Over the last few years a group of NIMBYS in central Queens have been basically advocating for the eradication of rail freight through Queens. The people behind this campaign seem to live close to Fresh Pond Yard (which has been a rail yard since at least 1906). After years of freight rail decline and the lost of the large ‘Yard A’ classification yard in L.I.C. (which will become a passenger rail yard in support of the ESA project) the LIRR outsourced its freight operations to a small startup railroad (New York & Atlantic) which has aggressively and successfully marketed its services. The growth of their business has made Fresh Pond yard busier than it has been in the last 20 years.
Some of the complains from the NIMBYs (who stared a civic group called ‘CURES’) are valid: NYC is now shipping significant amounts of trash out of town via rail. Those train cars smell bad if you stand near them (though to do so usually would entail trespassing on RR property). These trash cars are relatively ‘new’, in that they’ve only been in use since 2009 – when the NYC government finally wised up and started sending trash out of NYC via rail instead of tens of thousands of truck trips to NJ – adding an untold amount of carbon smug to the entire city.
In-fighting within the neighborhood around Fresh Pond has only complicated the issue.
As it stands now, NY&A pulls the loaded trash cars out of Bushwick overnight, and CSX fetches them early in the morning – thus they spend a very short amount of time at Fresh Pond, 3-5 hours in the early morning when nearly everyone is asleep. This of course prompted neighborhood residents to now complain about the early morning noise. It wasn’t always this way. For the last 30 years, CSX, and Conrail before it – operated their train from the Bronx to Queens in the late morning/early afternoon. This all changed when Christ The King high school (located next to Fresh Pond) sued CSX to stop retrieving the train during the middle of the day (when most neighbors are at work) and insisting they do so before dawn. What was once a ‘problem’ for the politically connected directors of a private school was pushed further up the tracks, and into the early hours of the morning. The early freight train noise also affects all neighborhoods along the route now – from Middle Village all the way to Jackson Heights, Woodside, Astoria and the South Bronx – All because a few politically connected people didn’t want a train parked next to their private, for profit school for a few hours in the morning.
The residents around Fresh Pond also complain of pollution from the older diesel engines that are used primarily by the NY&A. In some ways, this issue has already been addressed to everyone’s benefit. – though when you consider the amount of pollution from a set of diesel engines and compare it to the massive amount of pollution from hundreds of trucks crammed onto the LIE just a short distance away, the argument becomes moot. Air blows with the breeze – and air pollution is less of a neighborhood issue than a regional one. NYC air quality is suffering – and not from the very few freight trains that do run: it’s due to all the goods being trucked in from NJ because there are no major rail terminals on Long Island to unload this cargo. Rail shipments to and from NYC and LI account a single digit percent of all shipments coming into the area – which is drastically out of proportion with every other American city where rail freight is used to reduce truck traffic, decrease shipping costs and provide for a smaller overall carbon footprint.
So what to do about all of this?
We’ve heard often that these local residents surrounding Fresh Pond would like to see the entire facility closed. They want the freight trains ‘detoured’ via the commuter lines in L.I.C. and across Hell Gate Bridge via Amtrak. Of course they don’t consider the absolute unreality of it: in the 150 years of rail freight on Long Island, this route has never been used for freight. Slow moving freight trains and Amtrak Acela trains moving at upwards of 80MPH would be a serious threat to human life.
It begs the question: what would be the actual, direct effect of shutting down Fresh Pond yard on the immediate neighborhood? This is after all the unstated goal of ‘CURES’. One doesn’t need to look very far to find a solid example of what happens when a railroad stops running trains through an urban area.
12 years ago, CSX stopped using a short stretch of track through the Bronx known as the Port Morris Branch in favor of a new set of tracks (the oak point link) which doesn’t have the same restrictions on height, clearance, and commuter rail as their port morris connection did. The old track, with no customers located on it, served no purpose and was abandoned.
Almost immediately, trash began to accumulate along the old ROW. overgrowth of vegetation took place, with an infestation of rodents feeding off the trash. The old port morris tunnel under St Mary’s park flooded, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the diseases they carry (west nile, etc). Drug addicts found the lawless area to be a good place to inject heroin. At least one dead body was discovered within the tunnel by members of our group a few years back (proper authorities were notified). It’s not hard to forsee the same thing happening to these CSX tracks.
Unlike the port morris line, the tracks through Queens also travel high above the streets – of Northern Blvd, Queens Blvd and the BQE. These abandoned overpasses would become a haven for degenerate kids to potentially throw rubbish from, creating a new hazard for drivers and another area for the overstretched NYPD to patrol.
There have long been rumors that the MTA wants to save the port morris tracks in the Bronx for potential reuse in the future (as they did with the old Danbury branch that runs from Danbury CT to Beacon NY, connecting Metro North’s commuter rail lines upstate) but nothing has come of this. Some Bronx residents and activists have proposed the tracks be turned into a park, but again, zero progress has been made. The NYC government can barely maintain the parks that we do have, and actually refuses to maintain many parks in Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island – where residents don’t have as much money and political sway.
The High Line through Manhattan is often cited as an example by these park advocates, though the reality is such that revitalizing the west side of Manhattan made clear sense to real estate owners and politicians to profit off of. A park in the Bronx wouldn’t have the same effect. Maybe if, in 20 years, NYC is still growing strong and the Bronx becomes more desirable, a park will be sensible. That is a long way off though. The very same can be argued about the freight tracks through queens. While the LIRR would likely retain the ‘lower montauk’ line which runs east-west through fresh pond, the north-south routing would be abandoned. This would create a few miles of disused railroad which would immediately turn into a ad-hoc landfill. Homeless would move into the underpasses, drugs would become significantly more problematic in the surrounding communities, and the property values of nearby homes would drop significantly (which will already be a growing issue for an area with limited public transportation compared to other ares of the city such as park slope, Astoria, Brooklyn Heights). Armed Thieves and home-invaders would have direct access to neighborhood homes via the backyards that are next to these tracks.
Clearly this is not the sort of situation that the majority of Queens residents want. In the grand scheme of things, it’s far simpler to accept the fact that the railroad has been there since before these neighborhoods existed and the occasional noise of a train is simply a byproduct of choosing to live by these tracks. NIMBYism does not work in a city of 8 million people. We all have to put up with a little bit of noise to live in one of the great cities and regions in the world. I happen to live near these tracks. I barely notice the trains going by.
In summary, abandonment of these tracks would be an absolute disaster for the neighborhoods, and an even larger disaster for the economies of NYC and Long Island. While growing rail freight operations have a small impact on quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods they pass through, the alternative – hundreds of thousands of truck trips and a complete reliance on truck transportation would be absolutely disastrous for traffic and air quality all across NYC. If the neighbors around Fresh Pond’s biggest complaint is the timing of the trash train, perhaps that train can be scheduled to run in the late afternoon, at a time when class is out at the high school, and most residents in the area are still at work.
The lesson in all of this is that everyone needs to work together to resolved the region-wide fiasco that is the complete lack of suitable rail infrastructure for the transportation of the bulk commodities. Simply shouting ‘Not in my backyard’ and crying to politicians and the press might stroke egos, but it does nothing to actually address the problem – and if the NIMBYism were to actually succeed, the results would be a far worse situation than what currently exists, with the abandoned property being a huge nuisance for every neighborhood along the route. In short it would be a huge Lose-Lose for everyone involved.