The New York & Atlantic Railway has had its brushes with Hollywood stardom over the years, including when one of its speeding locomotives sent the Jeep of actor Sam Worthington’s character into a cartwheeling wreck during a chase scene in the 2012 thriller Man on a Ledge.
Now the railroad hopes to land a leading role in a real-life drama: delivering goods and materials into a jam-packed, hypersensitive city while reducing pollution in the process.
More than 90% of those 277 million tons delivered per year—everything from food and retail products to lumber, gravel and garbage—are carted into and out of the five boroughs and surrounding areas by about 12.6 million trucks. The congestion, noise and pollution they cause have become especially pernicious as tens of thousands of Uber cars and other vehicles clog the streets, the transit system struggles, and population and tourism reach record highs.
With the amount of cargo set to grow by 40% in the next 30 years, planners are searching urgently for alternative delivery methods. Most major U.S. cities get 20% of their goods by rail. In New York, it’s 2%. This has prompted officials to turn to New York & Atlantic, a niche freight carrier most city residents don’t know exists.
The Economic Development Corp. is nearing the release of a plan that includes steps to better use and invest in rail. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is finishing $133 million worth of upgrades to Greenville Yard in New Jersey, a waterfront train depot where freight cars arrive from around the country and are floated by barge to New York & Atlantic tracks in Sunset Park. The work will allow a sixfold increase in the number of cars that can be moved across the harbor, potentially jolting the freight line’s growth after years of modest gains.
The Port Authority just began a $23.7 million study to examine the feasibility of scaling up the float operation even further. It will also examine in greater detail a plan long championed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-Manhattan, to build a freight-rail tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
“Congestion is getting worse and worse, as predicted,” Nadler said. “We have an underutilized freight-rail system and hopefully we can do more with it before this issue hits us over the head.”
The prospect of expansion comes fraught with challenges for a railroad that runs not across the wide expanses of America but through some of the most densely developed and populated land in the world. New York & Atlantic operates on tracks and yards it leases from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that snake from southern Brooklyn into Queens. From there, the line connects to the MTA’s Long Island Rail Road tracks heading east, and north to a freight line operated by the railroad CSX that wends through northern Queens and the Bronx to Amtrak and Metro-North tracks. The volume of cargo it delivers is split about evenly between the city and Long Island.
To make their way through the system, New York & Atlantic’s 2,000-horsepower diesel locomotives must operate at speeds not exceeding 15 mph, stop at myriad road crossings, negotiate tight turns and work within slim delivery windows.
One of the line’s biggest bottlenecks is the central hub of its operations, a freight yard in Fresh Pond, Queens, that at its widest point is 13 tracks and encompasses about 10 acres. While that may sound large by the standards of New York City real estate, many other train depots in the boroughs dwarf it. Sunnyside Yards in Queens is nearly 200 acres. Almost all of New York & Atlantic’s traffic converges in Fresh Pond, where it is rearranged so cars heading to the same destination can be hitched together.
“It’s a Rubik’s Cube,” said James Bonner, New York & Atlantic’s president. “In the railroad business, there’s a saying that the best conductor is the fattest, because he figures out what he has to do with the least steps. But when you’re space-constrained, you wind up needing to take a lot of additional steps.”
The rail yard must manage the work while remaining mindful of the quiet residential neighborhood of Glendale that surrounds it. Minimizing the impact of 200,000-pound locomotives just feet from people’s bedrooms is no easy task. “We work hard to try to mitigate the issues and concerns,” Bonner said, “but railroading is a metal-on-metal business.”
Part of the job for Bonner is staying on the lookout for situations that could bother residents. For instance, he recently had the yard’s crew move a car holding newly furbished railroad ties that had been soaked in the preservative creosote to keep the chemical’s solventlike odors from wafting toward the neighborhood.
While few residents want a freight yard abutting their home, the advantage of having trains in the city’s delivery network is undeniable. Each railcar can haul as much as four tractor trailers can and produces 75% less emissions. Trains can’t eliminate trucks, but hauling goods by rail as far as possible allows light-duty vehicles rather than big rigs to handle the final leg of the supply chain. Next to waterborne container shipping, freight rail is the cheapest way to move heavy goods.
Take gravel. New York & Atlantic hauled 1 million tons of it last year from Connecticut quarries 170 miles away to a large yard in Maspeth, Queens, that supplies much of the city’s construction industry with the powdered stone and aggregate needed to make concrete. The company brings so much beer from Mexico, flour from the Midwest and cooking oil from Canada that Bonner and his crew have nicknamed it the pizza-and-beer railroad.
To muffle screeching, New York & Atlantic, a subsidiary of rail holding company Anacostia, installed $25,000 greasing machines in several areas of the yard to lubricate each 3-foot steel train wheel that rolls over them. Anti-idling technology installed in 2011 at a cost of $1 million prevents locomotives from belching unnecessary fumes.
Bonner, 40, began his career in railroading at age 20, pounding spikes on freight tracks in western Kansas. He started at New York & Atlantic in 2013 as a sales and marketing executive. In 2016 he was named president of the line. This year he expects the company to move 32,000 cars—5,000 more than when he joined.
To add customers, the railroad has been developing delivery depots along its roughly 20-mile rail network. It recently renovated a 12-acre rail yard it controls on 53rd Avenue in Long Island City. That $10 million project, done in partnership with the MTA and the city, included 300 feet of new track and the renovation of a building to house cargo. Right now the site is used to service a cooking-oil company, but Bonner sees it as a bigger food hub where flour, rice, cornmeal and other commodities can be delivered in bulk to wholesalers and manufacturers.
By the end of the year, the Port Authority plans to finish scaling up its float system at Greenville Yard, increasing what it barges each year to Brooklyn from 4,000 railcars—about 15% of New York & Atlantic’s traffic—to as many as 24,000. That is the equivalent of nearly 100,000 trucks. The Fresh Pond yard is fed by other lines as well and can sort only about 40,000 cars a year without costly upgrades. So some trains will have to be diverted to other nodes to take advantage of the upgrade.
Bonner plans to boost business in southern Brooklyn, particularly among food customers, by bypassing Fresh Pond and steering trains to the southernmost section of the railroad’s track, along the border of Dyker Heights and Borough Park. To make drop-offs there, New York & Atlantic plans to build a small yard along 61st Street and another in East New York, each of which could sort and unload up to 4,000 cars a year.
Future upgrades to Greenville Yard could render it capable of floating in as many as 75,000 cars annually, which, when combined with what New York & Atlantic receives from areas north of the city, could allow the rail line to remove as many as half a million trucks from the road—enough to appreciably reduce congestion.
The economics and feasibility of that expansion will be examined in the Port Authority study, which is being conducted by a partnership between engineering firms STV and AKRF.
Meanwhile, a hot market for industrial real estate in New York City has suddenly raised another hurdle for the line’s ability to expand. Warehouse spaces, including properties adjacent to New York & Atlantic’s rail network that are key to the logistics of freight, have increasingly been repurposed for more lucrative uses. Many are now housing tenants in the growing e-commerce sector, which relies much more on trucking than on rail.
For instance, Cascades, a Canadian paper products company that owned a warehouse near the large gravel yard in Maspeth and used New York & Atlantic for shipments, just sold the property for more than $70 million to owners who likely won’t use the railroad.
“You need a lot of land and infrastructure to support freight rail, and in the city, it’s simply not there anymore, and what little there is, is disappearing,” said Jon Broder, an executive at Conrail, the rail carrier that drives freight cars into Greenville Yard to be floated to Brooklyn.
While that may be the work of market forces, Bonner sees his employer getting more gigs in a production that gets larger and more complex every year. He recently toured a Long Island City warehouse site after it hit the market for $100 million to promote to the sellers its connectivity to the rail line. Sure enough, marketing materials for the Borden Avenue property boasted that it was the largest industrial building in the city abutting a rail spur. Perhaps it will attract a buyer who can use New York & Atlantic to move massive quantities of goods in and out of the city. If no one notices the additional train traffic, Bonner won’t mind a bit.