The call for improving LIRR service to Eastern Long Island communities seems to be along the lines of “let’s return to the past for our future success.” The LIRR was originally created a century-and-a-half ago to run from Brooklyn out to Greenport village, an important seaport, as a shortcut route to Boston. (Brooklyn was the western terminus before tunnels under the East River from Penn Station in the early 20th Century.)
The Main Line of the LIRR ran through all of central L.I., out past Yaphank and on to Riverhead (the county seat) and to Greenport. There were large passenger vessels operated by LIRR out of Greenport on to New England ports – long before today’s Orient Point ride to New London, Conn.
Later, the “Montauk” line, was established, from Brooklyn and Queens and Jamaica Station hub along the bustling Nassau and Suffolk south shore communities (to Babylon on and Patchogue on through the Hamptons to Montauk).
Eastern Suffolk County and the twin fork economies boomed as a result of LIRR service. What were isolated shoreline communities were tied by steel rails to the rest of Long Island and mainland U.S.
Farmers, shipping 120,000 freight cars of produce to market via LIRR at peak years, the 1920s before the Great Depression, and early manufacturers shipping goods west and on to U.S. markets were the early economic engines.
Today’s Brookhaven National Laboratory? That was originally the site of “Camp Long Island” – then the Camp Upton WWI and WWII complex, there to train the US Army because of LIRR access via the Main Line to the rest of the U.S. After WW II, the site became BNL, one of the important centers for America’s scientific research.
The Hamptons: playground of the rich and beautiful? These communities date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, enabled by the LIRR service east and west– long before the Jitney came along.
The eastern parts of L.I. were important elements of the early economic base before the WW II defense manufacturing build up to the west.
Unfortunately, the various leaderships of LIRR and MTA have not always appreciated and been consistent in maintaining LIRR service east of the key depot centers (Patchogue, Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson) in recent years. The North and South Fork communities have seen a steady deterioration of rail service as highway travel mounted. There are only scheduled two trains daily through to Greenport (and with just two cars). The economic argument: demand isn’t there. But maybe it would be with more efficient service?)
Once there was a robust train/bus combination route to the east end – since abandoned. The scoot – a two car Budd train, running frequently Babylon to Patchogue – gone. Trains out to Wading River – gone. A line planned from Wading River to Riverhead and on to Greenport. Never built (today’s it’s the electric line right of way). A line running from the Main Line over to the busy Montauk line to relieve traffic on the Montauk – abandoned. Now in its place a right-of-way for thousands of cars – some of that could be rail traffic.
Eastern Brookhaven and the Forks are changing communities. With digital connections, there are more work-from-home employees and second homes turned to primary residence. There are significant economic gain possibilities that could be realized with more rail service.
Public transportation leaders have to look to the future in planning investment — and there are opportunities to “return to the successes of the past” for LIRR and related services (such as buses to rail stations) in eastern Suffolk. We should not underestimate the value of the East End communities to the overall growth of the Long Island economy and to the future prosperity of Suffolk County. What was once successful can be again with sensible investment – more frequent service beyond the three terminal points, as well as and assuring robust service all along the existing trackage.
Hank Boerner started career at the predecessor to LIBN, the LI Commercial Review. He was Director of PR and Community Affairs at LIRR and now chair of the Governance & Accountability Institute in Rockville Centre.