The Case for Rebuilding the LIRR Central Branch

Conventional wisdom in the New York region holds that the Long Island Rail Road (or Railroad if you prefer, I believe either is acceptable) needs a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville on its Main Line. Just ask the Regional Plan Association:

The Main Line between Sunnyside, Queens and Hicksville, traverses a distance of 22 miles and passes through Jamaica Station. The number of tracks on the Main Line varies from six to two. A 9.8-mile two-track segment between Floral Park and Hicksville is constrained since four branch lines merge and use the section. At Hicksville, the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk Lines merge with the Main Line. A fourth line, the Oyster Bay branch, joins the Main Line at Mineola.

This imbalance of six tracks from four branch lines feeding into two results in a bottleneck that limits the amount of
service even though the branch lines themselves have sufficient capacity for more frequent service. Today, the
railroad is forced to use almost all of the Main Line’s capacity to serve commuters in the peak-direction, meaning both tracks operate almost exclusively in the inbound directio during the AM period and then in the outbound direction during the PM commute. This handicaps the ability of the railroad to offer reverse-peak service. Plans to run even more inbound service to Manhattan once the new terminal at Grand Central is completed will only increase the pressure on the Main Line and further limit the ability to provide reverse service.

Or, if you prefer, a visual from the same report:

lirr tracks

Aside from operational concerns, many believe the Third Track project is key to reviving Long Island’s flagging economy.

The problem? Well, in a word, NIMBYism. The Third Track project would require a few minor land takings to expand the right-of-way and would result in a few grade crossings being closed more often. This predictably has the suburban residents who rely on the line for their economic livelihoods preparing to make a small sacrifice for the good of the community…oh wait. Several communities along the line (and their classic late ’90s web design, baffling since things came to a head around 2008) have been vociferously opposed to the project, getting it knocked off the last several MTA capital programs.

As large government bureaucracies–especially those scarred by the legacy of Robert Moses–do, the MTA has been trying to satisfy the demands of residents along the line to gain their approval for the project. This results in whiff-of-the-absurd scenarios involving eminent domain takings of private property not to built the track itself, but to create grade separations for all-important local roadways, lest motorists see some impact from the new trains. As a result of these added complexities, and the MTA’s usual cost shenanigans, the estimated cost of the project–less than ten miles of new track, on a mix of existing and slightly expanded right-of-way–has risen to an estimate $1.2-$1.5 billion. At a cost like that, it would be hard to blame policymakers for walking away from the project entirely, and leaving Long Island to stew in its own juices of slow economic decline.

But what if there’s another way to do it? Granted, what I’m about to propose is pretty absurd, and likely to stir up just as much NIMBY opposition as the Third Track project. But bear with me for now.

Today–and for the last century–LIRR is the dominant, and more or less the only, railroad on Long Island. But there was a time when corporate competition in the Long Island railroad market was cutthroat. One of the early competitors was the Central Railroad of Long Island, which built a line extending from Flushing in Queens through Floral Park and Garden City to Farmingdale, and then on to Babylon.There were also branches to Hempstead and the brick works at Bethpage.

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

1873 map of the Central RR of Long Island. Source

Today, little remains of the Central. The line from Flushing to Floral Park has been almost entirely developed over. From Floral Park to a point in Garden City, the line remains in use as part of the LIRR Hempstead Branch, and the remaining stub east of the split to Hempstead station sees the occasional circus train.

The circus train in Garden City, recently.

From Garden City to Bethpage Junction, however, the line is entirely abandoned; if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was abandoned in the postwar years because the Levitts didn’t wan’t trains running through their precious development. From Bethpage Junction on, the extension to Babylon is still active, known as the LIRR Central Branch.

But here’s the thing: the right-of-way of the lost middle section of the Central still essentially exists–and it duplicates the functionality needed from the Third Track project. That’s it cutting a bare swath through Levittown in the middle of the picture below (location):

ROW Levittown

Like many other abandoned rail lines, this ROW now carries power lines. Just out of the picture to the left, the ROW passes through a golf course, then (after passing over/under a freeway) rejoins the active ROW. To the east, the ROW runs to Bethpage Junction, where the electrified Ronkonkoma Branch and the Central Branch join up on their way to meet the Main Line at Hicksville. I measure the gap at right around 7 miles, almost all arrow-straight and flat. What if it were possible to reactivate this long-lost line to accommodate the LIRR’s current needs?

modified lirr tracks

As you can see, reactiviating the Central Branch would provide an even more substantial capacity boost than the planned Third Track. Trains from the Ronkonkoma Branch–with or without its second track, though that work is included in the current MTA capital program as of this writing–would feed into the Main Line where it becomes four tracks at Floral Park, rather than traversing a three-track segment between Hicksville and Floral Park (although admittedly, Floral Park interlocking would likely need to be grade-separated). The Hempstead Branch could become a shuttle with direct service at peak hours.

As for cost? Typically, seven miles of electrified double track and a few bridges or underpasses on existing ROW really shouldn’t cost much more than a few hundred million. But let’s say the fierce NIMBYism that has undermined the Third Track project is just as prevalent in Levittown–that seems a decent bet. In that case, the MTA’s best bet would probably be to place the entire line in a trench and cover up particularly obnoxious segments (like through the golf course) with green space.

The closest parallel to that long a trench project in the US is probably the Alameda Corridor out in Los Angeles. The design-build contract for the 10-mile-long central trench cost $712 million in 1998; that would be a little over $1 billion, or $100 million per mile, today. If the costs are even remotely similar–and a Central Branch trench would arguably be a simpler project than the Alameda trench–the cost should come in well below the NIMBY-inflated costs for the Third Track project, although interlocking work at Bethpage Junction and Floral Park could add in significant additional costs.

So for less than the cost of the Third Track, LIRR could buy additional capacity and a format that might placate NIMBYs a little more. A Central Branch reactivation would certainly be thinking outside the box. There would be disadvantages–the biggest jobs concentrations served by the LIRR are along the Main Line, though Garden City has a decent number of jobs in its own right. The NIMBYism would surely still be fierce. But at this point, why not be a little trollish? Nothing’s getting done in the interim anyhow.