A roundabout railroad ramble
My work assignment for today was in Arverne, on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. It was the sort of location that could be reached either by driving or by the train. Normally I would have driven, but I was a bit gun-shy about doing so because Arverne isn’t far from Inwood, and I have very un-fond memories of driving to and from Inwood a couple of weeks ago. There’s another factor, however, one related to the recent storm. Subway service in the Rockaways is normally provided by the A train, whose terminal in Far Rockaway is a few blocks from the LIRR’s Far Rockaway terminal. It all used to be one line, run by the LIRR, but in the 1950’s the LIRR stopped its service beyond the current Far Rockaway terminal and the subway took over the remaining trackage.
In any event, the A train’s long trestle over Jamaica Bay was heavily damaged in the storm, cutting off the line on the Rockaway peninsula from the rest of the system. It may be several months before the trestle will be back in service. As a stopgap measure, the transit authority loaded several subway cars onto flatbed trucks and brought them to the Rockaways, and they run as a free shuttle known as the H train between Far Rockaway and Beach 116th Street. At Far Rockaway, there are free shuttle buses to the nearest operable A train station, at Howard Beach right by the airport.
What I figured is that if I took the LIRR to Far Rockaway, and then took the H train to Beach 67th Street, I’d be able to ride the only subway line I haven’t already ridden (well duh, considering it didn’t exist until a couple weeks ago) and have to unusual experience of riding the subway for free. Combined with my dislike of driving in the area, this lead to my decision to take the train, even though taking the LIRR to Far Rockaway would be a rather roundabout journey with backtracking through Jamaica. I got the 5:29 (ugh!) from Ronkonkoma, parking much closer to the platforms than would have been the case with a train at a more civilized hour. It was much more crowded than I would have expected for such a early train, with my mid-consist car being more than half full by the time we left Rononkoma and SRO by Wyandanch, the last stop before Jamaica. A somewhat chubby non-SCA man sat next to me at Deer Park, it was tolerable but would have been much worse had he been 20 pounds heavier.
It was barely dawn when I got to Jamaica around 6:20. My train to Far Rockaway wasn’t leaving until 6:58, which left me with more time on my hands than I would have preferred to have, Jamaica Station not being the most interesting of places. It also was very cold on the platforms, fortunately there was a donut shop with seating in the heated Air Train waiting area. When the Far Rockaway train finally arrived, it was quite the change from the jammed Ronkonkoma train. I sat in the head car, that being the most convenient when I got to Far Rockaway, and there couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 passengers by the time we left. The train took the Locust Manor routing to Valley Stream, as opposed to the nearby St. Albans route that Babylon trains usually take, and even though it made all the stops to Far Rockaway the ride took only about 40 minutes. One thing I didn’t realize, not having ridden that line in many years, is just how close some of the station are to each other. Inwood and Far Rockaway in particular are right on top of one another.
Once at Far Rockaway, I made the undeniably grim walk to the A – okay, H – train station a few blocks away. Far Rockaway, at least this part of it, is NOT the high rent district. It was an odd but pleasant sensation to be able to walk right through the open service gate without paying. I had to wait about ten minutes for the next train, as far as I know there are only two trainsets operating on the line. The cars are
R38’s R32’s, the oldest cars currently in use on the subway. Although they’re almost 50 years old they are famous for their reliability and durability. The ride to my stop at Beach 67th took only about five minutes, and when I got there I was most impressed at the changes in Arverne. The last time I saw the area, at least ten years ago, it was basically a wasteland of empty lots, today it has been fully redeveloped and looks quite nice.
I had been hoping to finish up work in time to get the 3:36 from Far Rockaway to Jamaica, and when I left the worksite around 3:15 it looked as if my hopes would come true. Well, not quite; when I ascended the stairs to the elevated subway platform I was treated to the unwelcome sight of a train pulling out of the station. It was literally a matter of being ten seconds too late. Given the long headways on the H there was no chance of making the 3:36. I resigned myself to taking the 4:38 instead, which meant that with the backtracking through Jamaica I wouldn’t be getting to Ronkonkoma until 6:20. That’s a long day.
What did not occur to me until way too late is that I could have taken advantage of the delay to ride the H to the other end of the line and back. Had I done so, I would have been able to ride on the “Hammels Wye,” a short stretch of track that’s very rarely used for passenger service. All is not necessarily lost, as I may be back in Arverne in a couple of weeks, and even if I drive I’ll have time to ride on the Wye during my lunch break. At any rate, I hung around a McDonald’s in Far Rockaway for a half-hour, which probably is the finest dining establishment in that bedraggled ‘hood, and then poked around the utterly deserted LIRR station until the doors to a train finally opened and I boarded it.
The train to Jamaica was somewhat more crowded than the morning’s counterpart, with quite a few people boarding at Lawrence and Cedarhurst. My wait at Jamaica was shorter than in the morning, though when the 5:23 to Ronkonoma arrived I was more than a little dismayed to see that it was a cattle train. Not only were all the seats taken, but the standees filled the vestibules and spilled over into the aisles. It also made every stop from New Hyde Park to Ronkonkoma. I figured that seats would become available at some point, and I finally snagged one at Westbury or Hicksville, I forget which. We actually got into Ronkonkoma about ten minutes late, though it had been such a long day it didn’t really matter. Even so, I don’t regret my decision to take the train, not having to worry about traffic follies.