Few New York City neighborhoods have seen a recent explosion of development on the scale of Long Island City’s waterfront. An industrial area throughout the 20th century, Long Island City has undergone a recent transformation into a hub of residential development, spurred by its close proximity to Manhattan and numerous inter-borough subway connections.
There are few artifacts of the neighborhood’s history still standing. One such artifact is the Long Island City station of the Long Island Rail Road, which is probably New York City’s most-hidden and certainly one of New York City’s least-used railroad stations.
Along Center Boulevard, the closest street to the waterfront, new construction has brought density at a nearly-dazzling scale to Long Island City.
Long Island City still retains a few relics of its more-industrial history, most notably the two sets gantries labeled “Long Island,” which give Gantry Plaza State Park its name. These gantries controlled the Long Island Rail Road’s car float operation, which transferred freight cars carried on East River barges to railroad tracks for the remainder of their journey across New York City or to Long Island.
Some of the first shiny, new R32 subway cars were delivered to New York City by Long Island Rail Road car float in 1964.
These would have been some of the final deliveries made by car float, as the gantries, and the rail line which led to them, was disused by the 1970s.
Image credit: Gerald H. Landau, via nycsubway.org, link.
Only a few sections of track remain in Gantry Plaza State Park, which opened in 1998, that give any hint that the waterfront was once the end of a railroad line. The North Shore Freight Branch ran alongside the waterfront before joining the main line of the Long Island Rail Road.
Before tunnels under the East River were opened in 1910, Long Island City was the westernmost reach of the Long Island Rail Road, and passengers transferred to ferries for access to Manhattan. Since the opening of the tunnels and the end of ferry service in 1925, the station, left without a purpose and which now gets very little use, has sat as a monument to an era of very different travel patterns.
The modern, and growing, skyline of residential towers on the Long Island City waterfront provide a stark contrast to the sleepy train yard and station which sit in their shadow.
But many people who live nearby could be forgiven for not realizing this station actually exists—let alone that they can take a train to or from it.
Access to the station (at least right now, this shouldn’t be permanent) is along a temporary sidewalk; a single and easy-to-miss sign is the only confirmation that you are approaching the entrance to a train station.
Long Island City is primarily a storage facility for the Long Island Rail Road’s diesel equipment which, because it cannot enter Manhattan, must be stored in Queens between the morning and evening rush hours. Despite this, the station has seen some minor improvements in recent years: the two platforms pictured here are new additions, as is the electrified third rail on these tracks. (Previously, only three non-platform tracks in the yard were electrified).
These two platforms are not easily accessed or visible from the current street entrance, and getting to them involves a walk around the perimeter of the yard. However, those platforms were the ones in use on this particular evening.
Nonetheless, the station does see some use: a handful of evening commuters at Long Island City board trains heading east towards Long Island. The number of people living within walking distance of the station has grown tremendously in the past two decades, but the station remains quiet.
This is in large part due to the fact that trains only run to Long Island a few times per day—there isn’t a large Western Queens-to-Long Island commute market, and the Long Island City station has no direct subway or bus connections (and the mediocre pedestrian access shown above).
The Hunterspoint Avenue station, a short distance east, is connected to the subway and, though service there is still limited, it receives significantly more ridership than Long Island City.
Carrying just six passengers, the 5:30 to Port Jefferson—one of the three trains out of the station in the evening—departs Long Island City.
Most trains to and from Long Island City are peak-time trains, and at peak prices, a ticket to Jamaica is $10.50. We should be under no illusion that this station would be packed if tickets were cheaper—but there is almost certainly no world where stations like Long Island City are better used if commuter rail fares stay unchanged.
For as long as the station is important to train storage—which it will be for the foreseeable future—it will likely remain open to passengers, if very seldom-used. It is unique not just in New York City but in the world: there are not many other places where growing urban neighborhoods and near-disused rail stations still coexist.
Whether the Long Island City station will ever be busy again is an open question. Its adaptation—and that of other, similarly-lightly-used urban railroad stations—should be on the minds of regional planners, policymakers, and transit operators as the city continues to grow, and more people hopefully turn to public transit for urban mobility.