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65th Street Rail Yard Reopens in Brooklyn

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July 19, 2012

Rail Yard Reopens as City’s Freight Trains Rumble Into Wider Use



Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Don Hutton, a New York New Jersey Rail official, said that he aimed to haul 23,000 rail cars a year by 2017 through the new Brooklyn yard, up from 1,600 rail cars now.


Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

City, state and federal officials have spent more than $115 million to hep expand infrastructure along the south Brooklyn waterfront since 2009.


The 65th Street Rail Yard in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was once a vital gateway to New York City’s network of freight rail lines, providing a place for rail cars carried on barges across the harbor from New Jersey to connect with tracks running through Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

But for decades, the rail yard, like others, has languished because of railroad bankruptcies, litigation, changing routes, deteriorating infrastructure and other problems, city officials have said. This week, the rail yard finally reopened as part of a long-awaited citywide freight rail expansion that seeks to revive an industry that for many has come to be best known for a symbol of its decline — the High Line, a derelict elevated freight line in Manhattan famously repurposed as a park.

“New York has been on a roller-coaster ride with freight rail,” said Joshua Nelson, a vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, as he stood amid knee-high weeds in the rail yard last week.

Though freight rail remains a tiny part of the city’s overall transportation system, city, state and federal officials have spent more than $115 million to help expand infrastructure along the south Brooklyn waterfront since 2009, including laying fresh tracks and renovating a marine terminal that was once a hub for cocoa imports and manufactured goods. They spent another $80 million to restore an abandoned freight rail line on Staten Island’s west shore in 2007, and most recently, they announced last month a planned $10 million upgrade of freight rail operations at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

These efforts, which come as the amount of goods being shipped through the city by some freight railroads continues to increase, have won praise from some transportation advocates and residents who see rail as an alternative to the fleets of trucks congesting roadways and spewing fumes into surrounding communities. “We’re in support of it,” said Monxo Lopez, a member of South Bronx Unite, which has cited truck traffic in opposing the move of the online grocer FreshDirect to the Bronx. “But it has to be tied up with concrete traffic reductions and community involvement.”

City officials have also said that freight rail is good for the economy, because it gives local companies an option for transporting goods that could be significantly cheaper over long distances than using trucks.

But some communities have raised concerns that trains, too, produce noise and fumes. In 2009, more than a dozen civic groups in Queens banded together to form Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions to call for reducing the impact of freight trains. “Whatever expansion is taking place is certainly going to have a more negative effect on those living near the freight rail lines,” said Gary Giordano, district manager for Queens Community Board 5.

The expanding freight rail network is the culmination of decades of efforts, some unsuccessful, across the city and region. “There’s been all kinds of resistance,” said United States Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn who has long pushed to expand freight rail. “Rail fell out of use, and people just didn’t see it anymore.”

According to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a regional organization charged with transportation planning, just 1 percent of the 434.7 million tons of freight transported through the city and its suburbs in 2004, the latest year analyzed, was by rail, compared with 89 percent by truck. The council estimates that by 2030, the total amount of freight will nearly double, rising to 804.4 million, though some transportation experts have suggested that number may be too high.

In other parts of the country, a larger share of freight is carried by rail. In 2010, 9.7 percent of the 18.3 billion tons of freight transported nationally was by train, compared with 68.2 percent by truck, according to federal transportation data. Nationally, the total amount of freight is projected to rise to nearly 27.5 billion by 2040.

“There needs to be another way to handle the increasing capacity, other than roadways,” said Lisa Daglian, a spokeswoman for the New York council, citing growing population and consumer demand for products in the region. Bruce Lieberman, chairman of the New York and Atlantic Railway, said his business has steadily attracted new customers, climbing to more than 22,000 carloads annually.

CSX Transportation, one of the nation’s largest freight railroad companies, now runs four freight trains a day, each with an average of 75 rail cars, along its main line through the Bronx, compared with two trains a day seven years ago, said William Goetz, a vice president of the company. The cargo carried on the four trains would fill about 900 trucks, he added.

At the 65th Street Rail Yard last week, a line of graffiti-covered rail cars filled with auto scraps waited to be rolled onto barges. The city, which acquired the 24-acre site for $2.5 million in 1981, has periodically tried to revive the rail yard. But in recent years, it has remained closed, in part because the city was embroiled in a legal battle with the New York Cross Harbor Railroad, which previously operated the barge service to and from New Jersey, Mr. Nelson said.

Today, the barges are operated by New York New Jersey Rail, a small railroad owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, using a smaller, city-owned rail yard nearby. The barges will move to the new 65th Street Rail Yard, which can handle longer rail cars and has two “float bridges” made of timber and steel to anchor the barges as the railcars are rolled off. The other site has only one float bridge.

“That was the back porch; this is the front yard,” said Don Hutton, managing director of the railroad, as he pointed out the float bridges, which have been used only for tests since they were built in 2000. “This is really the big deal. Our guys can’t wait.”

Mr. Hutton said his goal was to haul 23,000 rail cars a year by 2017, up from 1,600 rail cars now. The cargo will include Washington State apples bound for city markets, home heating oil for Long Island homeowners, and newly made cars for dealerships across the region.

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Hooray, I love when stuff like this happens.

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