On Atlantic Avenue: The Rapid Transit Line That Isn’t

Stretching from Downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica, and then onwards to Southeast Queens, the Long Island Rail Road’s Atlantic Branch carries commuter trains on a line that, in many places, looks more like a forgotten part of the New York City Subway. I usually have little reason to use the Atlantic Branch but, thanks to summer rebuild work on the J subway line in Jamaica, rides on the Atlantic Branch were made free for MetroCard-carrying riders. I took advantage of this momentary lapse in our normally-fragmented transit fare system to ride the line between East New York and Atlantic Terminal in Downtown Brooklyn.

East New York is an area where the infrastructure really a story of another era. At one time, three elevated lines—the Fulton Street, Jamaica, and Canarsie lines—converged here. Trains on any of the three lines coming from eastern Brooklyn and Queens could change at East New York to any of the three routes on to Manhattan (and vice versa). Though the latter two lines remain today (the Fulton Street elevated was replaced by a subway, now the A and C lines), transit operations around East New York today are much simpler. The Atlantic Avenue station on the Canarsie line (today’s L train) has two disused platforms and four disused trackways—a legacy from when both Canarsie and Fulton Street trains used the station.

The Atlantic Avenue station offers a connection to the Atlantic Branch, which runs on a strange right-of-way through East New York: the train tracks are at grade-level, but are separated from traffic, as Atlantic Avenue runs on an overpass above the station. The entrance to the LIRR’s East New York station is not the most well-advertised—you enter through one of the archways of the Atlantic Avenue overpass on to the platforms.

There are also two subway-style underpass entrances to the station, saving passengers from crossing often-fast-moving traffic adjacent to the station, which are also very low-key. This is such entrance viewed from the LIRR platform, with an L train passing above, headed for Canarsie.

Because the railroad tracks are at grade-level, the station underpasses are also the only way for pedestrians to cross the tracks (and Atlantic Avenue) in this area. The underpass entrances lead to either platform, and contain old mosaic signs in a similar style to subway stations built by the city-run Independent Subway (IND). The sign pointing to the eastbound platform reads “to Jamaica and the Rockaways:” LIRR trains, of course, once ran on what is now the A subway line to the Rockaways.

This is the other subway-style underpass entrance, on Van Sinderen Avenue. The elevated structure at Broadway Junction is in the background; the two stations are only about two blocks apart.

This photo definitely exaggerates it but, thanks to its unique construction under the Atlantic Avenue roadway, the East New York LIRR station is far from the most well-lit transit station in the city.

Heading west from East New York, the next station is Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Before this station, the line rises on to a viaduct that is very similar to NYC’s elevated subway lines. It’s fairly unique in New York City to be on a commuter rail train running so close to urban housing—this section of the line is very reminiscent of elevated subway lines (the M through Bushwick and Ridgewood comes to mind specifically, as that also runs very close to its neighbors’ windows).

The Nostrand Avenue station really just feels like any other elevated subway station. It’s just missing a subway station’s frequent service!

The land use around the Nostrand station is not ideal, though. Despite its close proximity to residential density and busy commercial corridors on Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue, Atlantic Avenue is mostly auto repair shops, so there are a lot of broken-down—or just straight-up broken—cars sitting by the curb. The lack of pedestrians leads to a classic chicken-egg problem of arterial roadways: without pedestrians, Atlantic is treated as a de facto highway, making it even more hostile to pedestrians, and discouraging the growth of any pedestrian traffic that might help make traffic calmer.

In addition, the vast spaces underneath the viaduct are left almost entirely unused. However, the station was extensively rebuilt recently, and its entrances are in far better shape than those at East New York.

It is worth noting that it does not have to be this way! Many other cities also have elevated rail viaducts, and some of those cities have taken advantage of the space underneath them to enhance the public realm. Even if the space under the viaduct is unused, other cities also demonstrate how roadways around viaducts can easily be more friendly to pedestrians.

Land use and streetscape aside, the Nostrand Avenue station definitely gets used. The crowd coming off a midday train from Long Island wasn’t tiny.

Continuing west from Nostrand Avenue, the Atlantic Branch goes back underground for its last mile and a half to Downtown Brooklyn.

Atlantic Terminal (formerly Flatbush Avenue) is where the branch comes to an unceremonious end, just shy of reaching Manhattan. It is one of a few Long Island Rail Road terminals which remain as monuments to a time before trains could cross the East River, though the Atlantic Terminal stop sees much more use than its brethren upriver in Long Island City.

It’s a fairly unremarkable station itself—though it was renovated relatively recently—and it is connected to the massive Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street/Barclays Center subway hub, which retains an original 1908-built entrance designed by the Interborough Rapid Transit company (IRT).

This concludes this look at some of the LIRR’s Atlantic Branch. Its nature—a rapid transit-esque line, but without frequent service; a line which services busy neighborhoods, but ends short of the city center—makes it a frequent subject of discussion among New York-area transit advocates’, who often envision the line extended to Manhattan (or further to New Jersey) and hosting frequent, subway-like service.

To some extent, the MTA has acknowledged the need to bring the Atlantic Branch into the fold of transit in New York City. One of the barriers to high ridership, besides infrequent services, is the high cost of commuter rail fares. In 2018, the MTA began offering a special Atlantic Ticket, which halved peak-time fares on Atlantic Branch trains, and became quickly popular. It is more proof, if proof were needed, that when public transit is made easier-to-use, it will be used. With further improvements to affordability, service, and stations, the Atlantic Branch could easily become a critical transportation artery for Brooklyn & Queens. The infrastructure is there and waiting.

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