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Very-Long-Term Recycling

The MTA recently began construction on its second big project to reshuffle commuter rail in New York. The first, the East Side Access project, allows Long Island Railroad trains to terminate at Grand Central rather than Penn Station. The second, the Metro-North Penn Station Access project, allows New Haven Line trains to terminate at Penn Station rather than Grand Central. This may seem like an inside joke, but both changes matter, for slightly different reasons.

The New York Central Railroad dominated New York City travel to and from the north and long-distance to and from the west. The New Haven, a separate company that had an empire mostly restricted to New England, was a tenant in Grand Central, entering the city from the northeast. The Long Island Railroad eventually absorbed all of the competing lines on its island and so was the only railroad to the east. Until the construction of Penn Station, the LIRR’s lines ended in downtown Brooklyn and at ferries in Brooklyn and Queens. The Pennsylvania Railroad entered New York much later and offered a direct line to the south (Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC) and an alternate long-distance route to the west. The commuter railroads to the west, other than the Pennsy’s main line, all ended in ferries at Jersey City and Hoboken. These private companies had little reason to cooperate and fought hard against municipal plans to force cooperation; current public ownership of long-distance rail (Amtrak) and commuter rail (the Municpal Transit Authority owns the LIRR, the NY Central’s Harlem and Hudson Lines, and the New Haven line; New Jersey Transit owns the Pennsylvania main line local transit and the other New Jersey lines) has changed the game.

Not everyone entering Manhattan from Long Island wants to go to the west side, and that simple statement was one of the reasons for the East Side Access program. The other big one is that Penn Station is incredibly busy, and doesn’t have the capacity to add new trains or more people. To quote Wikipedia, “Pennsylvania Station, also known as New York Penn Station or simply Penn Station, is the main intercity railroad station in New York City and the busiest transportation facility in the Western Hemisphere, serving more than 600,000 passengers per weekday as of 2019.” Grand Central, which no longer has long-distance rail and serves less-densely-populated commuting areas, has room for more people.

Now that East Side Access is almost complete, some of those crowds from Penn Station will be moved to Grand Central, opening up some space. So some New Haven trains can be sent to Penn Station, giving people coming from the northeastern suburbs direct access to the west side. As a huge bonus, four new stations will be opened in the east Bronx, which has far less rail than the earlier-settled west Bronx. One of those stations, at Co-op City, will serve a huge development of high-rises that is currently without rail. The other new station will be at Hunts Point, Parkchester/Van Nest, and Morris Park.

All of this has been set-up. Here’s the punchline: the route of the new connection is currently in use for Amtrak trains coming from Boston: it follows the Hell Gate line from the New Haven main line junction, over the Hell Gate Bridge, through the New York Connecting Railroad in Queens to the Sunnyside Yard and then the tunnels to Penn Station. The portion of the Hell Gate in the Bronx was, before the Hell Gate Bridge was opened in 1917, the Harlem River Branch of the New Haven railroad, and before it dead-ended at the river included stations at Hunts Point, Van Nest, and Morris Park. In other words, it turns out in the twenty-first century that the rail service we abandoned in the twentieth century was useful and we should have kept it.

The map at the top is from 1885. The red lines in Brooklyn and Queens are the western portions of the Long Island Railroad; the New Haven Railroad is less obvious as it runs through the Bronx, but can be seen between the C and H in the smaller WESTCHESTER.