Walking through a jungle of train tracks and boxcars in Glendale, Queens, James Bonner pointed to a train pulling into the New York & Atlantic Railway Yard from points west, and rattled off its cargo: steel, cooking oil, lumber, produce.
“We handle about 30,000 carloads per year here,” Bonner, the railroad’s president, said — counting the traffic on all its branches, stretching from Long Island City, Queens, all the way east to Montauk on Long Island. “That’s the equivalent of 120,000 truckloads.”
That calculus will come in handy for Bonner as the city launches its Freight NYC initiative in earnest. The plan, from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, aims to rejigger the region’s transportation infrastructure to incentivize and accommodate greater use of boat and train in the shipment of the 400 million tons of freight that flow in and out of the city each year. Improvements to the rail network, the plan postulates, will help the economy grow by lowering operating costs for industrial businesses, and in turn will encourage new businesses to move here.
Freight rail advocates see a golden opportunity for growth along the Bay Ridge Branch of the New York & Atlantic, which is something of a relic. The 12-mile stretch of track snakes across Kings County from the harbor front just south of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, through the low-rise blocks of Borough Park, past Brooklyn College’s stately campus and dissects industrial zones in Flatlands, Canarsie and East New York before terminating at a yard in Glendale. For much of its length, it’s hidden behind overgrowth and fencing. The line only gives neighbors and passersby an indication that it’s alive once a day – sometimes twice – when a train rattles by.
It wasn’t always like this. In their heyday from the beginning of the 20th century through the mid 1960s, freight and passenger trains shared the tracks, carrying commuters and commodities, at a rate of up to 30,000 cars a year, Bonner said. That’s 10 times the now freight-only line’s current average of 3,000 railcars per year, according to Bonner.
“As manufacturing in New York City and on Long Island declined, and better roads and interstate access materialized, volume declined significantly,” Bonner said. Today, about 90 percent of all freight going in or out of New York is carried by tractor-trailer, which contributes to congestion, damage to infrastructure and environmental harm.
Down the line a few miles south in East New York, Bill Wilkins doesn’t think the city plan tracks. He’s the director of economic development for the Local Development Corporation of East New York, advocating for and providing services to the area’s industrial businesses, many directly adjacent to the rail line.
“In concept, it sounds like a great idea: reduce congestion, good for the environment,” said Wilkins. “I was of that same opinion. But we did a deep dive, and the economics don’t work. It’s no silver bullet.”
While some businesses with large properties and sizable lines of credit could benefit from rail, Wilkins said, those make up a small fraction of the borough’s industrial sector.
“The industrial parks with 300,000 square feet, the Amazons of the world who are flush with cash, maybe for them rail makes sense,” he said. “Our businesses are usually 10,000, 20,000 square feet. They don’t need rail. And it’s New York City – God’s not making any more land.”
Wilkins recognizes the problem of over-reliance on trucking, but doesn’t think rail, at least in its traditional form, should be the linchpin of a solution.
“Because of our increasing population, we are at capacity as far as our roadways go,” he said. “We really do need to look at alternative methods. But maybe it’s not the old Santa Fe lines and long cars. Maybe it’s smaller cars, smaller trailers, boats, barges. But ultimately, we still need to have our shelves full of goods.”
West from Wilkins’ turf on the Bay Ridge Branch, at the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie, what used to be a heavily used rail spur from the main track now sees its share of deliveries, but it’s nothing like it used to be, according to Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Frank Seddio, a neighborhood mainstay and the market’s lawyer.
“We used to get watermelons, other things,” Seddio said. “They don’t use it as much as they used to.” Now potatoes and onions are the only produce arriving by rail, according to Charlie Ciraolo, president of the market’s merchants association. “I wish the train would bring more,” he said, “like back in the day.”