How about light rail on the old Rockaway line? 1

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.

(2) comments


The reason why those cities build light rail is because they can't afford to build a proper system. To where will you connect this light rail to anyway? The subway? The LIRR? Not happening. Shuttles will never have the ridership to justify the build cost. Did you even think about what you were proposing through before you threw around the light rail buzzword?


Donut's 'not happening' declaration of an inability to connect light rail to the subway and/or LIRR is untrue. People transfer all the time from buses to subway stations all the time. Last I checked, nothing would stop completing the 3% of ROW not under current control by the MTA and city, and then setting up stations outside existing train stations.

When it comes to subways, almost every bit of NYC falls into a 'if you build it, they will come' category. Only the lower part of the IRT was built on assumptions about day-1 ridership. The network's expansion of interconnections is its own reward. People have been crying for decades over Queens' lack of north-south and to- midtown mass transit options. Here is part of how you fix it. And the pro-Queensway crowd is how they keep making it sounding plausible to let the solution slip out of one's fingers. Only some of the pro-Queensway crowd actually cares about the 24-hour hiking and biking path. The rest just want the status quo, regardless of how many people it continues to harm and limit.

I've walked down the ROW many times, and there are probably at least 4-5 sites for either a subway station or a light rail platform along the way to Queens Blvd from Liberty Ave, with potential transfer points off the J, the A, and various bus routes along Myrtle and Metropolitan. If it's part of the MTA and included in for free transfers, there will be no problems with ridership gaps. This isn't the AirTrain we're talking about - a Port Authority solution to Port Authority priorities. Putting the midtown CBD within 25 one-seat minutes of Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and southern Forest Hills, Far Rockaway within 45 one-seat minutes, will mean a doubling of property values over large swaths of Queens, and make a lot of people's lives (both current and future) better.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.