New York's Interurbans: what if?

New York's Interurbans: what if?

Note: the following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual or existing transit agencies, railroads or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidential.

New York City never had a major network of interurban railways during the 20th century unlike Chicago, St. Louis and other parts of the Midwest and California, but the roots were in place. Here's a plausible scenario of what would have been with two interurban railways.

New York and Long Island Railroad (NYLI)

In 1888 a tunnel was conceived by the New York and Long Island Railroad (former East River Tunnel Railroad) between Long Island City, Queens and Grand Central Terminal. Under the working title of the "Steinway Tunnel", trolley cars were to link Queens and Manhattan under a project financed by piano builder William Steinway. After a 1892 groundbreaking, delays canceled the project.

In 1903 the IRT Company under August Belmont resumed the project and by 1907 the NY&LI ran test runs of trolley cars. The tunnel was incomplete and sealed up until 1912-13. The IRT then agreed to run heavy rail service via the tunnel and the future of the NYLI was in doubt. The Queensboro Bridge had opened in 1909 and an electric line known as the Queensboro Bridge Railway began service between midtown Manhattan and Queens.

The NYLI would remain as an interurban, operating trains from outlying points in Queens and Nassau County and via the IRT Queensboro tunnel sharing the trackage with heavy rail service. West of Grand Central, the NYLI would split off and curve south to Bryant Park Terminal, near Madison Avenue and 39 Street. The IRT would have 50% controlling interest in the NYLI.

June 13, 1915 marked the start of IRT Queensboro service, with a Steinway test train between Long Island City and Manhattan, followed by regularly scheduled service on June 22. On the same day the IRT heavy rail service began, the NYLI began operations.

The NYLI ran via the Steinway Tunnel and curved off near Sunnyside Yard. Along the northern outskirts of the yard, the line ran alongside industrial plants before following Northern Boulevard for the rest of the right of away to Bayside. A northern branch split to Fort Totten, the central fork to Little Neck and a southern line to Queens Village and points east, eventually reaching Hicksville.

NYLI's fleet were modified variants of the IRT Steinway cars used in the same tunnels, with both standard passenger cars and combines.

The NYLI remained in good financial health through World War II. Upon the 1940 government takeover of the IRT, the NYLI became part of the New York Interurban Association, a parent corporation which also included the Monmouth Electric Railroad. During the war NYLI made good business on freight and military shipments. (Freight was interchanged with the PRR/LIRR at Sunnyside and the NYC at Bryant Park Terminal via elevators and passageways connecting to Grand Central.)

Postwar society proved problematic for all interurbans in the nation, and the NYLI was no exception. The popularity of the automobile, Robert Moses' parkway system and declining freight traffic was all new and growing enemies. The ICC began to oppose the sharing of trackage in the Steinway Tunnel with IRT (7) Flushing trains.

Aging Steinway cars didn't help either and in 1957 NYLI filed bankruptcy. All service ended by December 31, 1959 and most of the ROW was paved over. Bryant Park Terminal was rebuilt and became offices.

Monmouth Electric Railway

In Central Jersey at the turn of this past century, a group of railroad businessmen began plans for a high-speed interurban line linking New York and Shore Points along today's US Route 9 corridor.

In 1909 the Monmouth Electric Railway (aka Monmouth Traction System) was founded. The first line began service between Freehold and Lakewood by 1910.

The company began elaborate plans for expansion starting in 1912, with a through line to New York City and a "shore branch" to Toms River. New rolling stock was needed though. Following suit of the New York & Long Island across the Hudson, Monmouth Electric ordered 130 Steinway cars (100 coaches, 30 combines).

Service had reached a new terminal in Jersey City called Monmouth Terminal by 1921. This building also housed offices and was located in the Grove Street area. New York commuters could transfer to the H&M for service to New York.

Monmouth Electric finally completed its system by 1928 with the opening of the Toms River branch. Ridership had been highest in the railroad's history in the early 1930s. The New Jersey Traction Co. was formed as a holding company to the Monmouth Electric Railway by then.

When the Lincoln Tunnel was under construction in the mid 1930s, Monmouth Electric/New Jersey Traction petitioned that Port of New York Authority that one lane of the new tunnel also be used for rail traffic to allow direct access into Manhattan, to link up with the NYLI's Bryant Park Terminal. The Port Authority did not like the idea of "street-running" within the tunnel and the plan did not sit well with the ICC board.

The Monmouth Electric Railway became part of the New York Interurban Assocation in the mid-1940s.

Postwar declines hit Monmouth Electric hard and lack of State funding and freight revenue kept Monmouth Electric in the red. The last train ran in 1969. Most of the ROW was torn away and the remaining sections became part of Conrail in 1978.

What if... the NJ DOT stepped in?

The New Jersey Department of Transportation was founded in 1966, as the first State agency in the nation on transportation issues. One of its programs was to sponsor and overhaul passenger rail in the State, with the purchase of new rolling stock. At this time the Monmouth Electric's original Steinways dated back to 1915 and were over 50 years old.

Monmouth Electric worked with the new agency and secured funding for 110 new R36-based cars from St. Louis (which was also was working at the same time with the NJ DOT on the Penn Central Arrow I cars) and the contract for the 98 coaches and 12 combines was executed in late 1966. The new cars were directly derived from the R36 chassis and were painted in Monmouth Electic's livery of shore blue (turquoise) with a green stripe at the end of the cars with low-level trap doors for street-level boarding. Known as "R36IC" or "R36M" (R36 Interurban Commuter or R36 Modified) they carried the NJ DOT logo and great seal of the State of New Jersey under the side cab windows and had large picture windows, luggage racks and air conditioning. A combine variant ("R36C") was built as well. Delivery of all cars began in 1967 and was completed by 1969.

An ad campaign to attract riders back to the "revamped" lines began in the early 70s with television and radio spots, print and billboard posters. Riders came back and by 1978 service was back to postwar levels.

The following year a new State agency, NJ Transit was created by the Public Transportation Act of 1979. NJT assumed NJ DOT's role in sponsoring rail service. Monmouth Electric continued to partner with NJ Transit, however the January 1, 1983 takeover of passenger railroad operations by NJT only applied to the Conrail lines and not Monmouth Electric.

NJT continues to fund and support Monmouth Electric railroad service, in a manner similar to its sponsorship of private bus carriers in the State. In 1988 the R36 cars were rebuilt by GE. Under the agreement Monmouth Electric's cars are owned by the State of New Jersey and leased to the railroad. NJT provides funding grants.

NJT and Monmouth Electric Railway Co. are working on plans for direct New York service, perhaps via THE TUNNEL (ARC). Meanwhile investigative studies are underway for the phase-out and replacement of the R36 cars.

Monmouth Electric roster

For Monmouth Electric models and GIFs, click here.

Numbers ModelYearBuilderQuantityNotes
4100-4179 Steinway 1915-16 ACF 80
4180-4189 Steinway combine 1915 ACF 101
4190-4209 Steinway 1917 Pullman 20
4209-4220 Steinway combine 1918 Pullman 12
4221-4229 Steinway combine 1918 ACF 8
4230-4244 Steinway 1928 Pullman15 2
4245-4249 Steinway combine 1928 Pullman 5 1,2
4400-4487 R36M 1967-69 St. Louis883,4,5
4488-4499 R36C 1968-69 123,4,5
4500-4509 R36M 1969 103,4,5

1: 4186, 4188, 4189, 4248, 4249 equipped with provision for RPO service
2: Ordered for Toms River extension in 1928
3: Owned by State of New Jersey, purchased by NJ DOT in 1966
4: Air conditioned
5: Rebuilt by GE 1988, modified with new doors, interiors, ADA access, HVAC upgrades, partial replacement of SMEE braking units and upgrade of propulsion to DC microprocessor controller
All cars are 51'.