The Long Island Rail Road (as-spelled) is one of the oldest still in operation today with a charter dating back to the 1830s! Today's LIRR has lost any semblance of independence; as a ward of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) it provides commuter rail service between its home island and our nation's largest city. The "Route Of The Dashing Commuter" may seem like just another suburban railroad but it carries a rich history of serving Long Island utilizing an eclectic fleet of locomotives. The current system provides only passenger service while freight is now handled by the New York & Atlantic Railway, a private subsidiary of Anacostia & Pacific.
The LIRR currently maintains over 300 miles, serves 124 stations, and transports more than 300,000 weekday commuters across its system. The "glory days" of the LIRR, a brief summary of which is presented here, may be behind it but the railroad remains an important transportation artery for the New York region.
In the latter 19th century Long Island blossomed into a bustling suburb of New York City containing commercial districts, pristine beaches, and even forested state parks within its 1,400 square miles. It may be surprising to know that as late as the Civil War period it remained largely uninhabited except for local agricultural use. However, that changed towards in the following decades when improved transportation (ferries, trolleys, and streetcars) witnessed evermore folks journeying to the island. Some came to escape the hectic city life while others vacationed at the beaches. The LIRR's earliest history dates back to April 25, 1832 when the Brooklyn & Jamaica Railroad Company was incorporated to connect Brooklyn and Jamaica, a distance of ten miles. It was the first railroad on Long Island and opened on April 18, 1836. Interestingly, the B&J never actually commenced operations under its own name or management. On April 24, 1834, the Long Island Rail Road Company was formed by investors in New York and Boston to lease the B&J and continue pushing rails eastward.
The LIRR planned a route through the island's center and terminate at the eastern tip near Greenport. From there, steamship service (provided by Cornelius Vanderbilt's company, he would later sit on the railroad's board) was employed across Block Island Sound to interchange freight and passengers with the Old Colony Railroad at Stonington, Connecticut that handled the business to Providence, Boston, and other points in New England. The LIRR's promoters felt their railroad held true promise given that engineers believed an all-terrain rail route between New York and Boston, running the southern shores of Connecticut and Rhode Island, was an impossibility due to the topography and river valleys. Unfortunately, this theory proved incorrect as predecessors of the later New York, New Haven & Hartford did open rail service to New York prior to 1850. This route became part of the New Haven's "Shore Line," handling thousands of commuters, and heavy freight tonnage, on a daily basis. Today, it remains a busy component of Amtrak as part of the Northeast Corridor (NEC).
The LIRR's promoters further erred when they engineered a line through the island's uninhabited center instead of running closer to the more widely settled northern shore. The central region contained easier grades but the coastline offered greater freight and passenger potential. In short, the original vision for the Long Island Rail Road proved a failure. However, the road would rebound from this early gaffe. On July 27, 1844 the 96-mile route between Brooklyn and Greenport was completed with special excursions held to mark the occasion (official service commenced on July 29th). According to Rae Ediger's article, "Long Island Rail Road" from the March, 1949 issue of Trains Magazine, the rail-water route reduced the previously all-water trip between New York and Boston from sixteen hours to about eight. Its first two locomotives, named the Ariel and Postboy (products of Baldwin originally built for the B&J), handled initial duties. However, by 1844 its fleet had blossomed to eleven locomotives and the future appeared bright.
In 1848 the New York & New Haven opened between its namesake cities, providing through service to Boston (it later built a more efficient, southerly connection to New England's largest city). With an all-land route now available, the LIRR's faded and fell into bankruptcy on March 4, 1850 emerging on January 25, 1851 carrying the same name. To achieve success the LIRR knew it must focus on providing local passenger and commuter services. To do this it received an amendment to its charter on April 21, 1862 authorizing construction anywhere east of Jamaica. With this allowance the company set about connecting all of Long Island's largest communities, whisking patrons westward to catch ferries to Manhattan Island. On November 7, 1853 the Hicksville & Cold Spring Branch Railroad was chartered to build an extension from Hicksville to Cold Spring Harbor. It was soon leased by the LIRR and opened to Syosset in 1854. Following disagreements and delays the project was not completed to Northport until April 15, 1868.
Soon after this branch opened an extension built as the Smithtown & Port Jefferson Railroad. This subsidiary was organized in 1870 and pushed service to Port Jefferson, opening on January 13, 1873. The years following the Civil War contained a flurry of construction activity with the completion of the Locust Valley Branch (Oyster Bay Branch) on April 19, 1869 and Sag Harbor Branch (via Manorville) on May 9, 1870. In addition, the acquisition of several smaller projects made the LIRR the dominant railroad on Long Island. In 1880 Austin Corbin acquired control and took the company to even further heights. It completed a second main line hugging the southern shore of the Atlantic Ocean (known as the Brooklyn & Montauk Railroad it opened in 1881). There were also branches laid to Manhattan Beach (opened on July 19, 1877), Long Beach (completed in 1880), Far Rockaway (finished in 1869), and Port Washington (opened in 1898). By the turn of the 20th century the Long Island Rail Road had bought out all of its competitors and was the only rail service available on the island.
At the same time, in 1900, the LIRR came under the Pennsylvania Railroad's control, acquiring it for $6 million. The Pennsy's takeover was part of a long range plan under new PRR president Andrew Cassatt to not only dominate rail service throughout New York but also provide efficient commuter service across the region. It all began when the PRR laid the groundwork for its magnificent Pennsylvania Station in downtown Manhattan, a project launched in 1901. While the new terminal would provide the railroad with direct service into New York's downtown district it was also designed to handle extensive commuter traffic. The PRR's new Long Island subsidiary would be incorporated into the station's master plan via four tunnels beneath the East River for direct rail service into the facility (two would also built under the Hudson to connect with the Pennsy's main line at Newark, New Jersey).
The tunneling began in 1902, spearheaded by engineer Samuel Rea (who later became PRR's president) with assistance from Charles Jacobs, an expert in tunnel construction and engineering. The entire project encompassed 16 miles of underground rail lines, a massive undertaking for a private company; on September 11, 1906 the Hudson River Tunnels (also known as the North River Tunnels) were completed a full year ahead of schedule although those bored beneath the East River were much more difficult and required a few more years of work. They were not finished until 1909. The grand Pennsylvania Station opened to the public during two stages in 1910; the LIRR commenced service on September 8th while the terminal officially opened for all rail traffic on November 27th. According to David Morgan's article, "Long Island: Which Plan D'Ya Read" from the December, 1952 issue of Trains Magazine, the tunnels enabled the LIRR to discontinue nine ferries and finally connect it with the national rail network.
The PRR improved its subsidiary in other ways; nearly 30% of the LIRR's network was electrified, all-steel cars were purchased (it is historically noteworthy as being the first railroad to boast all-steel rolling stock, retiring its last wooden car in 1927), grade crossings removed, and the physical plant heavily upgraded. At is peak the Long Island Rail Road operated a network of 378 route miles. Mr. Ediger's article notes that during this period the company operated 813 daily passenger trains during the summer and 746 during the winter. For years it held a unique place within the industry as the only Class I whose passenger income far surpassed freight earnings. In 1941, for instance, its total annual revenue was $25.4 million; of this, $16.5 million was from passenger traffic while freight comprised only $8.9 million. Unfortunately, PRR control did not last. The LIRR had remained a profitable operation from the time of Pennsy's takeover until the Great Depression.
The reasons for the road's issues were many ranging from rising operating costs to the general economic downturn of the 1930s. In addition, the state itself was to blame. Mr. Morgan's article notes the New York Public Service Commission forbade the LIRR from raising commutation fares for nearly three decades (1918-1947) despite the fact that taxes, alone, had increased from $1.4 million in 1921 to $3.8 million by 1948. Finally, the road's business was further hurt by the expansion of New York's subway system and an ever-increasing number of roads and bridges. The Pennsy, which posted losses for the first time in its history during 1946, could no longer afford to underwrite its subsidiary. It announced on February 2, 1949 the Long Island Rail Road would enter bankruptcy, formally carrying out the declaration on March 2nd. This largely freed the PRR from its money pit although it still retained ownership of the property.
With the Pennsy refusing to continue financial support, the state was left to decide the LIRR's fate. In one of the few instances of public awareness recognizing a railroad's importance prior to the 1980s, New York began subsidization efforts during the 1950s. By this time the LIRR had fallen into a decrepit state with aging equipment and infrastructure. Because of this it earned considerably bad publicity when deadly accidents occurred at Rockville Centre, Huntington, and Richmond Hill killing a total of 115 people. The state provided $60 million through the 1960s for new rolling stock, electric MU cars, locomotives, and infrastructure upgrades. On January 20, 1965, New York made formal efforts to acquire the property from the PRR, creating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to do so. The new agency formally took control during August of 1966. Today, the LIRR's electrified network is entirely third-rail and the railroad continues to operate the famous Cannonball passenger train, serving the Hamptons between May and September.
By the 1990s, MTA was hoping to transfer its relatively small freight operations to a private company which would utilize trackage rights for the purpose of maintaining service. According to Joe Greenstein's article, "Long Island's Freight Revival," from the May, 1999 issue of Trains Magazine, the newly-created New York & Atlantic Railway was contracted for this purpose, officially launching on May 12, 1997. The NY&A, a division of Anacostia & Pacific, uses its own freight cars and locomotives. However, in addition to trackage rights, it is also granted permission to utilize the LIRR's shops and maintenance facilities. It currently operates 269 miles of the LIRR system from Fresh Pond and Jamaica in the west to all of the major eastern termini including Port Jefferson, Montauk, and Southhold (just west of Greenport). Finally, it snakes eastward to also serve Bay Ridge and Maspeth (Queens). Today, the NY&A handles about 28,000 carloads with 13 locomotives and 41 employees (up from just 8 locomotives and a few staff members when operations began).