THE NEW ELS: a Queens glimpse

The first elevated train meant to be used as local transit was built by Charles Harvey on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan from 1868-1870 as The West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, later the 9th Avenue Elevated. After a clumsy arrangement in which trains took power from steam engines located in the basements of builsings along the route proved inefficient and prone to breakdowns, steam engines were introduced along the route and replaced decades later by the third rail providing 600v of power.

Els were soon built up 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 9th Avenues, eventually reaching uptown and into the Bronx, expanding across the Brooklyn Bridge and thence across the borough, and by the 19-teens, into the last frontier… Queens. (Staten Island has never had an el or a subway, but the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad elevated some portions of Staten Island Rapid Transit, which it owned, in the mid-1930s.). The golden age of el building was from the mid-1880s to 1920, when most of the remaining els were constructed.

Rapid transit in New York reached its greatest extent in the late 1930s, when the complete routes of most of the els introduced in the 1880s and 1890s still existed; and much of the new IND Subway had been opened for service, joining already-built IRT and BMT lines. Trolleys plied the streets in all five boroughs. But rapid transit would rest uneasy on the throne. Els were regarded as dangerous and noisy, and by 1955 all were gone in Manhattan, save for elevated portions of the 7th Avenue Subway (the #1 train) in Harlem and Inwood. The automobile and omnibus were promoted as the answers to the trolleys, which had fixed routes. All trolley lines had disappeared by 1957.

In 1933, the then-new IND opened two elevated stations at Smith-9th Streets and 4th Avenue on the F train over the Gowanus Canal, which runs in a valley in western Brooklyn, and the builders thought it was a good idea to elevate the line there, run it high over the Gowanus to allow tall-masted ships to pass beneath it, and then tunnel back under Park Slope, a rather steep hill. This elevated, with its concrete-cladded pillars and roadbed, looks nothing like the steel-frame els that had preceded it. Had the IND been permitted to expand in the ‘outer’ boroughs, as was planned for its Second System, this is what they may have looked like. But a depression and a war ended the IND Second System.

And, in 1942, the Long Island Rail Road elevated long stretches of its Rockaway branch, again on an elevated concrete-cladded trestle, running mostly over Rockaway Freeway. This was joined up with the A train in 1956 after the Transit Authority purchased the branch from the LIRR, which had tired of constantly repairing the Jamaica Bay trestles that were prone to fires.

A couple of trestles built in Jamaica since 1988 provide a glimpse of what elevated trains in NYC might look like if they ever made a comeback.


The old Jamaica Avenue El takes the J train from lower Manhattan to Jamaica, Queens via the Williamsburg Bridge, Broadway, Fulton and Crescent Streets, and Jamaica Avenue. Portions of it go back as far as the 1880s. In 1977, all stations between the 121st Street station and the original terminal at 168th Street were torn down, with the line razed and Jamaica Avenue thrown into then-unfamiliar sunshine.  “In 1977 the structure was razed east of Sutphin Boulevard, and the stations closed at Sutphin, 160th Street, and 168the Street. The J trains were turned at Queens Blvd. Station. In 1985 Queens Blvd. and Metropolitan Ave. Stations were closed and the structure removed east of 121st Street.” (see Comments)

Beginning in the 1960s, though, the Transit Authority was planning a new line that would reach into southeast Queens and end somewhere in Rosedale or Laurelton. Much of the line would run along existing LIRR tracks, but some of it would run in a tunnel under Archer Avenue. Because of the 1970s fiscal crisis (NYC averages a fiscal crisis every 25 years or so) much of these plans were scrapped, but the tunnel under Archer Avenue had been finished. The Metropolitan Transit Authority extended an existing IND subway from Hillside Avenue and Van Wyck Boulevard (now expressway) to meet the Archer Avenue tunnel, building three new stations including a terminal at Parsons Boulevard.


Connecting the Jamaica Avenue el and the Archer Avenue subway required a new addition to the old el tracks. The MTA extended the trestle, putting it on a ramp underground, but not before bridging it over 130th Street.


What you have is a modern version of the steel el construction from its golden age from the 1880s until 1920. Though this stretch was opened in 1988, it takes an observant eye to tell where the old el left off and the new ramp begins.


In 1998, the Port Authority of NY and NJ — not the MTA — began construction for in effect what was NYC’s first elevated train since the 1910s– AirTrain, which connects stations in Jamaica and in Howard Beach with a variety of stations in Kennedy Airport. The line, which operates on yet another concrete-coated steel structure concrete units most likely tied together with steel cables, known as prestressed construction, along 94th Avenue and the center median of the Van Wyck Expressway, opened in late 2003. The line represented a relatively rare recent victory over southeast Queens NIMBYs, or “not-in-my-back-yarders” who raised objections to the supposed noise and disruption that would occur, but the noise was kept to a minimum and street traffic was relatively undisrupted because of its position in the center median of the expressway.


Above: AirTrain tracks loop from 94th Avenue south on the Van Wyck Expressway.

I have not flown out of JFK for a few years, but I marveled at AirTrain’s smoothness and fast service the last time I did. Joyriders, though, are largely kept away by a $10.00 round trip fare. Other AirTrains can be found at Newark Airport and San Francisco, and they look pretty much the same since they were built by Bombardier Transportation of Canada.

We may imagine that if elevated trains ever make a comeback in NYC, the superstructure would somewhat resemble AirTrain, which operates with little of the noise and darkness associated with NYC’s older elevateds.

Extensions of elevated lines have been proposed before, most notably to extend the Astoria elevated from Ditmars Boulevard to LaGuardia Airport. The plan was scotched after community and political opposition, and so the only realistic means to get subways to LaGuardia would seem to be a branch from the #7 Flushing Line in Flushing Meadows and then along Grand Central Parkway. But such a connection is in the far future.



13 Responses to THE NEW ELS: a Queens glimpse

  1. Velvethead says:

    The AirTrain construction is precast concrete units most likely tied together with steel cables, known as prestressed construction.

  2. peter a losinno says:

    The second photo down shows the new “el” and the old “el” structures.

  3. jerry says:

    Kevin – I can’t speak for the Gowanus viaduct, or the Rockaway or Queens Boulevard viaducts, which may in fact be “concrete-coated steel” as you put it, but I am pretty certain the AirTrain viaduct is a “real” concrete structure (both the supports and the viaduct itself), and not concrete cladding over steel.

  4. Timothy Forbes says:

    The Market Street El was rebuilt not too long ago, and I thought it looked very sharp. Very airy, with none of the darkness one would find in an elevated structure. So maybe that might be what could be done in New York.

  5. Alan says:

    The Air Train structure looks like the elevated portions of our Metro in DC. where it is outside.

  6. Tal Barzilai says:

    It’s sort of an irony that when the els were first built, they were considered to be an advancement for their time only to have much of them obsolete in most parts of NYC (mainly in Manhattan) as more subway lines were being built not to mention could move much faster due to being underground.

  7. Earthdog says:

    Good article. There’s a lot of interesting history surrounding past and present attempts to extend subway service beyond Jamaica. The orginal MTA plans for the Archer Avenue line called for a branch to be built off the Queens Blvd IND line along Van Wyck & Archer, thence via the LIRR Atlantic Branch to Rosedale. Later on it was amended to include rerouting the Jamaica BMT El into a lower level tunnel to about Merrick Blvd with a future extension east to Hollis (about 190th Street). The first section of the Archer Avenue line before Jamaica Ave incorporates an existing stub tunnel that was orginally intended for a Phase 2 IND branch along what was then known as Van Wyck Blvd south towards Rockaway Blvd in Ozone Park. As planning for the Van Wyck Expressway was taking place in the ’40s, the City wanted the expressway design to incorporate the proposed IND subway extension, but Robert Moses would put the kibosh on that idea rather quickly. Lastly, the orginal MTA Plan for an LIRR branch into JFK Airport was for it to be built as a spur from the LIRR Atlantic Branch thru Baisley Pond Park on concrete trestle similar in design to the AirTrain El that’s perched above the Van Wyck.

  8. Alan Gregg Cohen says:

    It’s too bad that New York City’s planners didn’t have the foresight to “underground” the lines that were originally built as elevated lines or if this was too costly, to atleast elevate the lines between blocks as was done with portions of the commuter rail systems such as the LIRR. The old elevated train structures they built, such as the #7 Flushing line that runs above Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, makes the street so dreary as to be robbed of it’s daylight, and if that wasn’t bad enough, to be defaced with the ugliness of the design of the old “ell”. The newer more streamlined elevated lines such as the Air Train aesthetically are so much more pleasing in design than the older elevated lines. Hopefully some day New York will rid itself of the ugly old “ells” and either underground the lines into subways or replace them with the newer elevated systems such as the Air Train has.

  9. Andy says:

    Just one correction. It is stated that “In 1977, all stations between the 121st Street station and the original terminal at 168th Street were torn down, with the line razed and Jamaica Avenue thrown into then-unfamiliar sunshine.” Actually it was two phase project. In 1977 the structure was razed east of Sutphin Boulevard, and the stations closed at Sutphin, 160th Street, and 168the Street. The J trains were turned at Queens Blvd. Station. In 1985 Queens Blvd. and Metropolitan Ave. Stations were closed and the structure removed east of 121st Street, which was the last stop until the connection to the Archer Ave. tunnel opened in December 1988. I worked in the area at the time so I saw this first hand.

  10. Matt says:

    I believe the entire subway system of Vancouver, BC, Canada, operates using the exact same equipment and construction materials as the AirTrain at JFK. It’s actually even called the “SkyTrain,” not because it serves an airport, but because most of its route is on a similar concrete el structure.

  11. Joel Frid says:

    One should realize that the airtrain was built, though not the original plans, to use standard track. This means, if the PA decides to connect the subway system to the airtrain, they can!

  12. Mike says:

    The 7 train runs on a concrete structure with ballasted road bed over Queens Blvd between the Rawson St. and Bliss St. stations. I believe that structure was built in the 1920s.

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