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Long Island Railroad

Presented by Contributing Author

John Bobsin

The system map of the Long Island Rail Road has been likened to a tree: several roots, a trunk, and many branches. In fact, the "trunk" is less than one mile long between where the "roots" come together and where the " branches" diverge. This critical point is the station of Jamaica, today in a section of the borough of Queens, New York City, about ten miles east of Manhattan.

The Long Island's main business is passenger traffic: carrying commuters and other riders, mainly from their homes on Long Island to destinations in the employment centers of Manhattan and elsewhere in New York City.

As its name implies, Long Island is elongated: perhaps only twenty miles wide, and over one hundred miles long. Although one might suppose that a single line running down the center might suffice, there are actually no less than nine "branches" of the "tree" serving communities on the island.

These lines, laid down by various companies in the nineteenth century when the area was rural but the railroads had no competition, survive nevertheless today owing to the population density that has evolved. Eight of the nine branches funnel into the Jamaica hub. To the west of Jamaica, there are three lines heading toward Manhattan, the "roots" of the "tree." These too have historic reasons to exist, and all three today serve useful purposes in carrying riders to their various ultimate destinations.

Of the lines running towards the center of New York City west of Jamaica, the oldest is southernmost of the three, and runs along Atlantic Avenue 9.3 miles to a terminal at Flatbush Avenue. This was the original main line of the Long Island, and is one of the oldest railways in the United States, having been constructed in 1836. The line originally ran in the center of Atlantic Avenue at grade, but has since been rebuilt and is either in a tunnel or, for several miles, on an elevated structure. The line is today a double-track operation using the over-running third DC electric traction system that the LIRR began to place in service in 1905.

The original operation was so disruptive to life in Brooklyn, however, that the City of Brooklyn in 1859 banned steam locomotives from operation. To maintain fast service to the west, the road by 1861 had built a new line to Hunter's Point on the East River (ferries to Manhattan; also 9.3 miles from Jamaica). The Brooklyn line later regained permission to use steam power, but never regained its primacy, and is operated today as the Atlantic Branch.

This new Main Line is today the northernmost of the three lines running west of Jamaica, and the Long Island's principal trunk to the west. Today's Main Line west has four electrified tracks; Since September, 1910, its destination has been New York's Pennsylvania Station, 11.3 miles from Jamaica.

Between the Atlantic Branch and the Main Line lies a third "root," today designated as the western end of the Montauk Branch; this relatively minor two-track line is only used for passenger traffic in peak hours, is not electrified, and terminates in Long Island City on the East River, a distance of 9.0 miles from Jamaica. Originally this line was built in 1868 by LIRR competitor South Side Railroad of Long Island to a terminus in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was later extended (1870) to Long Island City.

To the east of Jamaica the LIRR immediately splits into three electrified lines; farther east on Long Island there are additional branches. The Main Line has four tracks as far as Floral Park, 5.6 miles from Jamaica, where the two-track Hempstead Branch diverges, the two- track Main Line continuing eastward to more branching junctions, becoming single track at Pinelawn (22.2 miles) and ending in far-out Green port (85.0 miles from Jamaica).

This was the Long Island's original main line; indeed, its reason for existence was a wistful scheme to capture the New York to Boston intercity business via steamer connections at Greenport, a scheme that became hopeless once the New Haven Railroad was completed along the north shore of Long Island Sound.

Within a few hundred feet of the east end of the Jamaica station platforms the Atlantic Branch diverges sharply to the south. This was the original main line of the South Side Railroad, built in 1867-68, and today is designated the eastern end of the Atlantic Branch.

The other branch diverging at Jamaica is the Montauk Branch; the track junction is at Jamaica but the line continues on a common right-of-way with the Main Line about one mile to Hillside, where it diverges to the south, eventually rejoining the Atlantic Branch at Laurelton, about four miles, the two lines running parallel to a junction at Valley Stream, 6.4 miles from Jamaica (via Atlantic Branch).

This portion of the Montauk Branch was originally built by the LIRR in 1870 as a line to compete with the South Side company's service to the Rockaway beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, but the redundant operations were consolidated after the companies were merged in 1876. Both companies lines survive as with heavy traffic; the Montauk Branch continues electrified to Babylon, 27.6 miles from Jamaica (the electrification continues through yards a few miles further); the line becomes single-track after Sayville, 41.6 miles from Jamaica, and finally ends at far-off Montauk, at 106.8 miles from Jamaica the road's longest line.


Change at Jamaica! - - Commuter Service - - Long Haul Service - - The Fall River Line

New York City - - New York City Regional Mega Map - - Steam Motive Power


Jamaica, LI - - Rockaway Park, LI - - Forest Hill, LI

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North East Rails  Clint Chamberlin.
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