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Jamaica Station and its associated junctions are the nerve center of the railroad; indeed, the company maintains its corporate headquarters in a multistory building at trackside. All major passenger traffic on the railroad has always had to pass through Jamaica, and many of its passengers have had to change trains there as well.
The only lines that escaped the Jamaica bottleneck are the Port Washington line on the north shore of Long Island; the direct line to Rockaway (abandoned in the 1950s); and the Bay Ridge freight line to the waterfront in Brooklyn.
Jamaica has undergone several major changes. The wooden station dating from the 1860s (at least) survived several overhaulings of the station layout in the 1860s and 1870s, and new platforms and approaches to the station were graded and laid out in 1880.
As late as 1902 it appears that there were only four station tracks, with simple girder bridges carrying streets over the line. Published photographs from 1904 reveal a six-track station, at grade, with both street grade crossings and longer, overhead highway truss bridges in the area.
The three tracks in each direction shared two low-level platforms, so that the center track in each direction had platforms on each side. There were layup tracks for equipment on the south side of the platforms. After 1905 the station was electrified; third rails are in evidence in 1908 photographs. The station building itself apparently survived into the first decade of the new century. But big changes were to come.
The Long Island, with its heavy traffic, has always had problems with pedestrian and vehicular traffic at grade crossings, made worse by increasing urbanization (and the coming of the automobile). Most grade crossings have today been eliminated in the high-density electrified lines of the system; but the most ambitious grade separation project of the Long Island was that at Jamaica itself, carried out in 1912-13.
A massive fill was constructed, using soil brought in from Cold Spring on the Port Jefferson Branch. The entire grade was raised above street level, a new eight-track station with high- level platforms installed, and burrowing junctions constructed to separate various rail routes and speed traffic flow. The basic layout is unlikely to have changed since 1913; as of 1950 at least, the general layout is as follows.
To the west, trains to and from Brooklyn on the Atlantic Branch operate via an underpass which takes them under the eastward Main Line tracks from Penn Station, New York. The Montauk Branch to Long Island City joins these eastward Main Line tracks just west of the Atlantic Branch duckunder. A maze of turnouts and slip switches, controlled by Jay Tower just to the west of the station, feeds trains into the eight platform tracks and several bypass tracks without platforms, both north and south of the station.
To the east, grade separated junctions allow traffic to flow to and from the Atlantic and Montauk Branches without interfering with trains on the Main Line. The Atlantic Branch diverges immediately east of the Jamaica station platforms; its two tracks, in the center of the multitrack line but separated by several stub-ended layup tracks, burrow down and beneath the eastward Main Line and Montauk Branch tracks and curve to the right on a sweeping curve of close to ninety degrees.
Not counting storage tracks, this leaves six tracks plus a yard lead (on the south, to Holban Yard a mile east). The inner two of the six constitute the Montauk Branch, which diverges about one mile east, at the site of Hillside station on the Main Line; this is a flying junction in which the Montauk tracks rise high over the already elevated Main Line tracks, making their own high, sweeping arc to the right. Traffic in this area is controlled by Hall tower, no doubt named for the (now abandoned) Union Hall Street passenger station 0.5 miles east of Jamaica; this station provided platforms on the outside Main Line tracks, with the Holban yard lead running outside the eastward platform.
The platform layout at Jamaica is designed to provide for the unique scheduling and passenger flow that the Long Island's service requires. There are eight platform tracks; in addition, there are tracks on each side of the station so that trains not making a station stop can bypass the platforms completely; such express trains are scheduled only in the morning and evening rush hours.
Although four island platforms are all that would be required for eight tracks, in fact there are five, in a unique configuration. Tracks 1, 2, and 3 handle westbound trains, and are reached from Platforms A and B; Track 2 is served by both Platforms A and B.
On the north, or eastbound side of the station, the configuration is a mirror image: Tracks 6, 7, and 8 share Platforms D and E, with Track 7 served by both platforms. In the center lie Tracks 4 and 5, served by center island platform C. Tracks 4 and 5 are typically not used except in rush hours, when the dense flow of trains overflows from the regular platforms. The center tracks can also be used by the rush hour trains that do not stop at Jamaica.
Access from the platforms to the street is provided by a pedestrian "subway" at the east end; on the north side of the station, stairs lead down to the waiting room and ticket office on the ground floor of the LIRR's headquarters. In the subway, a snack counter allows riders to grab a quick hot dog between trains. Stairs from each platform also lead directly down to the Sutphin Boulevard underpass adjacent. On the west end, a pedestrian bridge connects all platforms, but has no connection outside the station.
Some riders at Jamaica are bound for jobs in the vicinity, or to connect with the BMT elevated transit line a block away on Jamaica Avenue (since demolished and replaced by a subway on Archer Avenue adjacent to the LIRR). But in the main, Jamaica is a transfer point, a place where people obey the line's mantra, "Change at Jamaica!" and leave the way the arrived: on a Long Island train. The station was designed foremost with this in mind.
Outside of rush hours, a typical eastbound operation might be as follows:
A steam- or diesel-powered train is brought in from the yards, empty, and stops on Track 8. Its destination is Port Jefferson on the North Shore of Long Island. A few minutes later, an electric multiple- unit train from New York bound for Babylon on the Montauk branch grinds to a halt on Track 7. Simultaneously, if the gods are smiling, a second MU from Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn and bound for Long Beach glides to a stop on Track 6.
Passengers erupt from each of the MUs, some bewildered, some with their jaws clenched in grim purpose, all looking for their connecting train and, they hope, a seat. Passengers from the Babylon train on Track 7 who are bound for Port Jefferson exit on their right, cross Platform E, and, their anxiety abating, find their train, with plenty of seats, on Track 8; their fellow travelers bound for Long Beach exit on the left, cross Platform D, and find the Long Beach train waiting on Track 6.
Meanwhile, half of the passengers from Brooklyn on Track 6 swarm out of their train; they have only one way to go, toward Track 7. They collide with the swarm heading for their train from Track 7. Dodging umbrellas and briefcases, they gain the safety of the Babylon train. But some are headed not for Babylon but for Port Jefferson. They fight their way through the Babylon train, for them serving as a "bridge," exit onto Platform E and finally find their train on Track 8.
Just getting through the train unscathed is an accomplishment; to be trapped as the doors close means a lengthy detour enroute home! And unfortunately for them, the passengers from New York who arrived on Track 7 have already claimed the choice seats on the Port Jefferson train. All this takes place in about two minutes, and simultaneously all three trains depart: the Port Jefferson's locomotive blasting straight ahead out the Main Line, the Babylon train next to it; they will run together for a mile until the Montauk Branch flyover, where the MU will rise majestically above the diesel train, cross overhead, and bend to the south.
The Long Beach train enters the duckunder for the Atlantic Branch, disappears below and crosses under both of the other two trains, emerging into daylight and heading south. With luck, the Babylon and Long Beach trains will see each other again, running parallel as they approach Valley Stream ten minutes later.
Things get more complex in rush hours. There are more trains, more connections, and, to complicate the passenger flow, most of the rush hour steam trains originate in Long Island City and carry passengers to Jamaica either from Long Island City or from Hunters Point Avenue stations. Let's look at a typical fifteen minutes in the evening rush, starting at 5:15 p.m., in 1970, when diesels had replaced steam:
The grand total: 13 trains scheduled through the station in 15 minutes! Quite a show. On the westbound side, things are much quieter: a pair of MUs has come in from Babylon and Long Beach, traded passengers, and headed for New York and Brooklyn; and an MU from the eastbound rush has turned at Freeport on the Montauk Branch and is heading back to New York to have another go before the rush hour ends.
Jamaica Station on the Long Island Rail Road has always been the center of the line's operations. A visit to watch the human tides, particularly in rush hour, is well worth the trip. The best advice: find a vantage point, and stay out of the way: the LIRR's customers have only seconds to spare, and they know it!
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North East Rails © Clint Chamberlin.