Cross-Harbor Car Float Operation Gets A Boost

Friday, June 4, 2010 - 11:25am
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With Purchase of a Waterfront Train Yard, Port Authority Signals Expansion of Old-Fashioned Mode of Transportation

In the early 20th century, hundreds of barges carrying railroad cars crisscrossed New York Harbor every day. A train destined for New York City and points east would arrive at the end of the line at the New Jersey waterfront, for example, roll onto a barge laid with train tracks, be towed across the harbor by tug, and then roll back onto railroad tracks heading into the City and to Long Island or New England. It was an efficient, 45-minute trip by water.

Rail Dock

Then came the rise of highways and trucking, and railroads declined. Abandoned NYC car float docks can still be seen at Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens and at the NY Central Railroad 69th Street Transfer Bridge on the Hudson River (above).

One cross-harbor car float operation remains in existence today: New York New Jersey Rail LLC. Known for many years as the Cross Harbor Railroad, NYNJ Rail was purchased in 2008 by the Port Authority. On May 18 of this year, the PA authorized the purchase of NYNJ Rail's Jersey City terminus, Greenville Yards.

Cross Harbor Railroad in 2003. Photo: Robert Simko/The Broadsheet

Rail Barge

The PA plans to redevelop Greenville Yards and open a new barge-to-rail facility in 2013 that will move waste and other commodities by barge from New York to New Jersey, and then out of New Jersey by rail. The operation is expected to remove up to 360,000 trucks annually from trans-Hudson crossings and NJ highways.

Moving goods to and through the metropolitan region via train and barge is far more efficient than trucking, saving fuel and lessening air pollution and congestion. One train car equals four truckloads.

Unfortunately, very little of the area's freight actually does move by rail because freight trains are not allowed in tunnels connecting to Manhattan, and the next closest freight train crossing is 140 miles away from the city at a bridge over the Hudson at Selkirk, a detour known as the "Selkirk hurdle." As Congressman Jerrold Nadler points out in a paper on the Drum Major Institute web site, "New York is the only major port city in the United States that never built a rail freight tunnel or bridge over or under its river or harbor. Consequently, we are today the only major American city that is totally dependent on trucks for our freight movement."

Photo: Jim Henderson

Raile Yard

Chugging along resolutely as the last of its species, like the Little Engine That Could, NYNJ Rail makes three or four round trips across the Harbor each week from Greenville Yards in Jersey City to Bush Terminal Yard in Brooklyn (above), carrying seven to 12 railroad cars per trip, filled with anything from lumber to produce.

Photo: Robert Simko/The Broadsheet

Raile Barge2

Within a few years, the operation will be greatly expanded. "Currently, only about 1,500 containers a year are shipped through NYNJ Rail," said Port Authority spokesperson Steve Coleman. "We're now talking hundreds of thousands of containers when the facility is in full operation in 2013."

Still, the Greenville Yards purchase and redevelopment is considered "a short term solution to the freight movement problem," Mr. Coleman said. Many experts believe the longterm solution to be the Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel, a project championed by Rep. Nadler for almost 20 years, but still in the research stages. Click here to learn more about the Port Authority's Cross-Harbor Freight Program study.

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