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When Brooklyn had its own railroad lines

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Today, the only passenger railroad line that goes through Brooklyn is the LIRR line on Atlantic Avenue. The terminal station at Flatbush and Atlantic is popular, and is bound to be more so with the opening of Barclays Center, but the other two stations, Nostrand Avenue and East New York, have negligible ridership. (Perhaps the East New York station would get more traffic if it were directly connected with the subway system’s Broadway Junction-East New York complex.)

Yet, in many parts of Brooklyn we see reminders of railroad lines of yesterday. When I lived on Avenue O and East 16th Street, I often noticed that the concrete support walls for some of the stations on the B and Q subway lines stretched out far beyond the actual track bed. I eventually learned that alongside the subway system’s Brighton Beach line, there once was a Long Island Rail Road line that went to Manhattan Beach, then a fashionable summer resort.

After the glamorous (and “restricted”) Manhattan Beach Hotel burned down, there was less and less need for such a line, and passenger service ended by the early 1920s. (Interestingly, intensive residential development in Manhattan Beach started only after the line closed.) Freight service along the line continued through the 1930s, at which time the line was dismantled and the land alongside the subway tracks was sold to real estate developers.

A recent view of the LIRR's Bay Ridge Freight Line near Borough Park. Until 1924, the line carried passengers, too.  Wikipedia photo by Jim Henderson

One well-known freight line that snakes through southern Brooklyn was once a passenger line as well. Most residents of Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Midwood and East Flatbush are aware of the Bay Ridge Freight Line, owned by the LIRR but run by a private company, the New York and Atlantic. For many years, the line was in a decrepit state and saw little freight traffic, but the New York and Atlantic has done a great job of reviving the line.

As we’ve mentioned, the Bay Ridge Freight Line once carried passengers as well. This was before the development of the subway system, and its stations bore the names of long-forgotten neighborhoods, like “Rugby.” One of the main purposes of the line, according to some transit historians, was to bring wealthy residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island to the Bay Ridge docks where some ocean liners docked.

At any rate, passenger service on this line was also gone by the early 1920s. Today, if someone wants to get from Bay Ridge to Brooklyn College, which the line passes under, he or she will either drive or take a bus.

A third line Long Island Rail Road line that once had passenger service was the Bushwick Freight Line. According to Wikipedia, Bushwick Terminal  now an auto repair shop  once served as a secondary terminal for LIRR trains coming from Nassau and Suffolk counties. However, it was unpopular with the public because it offered few connections to rapid transit (the L train, or Canarsie Line, hadn’t been built yet). Passenger service on the Bushwick Line also ended in the 1920s.

It’s hard to say what would have happened if service on these rail lines would have survived. In each of these cases, the abandonment of passenger service seems to have been prompted by changes in nearby neighborhoods and, above all, the growth in subways, trolleys, and later, buses. The Manhattan Beach Line might have been saved if it were part of the subway system, but it wasn’t.

As for the Bay Ridge line, most people who take subways and railroads do so to get to work, not to get from, say, Borough Park to Brooklyn College. Buses can very adequately fill that niche. And commuters from Nassau and Suffolk counties generally don’t want to be let off in Bay Ridge or Bushwick, far from the Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan business districts.

Still, it’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had the LIRR kept passenger service on these rail lines. A trip from Bay Ridge to Montauk by rail might be a nice little weekend trip. Maybe someday, the LIRR could offer, if not regular commuter service, special excursions for rail fans and fun-seekers.

Raanan Geberer is managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
September 9, 2012 - 5:55pm


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