In the heyday of the railroads, rail lines crisscrossed the country and ran right through major cities. Some lines are commuter railroads today, others were turned into transit lines or highways, but many were abandoned. A few still exist, relatively unknown to most people, because they were either abandoned but never completely turned over to other uses, or because they carry some of the rail freight that still accounts for a small but meaningful share of cargo traffic.

In New York City, the Long Island Rail Road’s Bay Ridge Branch runs from the more heavily used lines in East New York, across Canarsie, Borough Park, and other parts of Brooklyn to Bay Ridge. It’s still kept active by the rail freight that floats across the harbor from New Jersey; the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel proposal championed by Congressman Nadler would connect to this branch.

Transit fans love to think about what they’d do to run passenger transit service over less used lines like this - at the popular SubChat discussion forum, posters often suggest running service over this line (example) or the abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach branch (example).

The Regional Plan Association has suggested it wouldn’t be that crazy to run a transit service from the Bronx through Queens and down to Brooklyn, using primarily existing rail lines - the Amtrak connection over the Hell Gate Bridge from the Bronx to Queens, and the Bay Ridge Branch through Brooklyn.  And via Streetsblog, Michael Frumin created a model of this potential service, the “Triboro RX”, connecting three boroughs and providing service to several neighborhoods that have none today.



His amazing interactive map includes the location of the proposed line and connections to subways, information by census tract about how many people might use the line, and pictures taken of the existing infrastructure at many spots along the route.

This proposal would have various costs and obstacles, including how to share tracks with the Amtrak or freight rail that currently uses many pieces of this infrastructure, but it’s worth a look. And practical or not, it’s a very impressive use of open technology like GeoServer which make it easier (not easy enough yet, but at least possible) for citizens and organizations to make their own maps of how they would improve the city.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.