“The ground shakes and a loud, rumbling sound fills the air.” These are some words you would probably expect to hear in an apocalyptic movie. Instead, this is what many Brooklyn residents experience whenever a freight train moves along the Bay Ridge Branch line! Many visitors to buildings located near this line often have no clue as to what is happening! Most Brooklynites pass this railway daily but don’t event know that it exists. This is because the Bay Ridge Branch line is mostly below ground and is hidden by dense vegetation and several overpasses! What is more surprising is that this line is the only one that goes entirely from East to West (and vice versa) in Southern Brooklyn!
The Bay Ridge Branch is a freight line which runs in a ravine in Southern Brooklyn. It is owned by the Long Island Railroad Company but is operated by the New York and Atlantic Railway. Opened in 1876, this railroad connects the LIRR grid to the 65th Street Yard in Bay Ridge. At the port, rail cars are rolled off from car floats (barges with train tracks on them) and onto the tracks.
Twice a day, a few times a week, a diesel powered locomotive hauls several freight cars back and forth on this railway. The entire length of the train is estimated to be about 200 yards. From the writer’s observation, the train travels from West to East (Brooklyn to Queens and beyond) in the evenings and make a return trip in the mornings.
According to Winnie Hu, via the NY Times, these freight cars are filled with fruit, heating oil, and new vehicles. Such goods are transported from the Bay Ridge port further inland to local supermarkets, gas stations, and car dealers. Local Government officials believe that rail transport helps businesses because it lowers transportation costs of carrying freight over long distances. In fact, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council believes that the need for rail transport for freight will double by the year 2030.
However, not all city residents are pleased with this development. The Bay Ridge Branch line meanders through several suburban and residential neighborhoods. Residents living near the line are concerned that the increased loud noises and exhaust fumes produced by the trains will reduce their property values and overall quality of life. Conversely, some Brooklynites are happy because they believe that more rail transport means less tractor trailers on the streets and hence, less traffic congestion and air pollution.
Currently, there is only one track on the Bay Ridge Branch and the train traffic is not very busy. There is erosion on both the northern and southern embankments of the track. In many parts, trash of all varieties can be found. It is also reported that many homeless individuals and drug addicts dwell under the overpasses. Last year, the NY Daily News reported that 2 men were found dead on the tracks in Borough Park.
The Bay Ridge Branch was also part of a proposed new subway connection called the ‘Triboro RX’ line. This line would have run from Brooklyn through Queens and terminate in the Bronx. Moreover, since there is only one track on the line, train traffic would have only been able to travel in one direction at a time. However, the lack of electrification of the line and other infrastructure seem to have shelved these plans.
Whether as a busy freight railway or a possible new subway line, the Bay Ridge Branch will continue to operate into the foreseeable future. Increased demands for freight rail or more efficient commutes will keep the relevant stakeholders investing in its maintenance.