunnel walls to either side of tracks will militate against widening the separation between them.

Many other problems are brought up in the study, which boldly says that if all of them can be overcome, ridership on new passenger trains, with restored stations (and possibly new ones), will be ready for service in 2025.  For now, mode and station concepts need to be refined; capital and operations cost estimates must be developed; growth scenarios in the train corridor must be projected; and future freight rail activity must be further defined. A later draft report is to be made available before the end of this summer and a final report should appear in the fall.

 

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