Back before the internet, I noticed a rail line on some maps that just plain disappeared at one point, and reemerged at another. The only way to know why was to go…
North end entrance, with a sealed trackway on the left.
East New York in the 1990s was a very different place than today. A white guy walking down the street could be assumed to be a cop, and the NYPD does not excel at winning the popularity contest of the ghetto… so going to check this place out meant walking a fine line to avoid trouble.
Upon arrival, peering into the tunnel just looked like one huge long black hole. Surprisingly, no one was living here, and not too far in, around a gentile curve, light from the south end is clearly visible. It looks like it’s right there… but it’s a long hike.
The East New York freight tunnel was constructed in 1918, at a cost of 4.5 million dollars. At the time, the Pennsylvania railroad was developing a new freight route to move goods from New Jersey to the Northeast via rail and carfloat (barged across the harbor – a practice still in place today). This tunnel was a key part of the project, along with the ‘New York Connecting Railroad‘ and Hell Gate Bridge to the north. The first through freight trains from bay ridge to new england ran in January of 1918. Overhead power lines were strung in the late 1920s, the same as those used on today’s ‘Northeast corridor’ (where freights were hauled with electric locomotives up until the 1980s). Today, the route is known as ‘the bay ridge branch’.
One of several cable vaults along the west wall of the tunnel – many are filled with junk and one became a well crafted homeless person’s bunker.
Before the freights: Passenger Service
Long before this tunnel was built, the New York, Brooklyn & Manhattan Beach Railway existed, running above ground. This railway dated back to 1877, and hauled passengers from Long Island City to Manhattan Beach – which was at the time a quiet resort far from the hustle of urban life in NYC. By 1910 there was already very limited service on this route. Nevertheless, when the east new york tunnel was constructed, a set of tracks was built for it, along with a station. Passenger service ended in 1924. This station was abandoned after only being used for 6-7 years.
This station was abandoned after only being used for 6-7 years.
Declining freight fortunes
The overhead electric lines for powering the freight trains only lasted in the 1950s. Freight traffic slowly dwindled over the decades, until 1976 – the year that Conrail was born. Conrail was a government bailout of the then-bankrupt railroads of the northeast. Many of these struggling railways were combined into one large railroad (named Conrail), which went on a cost-cutting bender, eliminating as many ‘unprofitable’ routes as possible. Conrail redirected its freight trains away from the northeast corridor, as well as New York harbor and the Bay Ridge branch, which was soon sold to the Long Island Rail Road (The LIRR used to operated freight trains all the way up to 1997, when they leased the operation out to a private company). Today, this once important and heavily used freight route only sees a single train per day.
The lowered center track.
In the late 1980s, the LIRR was trying to revive freight service by introducing inter-modal service (whereby trailers or containers are placed on freight cars). The LIRR actually pioneered this method of freight transport in the 1800s, hauling horse drawn wagons on flat cars. That was the 1800s though. Today’s trucks and containers are too tall for many overpasses on Long Island. To get around this constraint, they bought an experimental ‘bogie’ freight car that would be low enough to get under Long Island’s overpasses. The East New York tunnel, however, was still too low, even for these short rail cars. In order to accommodate this freight, the LIRR lowered the height of the center track by removing the track and ballast, and relaying the track along a new concrete base.
The bogie cars were prone to derailing, and the experiment was deemed a failure. Had they been designed differently, they might have been a success story. It would be interesting to see if NY&A could revive the concept, using better designed bogies or well cars, though the likelihood of that happening anytime soon is relatively low in the foreseeable future. Currently there’s still a long line of these cars parked on the soon to be abandoned Montauk cutoff in L.I.C.
The sealed 4th tunnel.
One of the 3 trackways through the tunnel is sealed up and locked up tight. This was the former northbound track of the Manhattan Beach railway. The track was removed in 1939, and today it hosts a facility for the Buckeye pipeline, which runs below the tracks and along the length of the Bay Ridge branch.
Abandoned Rail Cars
Rail cars stored on a descending grade in a ‘bad’ part of town… what could go wrong?
Over the years there were main ‘runway’ train car derailments here. Vandals would uncouple cars and deactivate the air brakes, sending them rolling downhill through the tunnel to an eventual date with derailment. At one point there were at least 4 derailed freight cars south of the tunnel. One was cut down to a become a flat car and used for work trains, though the FRA found out its brakes were shot, so it was purposely derailed at the end of the track next to the platform to act as a bumper against any future runaway cars. it sat at this location for a few years before mysteriously disappearing – either scrapped by the railroad or by scrapper thieves.
And a tragic accident.
On the morning of August 23, 1971, a freight train was switching freight cars along these tracks and backed into the tunnel, caboose first. The track was suppose to be empty, it wasn’t. In the darkness of the tunnel the train crashed into a line of parked freight cars, crushing the caboose. George Sheldon, a flagman, was in the caboose and died from his injuries. Two fellow works (a conductor and brakeman) were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Today, it is hard to pinpoint where exactly in the tunnel the accident occurred. The NY Times article states it occurred 500 feet into the tunnel, though it does not say which end of the tunnel, or which trackway. This combined with the history of runaway/derailed freight cars, and the various signs of age decay within the tunnel, make finding this spot a challenge.
Freight cars are often parked on the former southbound Manhattan Beach track through the tunnel. Often they are parked as one long string of cars that ends many carlengths outside of the tunnel, near the switch that is the beginning of this now-dead ended track. By parking spare freight cars on this track ahead of the tunnel, there’s little reason for a locomotive to ever enter that track – and significantly less chance such an accident will ever repeat itself at this location. (The only other active track, down the middle, is kept clear for the train to & from bay ridge).
…But that station though…
The abandoned station here is one of the least known in NYC, though it is also extremely popular as a location for TV and Movie shoots. The low frequency of trains, combined with a complete lack of commuters makes it an ideal station for such use.
The future of this rail line is basically status quo – with slowly growing freight traffic. There is always talk of reopening this route for passenger service (from Bay Ridge through to the Bronx). With a huge pricetag and no formal government sponsors, I wouldn’t hold my breathe waiting for this train to arrive. If it ever does, East New York would make a logical station with transfers to LIRR, J, L and Z trains.
This post is dedicated to the memory of George Sheldon.