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New York's Last Cross-Harbor Railway Chugs On as Alternative to Trucks.

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Wall Street Journal - [JERSEY CITY, N.J.] - "It would have made sense to put New York City in New Jersey. But railroad trains weren't invented yet, so nobody got the idea.




When trains to New York started arriving on the East Coast from points west or south in the 1800s, New Jersey was as far as they could get. The Hudson River and New York Bay were in the way. A tunnel soon carried passengers under the Hudson to Manhattan, but freight bound for Manhattan and Brooklyn had to float across on barges. In the 1960s, "car floats" were still skating across the harbor like bugs on a pond.








Barry Newman/The Wall Street Journal

NYNJR operations chief Jim Christie on the float bridge in Jersey City.





Then came new superhighways and trucks, trucks, trucks: Now all but 2% of the stuff New York imports rolls into town on rubber wheels. And nine-tenths of it crosses the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge.





The city's floating railroads were gone by 1975. Except for one.





It used to be called the Cross Harbor Railroad. Now, it's New York New Jersey Rail. It has nine workers, two locomotives, one old barge and a watery 2½ mile right of way across the bay to Brooklyn from a forgotten waterfront rail yard in Jersey City called Greenville.





On a breezy Tuesday, a train was about to shove off. A row of decrepit gantry cranes stood at water's edge. The Pennsylvania Railroad built them—in 1907—as the first electric "float bridges," marvels able to join tracks on land to tracks on the decks of barges.





One of them still works. In 1954, the Pennsy was launching 1,000 cars a day from Greenville. Today, NYNJR was launching nine.






At the control panel, which has two buttons: "up" and "down," operations chief Jim Christie positioned the bridge, aligning its rails with the railroad's barge in a rising tide.






When bridge and barge were in tune, a locomotive nudged the cargo aboard: tanks of biodiesel, gondolas of pulpboard, plywood and cornstarch, and a boxcar of potatoes from Idaho. The train's conductor, able-bodied seaman Sam Evans, cast off.






Joined to the tugboat John P. Brown, the freight train made its way to Brooklyn.






In 2008, when NYNJR was drowning in red ink, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bought the railroad for $15 million. The authority has $100 million in federal funding (still unspent) and a grand plan to get trucks off the roads by putting trains back on the water. Given NYNJR's green advantages, it's no wonder that "it couldn't be left to die," as Mark Hoffer, a Port Authority official puts it.



















In 1969, the big railroads quit barging freight to Brooklyn. What little they didn't put on trucks was routed north 140 miles, along the Hudson's west bank, then over a bridge and down the Hudson's east bank, a 280-mile detour called the "Selkirk Hurdle."






Little railroads that worked on the Brooklyn docks sold off locomotives (one does duty in Pennsylvania as Thomas the Tank Engine) and merged into the single, cargo-starved Cross Harbor Railroad.






A string of optimistic owners plied the Brooklyn-Jersey trade. But in 1991, Robert Crawford, president at the time, ran out of money. Some people he met made an offer to invest $1.5 million in cash and $500,000 in loan guarantees. Angelo Ponte was one of them; six years later, Mr. Ponte pleaded guilty to joining a trash-hauling cartel controlled by the Genovese and Gambino crime families and spent 20 months in state prison.






"They put up $1.25 million," he recalls. "They said we'll put up the balance providing you put our people in to run the railroad. I said, 'No, that's not the way it's going to happen.' "






The investors, who claimed they had bought a one-third interest in the Cross Harbor, sued for fulfillment of the deal in the Superior Court of New Jersey's Bergen County Chancery Division. Mr. Crawford says the railroad eventually settled, and the investors withdrew. An attorney for Mr. Ponte, Kevin Sheridan, declined to comment.






At one point, a work crew in Cross Harbor's Brooklyn yard dug up some buried barrels. The landlord, New York City, alleged that they were full of toxic waste. So the city took the railroad to federal court. Cross Harbor denied that anything toxic had been buried, but settled that case in 2004, and agreed to pay $450,000 toward any cleanup. Mr. Crawford now calls the accusations "bogus." The railroad chugged on.






The city, meantime, was building a new float bridge—"the latest in 19th-century technology," as one official says. The new bridge was on the Brooklyn waterfront a few blocks from Cross Harbor's yard. It connected directly to existing tracks that ran through Brooklyn and out to Long Island. The bridge cost $20 million and was finished in 2000.






It has stood idle ever since. Hoping to find another operator, the city wouldn't let the railroad near it. "Let's just say they didn't have a very good opinion of the Cross Harbor," says Ron Bridges, who later became its chief executive. In 1999, Mr. Crawford sold out to investors, who sold to a waste hauler, who changed the name to NYNJR—and finally sold to an outfit with money: the Port Authority.






On the water, it took 40 truck-free minutes for the train to reach Brooklyn's shore. Its old float bridge there is pre-electric: a pontoon with tracks on it. A locomotive, creeping seaward along the pontoon, pressed it into the water until it was level with the barge. Deck hands threw the bolts and locked the rails in place.






The Port Authority talks of floating 25,000 freight cars a year on NYNJR someday. The number now: 1,500. The Axis Group, an auto distributor, is moving ahead with plans to import cars to Brooklyn on car floats, starting soon. What Brooklyn has to export is harder to say.






The old Cross Harbor's biggest outbound cargo used to be cocoa. Sacks of beans came to Brooklyn on ships from Africa and were heaved into car floats bound for Hershey, Pa. In 2006, a barge sank, sending 600,000 pounds of beans to the bottom. The railroad lost its contract. The center of the cocoa trade has since decamped to Philadelphia.






The exports Brooklyn has to offer now are scrap metal and construction debris. "Mostly, we come back empty," said Don Hutton, NYNJR's director, preparing to cast off for New Jersey.






The wind had picked up. Wind plays with car floats—empty ones especially—as if they were rudderless sailboats. Jim Brown, captain of the John P. Brown, looked out from his tug's wheelhouse and said, "White caps. Impossible." So on its return voyage this day, the floating railroad carried no cargo and no railcars. Its tracks were bare."







Edited by KeystoneRegional
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