One of Queens’ longest-running controversies is the fate of the decaying, abandoned Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach Branch from Rego Park to Ozone Park (the somewhat misleading name signified that the line hooked up with what is now the subway system’s Rockaway branch at its southern end).
As is the case for other abandoned railway lines throughout the country, the conflict pits those who want to make the roadbed into a nature trail or park against transit advocates who wish to reinstitute rail (or subway) service.
But might there be a third alternative — light rail, also known as streetcars or electric trolleys?
First, a simplified history is in order. The line, built in the 19th century, branched off from the LIRR’s main line at Rego Park and continued south, eventually traveling along a trestle over Jamaica Bay and into the Rockaways. After a fire consumed part of the trestle in 1950, the LIRR abandoned the line south of Ozone Park. The New York City Transit Authority purchased the southern portion of the line, rebuilt the trestle, connected it to the A train and reopened it in 1956 as the Rockaway line.
The LIRR continued operations on the northern part of the line, but after ridership declined, ended service in 1962. Today, it looks like countless other abandoned railroad beds: foliage growing in between rusty tracks, debris, fallen tree branches and graffiti.
Over the years, there have been periodic calls for renewed subway or rail service — especially from residents of the Rockaways and Ozone Park, who want a faster route into Manhattan. One recent idea is to have the R train branch off from Queens Boulevard at Rego Park, then run down the Rockaway Beach Branch.
Rivaling these ideas is the QueensWay proposal from the Trust for Public Land. This would reuse the former rail route in several ways, including pedestrian and bicycle paths, parkland, space for food vendors, space for cultural events and more. In a sense, it’s like a semisuburban High Line.
But how about light rail? I have ridden light-rail streetcars in Philly, Boston and San Francisco, and can testify that they make very little noise compared with subways and railroads. Not only that — when they’re operating on their own right-of-way, they can reach speeds competitive to subways.
If you want to see light rail in action, you don’t have to go far — just ride the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line in New Jersey, starting in Hoboken. Far from scaring people away, it has spurred development along its route.
Light rail is springing up all over the United States — except in New York City. Plans to build light-rail lines on 42nd Street, in Red Hook and in Staten Island have come to naught.
An almost-noiseless light-rail line along the former Rockaway Beach Branch could make history in New York. We might even have foliage and/or a bicycle path alongside the tracks — look at Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, where a fenced-in streetcar line, a walking path and cars run alongside each other.
It’s worth a thought!
Raanan Geberer is managing editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, a community newspaper, and a lifelong railfan who once led tours for the NYC Transit Museum.