Crowley’s light-rail solution is non-starter

By Uday Schultz

Central Queens is currently in a state of crisis regarding its public transportation network. People from the area have to spend over two hours waiting in the crush of traffic to get to and from work, lowering their quality of life and destroying our environment.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley plans to remediate this by building a light rail line on the Lower Montauk Branch, a freight line that runs through Richmond Hill, Glendale, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Maspeth and Long Island City. However good this project may look on paper, its construction would be extremely unlikely, as in the plan’s current form construction would violate the federal laws that govern transportation and transit safety in this country.

Right now, the Lower Montauk Branch is used almost exclusively to haul and sort freight trains. These freight trains carry the vast majority of rail cargo going to and from Suffolk, Nassau, Queens and Kings counties, using a yard along the line as an origination/termination point. Under the federal government’s common carrier rules, any operator of a freight line has to provide rail service to customers along that line, regardless of shipment type or destination. This responsibility is transferred between owners of a line, so that when a new company buys a line, freight service is preserved. This would not be possible if light rail was to use the tracks as safety laws dictate that light rail trains may not operate on the same tracks as freight trains, unless temporal separation is ensured.

The only way to place light rail on the line, then, would be to forcibly evict the rail carrier from the line, either using eminent domain or abandonment. It is almost certain that neither of these strategies would work, as in these proceedings, stakeholders (in this case, every freight rail customer in Queens and on Long Island) are given time to comment. They would point out that removing freight rail access from the line would not only harm their businesses, but also the environment, as hundreds of thousands of trucks would be needed to carry a year’s worth of freight rail onto the island.

This leaves the light rail group with three options: temporal separation, a distinct set of tracks for light rail, or the usage of freight compatible equipment. The first requires that each user of the tracks gets a block of time in which they alone can ply their trade. As the freight railroad needs to sort cars all day long, and as residents of Queens need 24-hour service, this option is out of the question. The second would almost certainly cause the condemnation of properties along the line, including countless houses, businesses and possibly parts of a cemetery. The final option, running freight compatible equipment, would lead to excruciatingly slow commutes, owing to the additional weight (and therefore slower acceleration) needed to comply with crashworthiness standards.

Central Queens most certainly is in need of a transit ‘fix’, but Councilwoman Crowley’s proposal is most certainly not it.

Uday Schultz


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