Always maintaining close ties to the region it serves, the growth of the Railroad went hand-in-hand with the growth of Long Island as the thriving center of suburban life it is today.
A subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), The Long Island Rail Road Company (LIRR) is the most traveled commuter railroad in the United States and the oldest in the country to operate under its original name. The LIRR is also the only railroad in America more dependent on passengers than freight. Each workday, the LIRR carries an average of 274,000 passengers on 730 trains. The system stretches from Pennsylvania Station in the heart of Manhattan to the eastern tip of Long Island at Montauk, 120 miles away. All told, the system is composed of 700 miles of track on 11 different branches. In New York City the LIRR connects to MTA buses and subways to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Long Island residents that commute into the city for work. The LIRR has been the source of humor over the years, especially in the 1970s, due to neglect that caused excessive delays and breakdowns. The line also has been the site of tragedy, as evidenced by the 1993 shooting spree that occurred on one of its trains, leaving six people dead and 19 wounded.
One of the Early American Railroads in the 1800s
The LIRR was chartered by the State of New York on April 24, 1834, less than ten years after the first railroad in the world was started in Great Britain. France followed suit in 1828, Austria in 1829, and in the United States the first true railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, opened in 1830. The LIRR was intended to form part of a rail and ferry combination that would transport passengers from New York City to Boston. At the time, railroad engineers declared that building a railroad from New York to Boston was impossible because of the hills of southern Connecticut. Under the LIRR scheme, passengers would travel by train to Greenport on Long Island's North Shore, where they would then travel by ferry to Stonington, Connecticut, the terminus of the Old Colony Railroad, to pick up a train for the final leg to Boston by way of Providence. In fact, this rail-ferry connection was part of an all-rail route that stretched from Charleston, South Carolina, to Boston.
The first railroad chartered on Long Island was actually the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad in 1832. Within two years a ten-mile track from Brooklyn to the Long Island town of Jamaica was completed. The LIRR charter allowed the LIRR to absorb the Brooklyn and Jamaica road, which it did in 1836 by signing a 45-year lease. In 1836 the LIRR began using the line, even as it began laying new track down the center of Long Island where the terrain was more level. Because the purpose was to move people from Manhattan to the North Shore ferry, little thought was given to serving the Long Island population by building the road closer to population centers, which lay on the north and south shores and not in the center of the island. The LIRR tracks reached Hicksville in 1837, Farmingdale in 1841, Deep Park in 1842, Yaphank in 1843, and finally Greenport in 1844. It was on July 27, 1844, that the first train traveled the length of the line, from Brooklyn to Greenport, and launched the much anticipated "all rail" line to Boston. The trip took three and a half hours. More important, the trip from New York to Boston, which took 16 hours by steamer, was cut in half by using the LIRR link.
The LIRR prospered for several years carrying passengers and mail from Brooklyn to Greenport on their way to Boston. By 1850 the road operated 15 locomotives, 22 passenger coaches, 12 mail and baggage cars, and 128 freight cars. Five trains ran each day, making two stops for fuel and water. The Brooklyn to Greenport passenger fare was $1.75, $2 for the Boston Express. But the "all rail" dream of the LIRR came to an end in 1850 when a true all-rail line was built from New York to Boston through the hills of southern Connecticut, proving the engineers wrong. The Boston business evaporated overnight, and it appeared that LIRR investors had a white elephant on their hands. Ownership of the LIRR was passed onto receivers and new management tried to make the best of a poor situation.
Second Half of the 1800s: Struggling to Find Its Place
Because the island was scarcely populated, and most of the people who lived there were located far from the railroad, the LIRR had no choice but to help grow Long Island in order to build up traffic while extending lines to the north and south communities. Other railroad companies were launched to fill in the gaps on Long Island, and the LIRR either leased these lines or bought them outright. The situation also was complicated by the City of Brooklyn banning steam locomotives from operating within its limits, forcing the LIRR to build a terminal in Hunter's Point, now Long Island City. The most western part of Long Island, Brooklyn, had 90 percent of the island's population, so that being denied a terminal was a major setback for the railroad. Starting in 1860, LIRR's major trains ended their journeys at Hunter's Point, where ferries made connections to 34th Street in Manhattan. Ten years later Brooklyn would relent, but by then it was too late--the line that had run from Flatbush Avenue to the East River ferry terminal had been abandoned and the LIRR would never do significant business in Brooklyn. There would be a stop where Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues converged, but essentially LIRR was linked to Manhattan, and it was the trolley cars and the subway system that emerged in the early years of the 20th century that would build the rail lines that served Brooklyn.
In the populated areas where it did operate, the LIRR met with increasing competition from a number of new lines, including the Flushing and North Side Railroad owned by Conrad Poppenhusen. Because there was not enough business to support all of these lines, they were either abandoned or bought out by the survivors. In 1976 Poppenhusen bought out the LIRR, and he was able to consolidate all the railroad operations on Long Island for the first time since the 1850s. But fixed costs proved too high and the LIRR took on too much debt, so that in 1879 it again went into receivership, taken over by its lender, Drexel, Morgan & Co.
In December 1880, Drexel, Morgan sold the LIRR to Austin Corbin and a group of Boston and London investors, the latter of which were interested in building a number of major resort hotels on Long Island and wanted the railroad to service them. Corbin had made a success of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, and he also had the backing of the most powerful financier of the era, J.P. Morgan. Under Corbin's leadership over the next 17 years the LIRR enjoyed something of a golden era. The line had fallen into disrepair, prompting wags of the period to call the LIRR "a right of way and two streaks of rust." Not only did Corbin make sure that the roadbeds and right-of-ways were made safe and iron rails replaced with steel, he also bought more powerful locomotives and new passenger cars. He had the new Westinghouse air brakes installed and adopted an improved signaling system. In addition, he filled out the LIRR's network of track. In 1881 the company built the Patchogue to Eastport link and a year later bought the New York, Brooklyn and Manhattan Beach Railroad. Other lines built during his tenure included Locust Valley to Oyster Bay in 1889, Bridgehampton to Montauk and Port Jefferson to Wading River in 1895, and Great Neck to Port Washington in 1898. Corbin died on June 4, 1896. He had done much to improve the LIRR, but he failed to achieve his dream for the railroad, akin to the one that launched the line in the first place. Corbin wanted to build a great international port at the eastern end of Long Island and use the LIRR to transport passengers bound by ship to England. In this way, some four to 12 hours could be saved. Unfortunately, he was unable to convince the U.S. Congress to pay for the necessary harbor improvements.
In 1900 the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) acquired the LIRR to use as a major link in its extensive network of railroad lines, connecting the resorts and Long Island beaches and the residential sections of Long Island to the cities of New Jersey. Moreover the PRR wanted to connect the 1.5 million people who lived in Queens and Brooklyn to the rest of the United States. With PRR's backing, the LIRR invested liberally on improvements. In 1905 the first third-rail electric service began. In 1907 the Flatbush terminal at Atlantic Avenue opened. From 1903 to 1910 construction of the East River Tunnels were completed into Manhattan. Also in 1910 the Holban Yards were completed after five years of labor. More important, Pennsylvania Station opened in Manhattan in 1910, the crown jewel of the Pennsylvania Railroad, connected to Long Island by the East River Tunnels and to New Jersey by Hudson River tunnels, the construction of which was one of the largest railway projects in history as well as one of the world's greatest engineering accomplishments. Pennsylvania Station also would become, in essence, the home of the LIRR. Of today's 730 daily trains, 500 originate or terminate at the new Pennsylvania Station. (The original, ornate facility was torn down in the 1960s, despite civic protests, leading to the landmark preservation movement in New York City.) The other major LIRR station, the Jamaica Station, was built from 1910 to 1913.
The LIRR grew steadily during the first two decades under PRR control. In 1905 it accommodated 18 million passengers and hauled nearly 2.8 million tons of freight, while in 1923 the number of passengers increased to more than 86 million and the amount of freight approached 8 million tons. But already another mode of transportation was growing rapidly and preparing to eclipse the usage of the railroad: the automobile.
Postwar Decline in Rail Usage
Railroad usage reached it culmination during World War II. Cars and trucks had begun to cut into the business of the railroad, but with wartime rationing limiting the number of tires and amount of gas available to the public, the railroads were relied on more than ever to move war materials and commercial freight, as well as soldiers and everyday passengers. With the end of the war and a booming economy that emerged in the late 1940s, however, Americans moved to the suburbs and bought cars at an accelerated pace. The result was a severe drop in rail usage across the country. With the rise of a national highway system in the 1950s, a Cold War defense initiative, freight also would be transported increasingly by truck. The LIRR countered with improvements like air-conditioned cars, which first went into service in 1955. It also upgraded its locomotives, as the last of the steam engines also were retired in 1955.
The LIRR remained a vital part of the transportation system of Long Island, prompting the state of New York to acquire the line from PRR in 1966. Two years later the MTA, which had been established in 1965 as the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, turned over the running of the LIRR. Over the next 20 years the system would go electric, but this and other improvements were costly and took time to implement. In the meanwhile, the LIRR deteriorated on a number of fronts. Passengers were forced to endure constant delays, resulting in frayed tempers and contention interactions with train personnel. The LIRR's reputation was such that it became the butt of jokes from Johnny Carson ("Tonight Show") and countless comedians.
In the early 1980s the MTA began investing in capital improvements in the LIRR to bring the line into good repair. But the LIRR remained a troubled line, one that faced "a peculiar set of circumstances," in the words of Long Island Business News in a 1990 profile: "It has a monopoly on a vital business in a lucrative landlocked area, but its control by a net of bureaucratic rules and regulations severely limits its ability to perform as a profitable business. ... The railroad is buckling under recessional economic times that are causing ridership to decline and its costs to surge." Moreover, the LIRR's freight system declined steadily, losing 58 percent of its business from 1975 to 1990. It also lost much of its federal funding during this period, and almost all of its top executives were ultimately purged, leaving the line in a perilous state. In 1990 railroad industry veteran Charles Hoppe, who brought with him global experience, was hired as the president of the LIRR.
Hoppe was credited with removing the homeless from Pennsylvania Station in a sensitive manner. He also oversaw the upgrading of 15 important stations, making them fully accessible to the disabled. Hoppe made great strides in revitalizing the freight business, which lost money in 1991 but turned a profit in 1992. On-time performance improved and funding was arranged to replace an aging fleet of diesel locomotives with new diesels and add 114 bi-level coaches. Moreover, he oversaw the $190 million on-budget and on-time renovation of the LIRR terminal at Pennsylvania Station. But also during his watch, the LIRR suffered the greatest tragedy in its history. On December 7, 1993, a man named Colin Ferguson calmly walked through an evening rush hour train, firing a gun at passengers, only stopping when he had depleted his cache of 30 bullets and was subdued by three passengers. He left six people dead and another 19 wounded. His trial would become an international sensation, due in large part to his decision to defend himself. After three weeks of testimony and often bizarre cross-examination, followed by ten hours of deliberations, the jury in February 1995 found him guilty on six counts of second-degree murder and 19 counts of attempted murder.
In light of the Colin Ferguson murder case, the events that led to Hoppe's resignation from his post at the LIRR were trivial. In February 1994 New York City and Long Island was hit with a major blizzard that left thousands of LIRR riders stranded as the line was unable to cope with the conditions and ceased to function. Unfortunately for Hoppe, he was out of town attending a labor relations meeting in Washington, D.C., and was unable to return to New York to personally deal with the problem because of an ice storm. He chose instead to handle the situation by telephone from his Virginia home. In the media feeding frenzy that ensued, he became the ready target for public rage, blamed personally for the paralysis that struck the system. Ironically, before he resigned in July 1994, Hoppe developed new snow emergency plans to prevent a recurrence of what had happened that winter.
After Hoppe's departure, the LIRR continued to upgrade its system. The last of the 1950s-era diesel locomotives was retired in 1999, and in 2002 the first M-7 electric cars came into service. The line's on-time performance also improved significantly. Going forward, the LIRR planned to fill out its locomotive fleet with the M-7 cars. A new Jamaica hub was to be added, as was a new Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. In addition, a long cherished plan to gain access to Manhattan's east side was in the works. LIRR trains would now be able to use Grand Central Station, thus relieving congestion at Pennsylvania Station, which was designed to accommodate 200,000 passengers but now serviced 500,000 each day. Steps were taken to build a new Pennsylvania Station across the street. In any event, the use of Manhattan's two major train stations would mark a new and promising era in the history of the LIRR.