SUNNYSIDE CROSSING

by Kevin Walsh

NEW York City’s largest train yard, Sunnyside Yard, is indeed vast. When I took the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan every day, I rode the tracks going south of it and if you’re a train buff you can see all genres and varieties of train cars parked and serviced there, such as Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. In late 2022, LIRR trains will enter into tunnels in the Yards en route to Park Avenue to Grand Central Terminal. Sometime before 2030, a new passenger service will take Metro North trains in revenue service by the Sunnyside Yards for the first time, employing the Hell Gate Bridge en route to the eastern Bronx and Westchester County. The Yards were built in the 19-aughts in preparation for the new Penn Station that opened in 1910. However, Metro North and LIRR trains cannot share trackage due to incompatibility.

Today, I want to mention the relatively few north-south auto/ped/bike crossings spanning the Yards. There are six: 21st Street, Thomson Avenue, Queens Boulevard, Honeywell Street, 39th Street and 42nd Place. Until 2000 or so, Honeywell and 39th Streets were indeed unusual in that the original iron bridges were still in use though whatever agency was responsible for them deferred maintenance, and the roadbeds became pitted like the surface of the moon and incandescent lampposts from the 1910s still illuminated them. Around 2000 each were replaced by aggressively boring modern spans.

That leaves 42nd Place, shown here, as the most unusual of the bunch as it is east of the majority of the Sunnyside Yards trackage. It crosses the LIRR Main Line, which engineers chose to bridge over the roadway, and it makes an odd curve with 42nd Place becoming 43rd Street.

I snapped this photo because the Department of Transportation still stubbornly posts a railroad crossing sign, even though the Yards tracks that cross the street on a grade were pulled up long ago.

As always, “comment…as you see fit.” I earn a small payment when you click on any ad on the site.

12/30/21

16 comments

Zalman Lev December 31, 2021 - 9:23 am

Looks like the crossing warning sign has been removed – as per Google Maps Street view – likely when new telephone poles were installed along the street.

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Tom+M January 1, 2022 - 9:20 pm

I remember along 43 st\42pl there were still 2 old homes in between your photo and before the viaducts of the tracks. How they survived over the years, i don’t know. By the 80’s at the latest they were gone

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Zalman Lev January 2, 2022 - 5:00 pm

After bearing personal witness today, all may not be lost. There is still a crossing warning sign on this stretch, but it seems to be on a different pole; one closer to Northern Boulevard: Sunnyside 42nd Place RR Crossing sign. Looking at this one on Google Maps Street View is kinda weird ’cause depending on which date you select from the offerings the sign in Kevin’s photo is either there, or it’s not; if it is there it’s either up higher on the pole or lower. The one in my link is consistent from the July 2018 view through today.

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Zalman Lev January 2, 2022 - 5:03 pm

Correction: November 2017, not July 2018.

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Jerry Friedman December 31, 2021 - 2:57 pm

The old viaducts were also great train watching spots. And Honeywell Street also featured an unguarded staircase right down into the yards. In “pre-security” days yours truly, thanks to a very patient and adventurous dad, was able to watch the action from up close, tolerated by friendly railroaders as long as one stayed safely out of the way. It also lead to several memorable adventures, including being invited to ride a Penn RR Pullman as it was switched around the yard; being taught how to operate a diesel switch engine; and, most memorably, being given a ride to Penn Station in the cab of a GG-1 locomotive!

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Tom+M January 1, 2022 - 9:17 pm

If I remember correctly Queens Blvd also had a staircase going down to the property

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Andy January 1, 2022 - 9:28 pm

May I add a bit of historical information. LIRR trains to and from Penn Station do not go through Sunnyside Yard, but indeed operate immediately south of it, enabling riders on passing LIRR trains to see right into Sunnyside. LIRR trains do not and never have used Sunnyside, but Amtrak and NJ Transit do today, as did their predecessor railroads (see below). It is 100% correct that Sunnyside Yard was built 1900-1910 as part of the overall Penn Station project. Sunnyside has always existed to store and service Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) trains terminating at Penn Station, which operated everything there except for LIRR until 1968. After 1968 the PRR became successively Penn Central, Amtrak, Conrail, and NJ Transit. I’ll spare many details of when the various ex PRR properties morphed into Amtrak and NJ Transit, but I will note that the Penn Central RR, an ill-fated amalgamation of the PRR and its former rival New York Central, was born in 1968 and collapsed in 1970, in what was then the largest US private business bankruptcy.

The LIRR’s use of Penn Station is no accident; the PRR bought the LIRR in 1900 in order to gain landfall in Manhattan and eliminate its Hudson River ferries. NY State purchased the LIRR from the PRR in 1965 but the deal included LIRR’s rights to use the Penn Station tunnels.

When LIRR trains access Grand Central in December 2022, they will not share Metro North tracks at all; LIRR’s tracks to/from Grand Central will be completely independent of Metro North. A key reason is that LIRR and Metro North third rail systems are incompatible. Later in the decade when Metro North (New Haven Line only) trains gain Penn Station access, those trains will use LIRR-style over-running third rail from a point about two miles north of Sunnyside. Like LIRR, those trains will not go through Sunnyside but will be immediately adjacent like the LIRR trains with which they will share tracks.

Amtrak owns Penn Station, the four tunnels, and Sunnyside Yard. LIRR and NJ Transit are its tenants, a legacy of when the PRR controlled the whole show.

If you do see LIRR trains in stored just west of Sunnyside, they are in Arch Street Yard, a separate facility built as part of the LIRR East Side Access project.

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Kevin Walsh January 2, 2022 - 12:12 am

Amended the piece

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Andy January 2, 2022 - 6:52 pm

Thank you Kevin

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Joe+Brennan January 2, 2022 - 7:43 pm

I thought to mysefl, why would Metro North trains use LIRR-style third rail instead of just catenary all the way, like Amtrak and the through New Haven–Pennsy trains before them? To answer myself, it’s because New Haven Metro North rail cars have bottom-contact third rail shoes for the Grand Central route,so there is almost no getting around having separate rail cars for the Penn Station route. It’s either top-contact third-rail shoes like LIRR or none, or else some complicated dual-position third rail shoes that might cause trouble. I never thought about it.

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Andy January 2, 2022 - 11:22 pm

The reason why future New Haven Line trains will use LIRR-style over-running third rail to access Penn Station, and not overhead power, is because the New Haven Line overhead electrification is 60 cycle power, while the Amtrak overhead electric power in and out Penn Station is 25 cycle. New Haven Line MU trains would have to be modified to operate using both voltages, a somewhat expensive proposition. These trains already have the capability to operate using third rail power in order to access Grand Central. It will be easier and much cheaper to extend LIRR-type third rail about two miles north of Harold Interlocking, allowing New Haven trains to seamlessly switch from 60 cycle overhead to 750 volt third rail, which they already can use. The only difference is the third rail shoes will need to be adjusted to use LIRR top contact third rail.

This complication is a legacy of the different electrical systems the various railroads – Pennsylvania, New Haven, New York Central, and Long Island –adapted for their trains into and out of Manhattan for the past one hundred plus years.

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Alan January 3, 2022 - 9:13 am

I learned something new today, about the different frequencies used by the New Haven and Amtrak on their respective catenaries. Therefore they each must have dedicated tracks in the Northeast Corridor in Westchester County and Connecticut.

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George+Cassidy January 4, 2022 - 8:12 pm

Would you show me a picture or a map, or something, about where Queens Boulevard crosses the yards, because I’m not remembering that at all. I used the express buses that went eastbound on Queens Boulevard every night for close to 20 years; I’m pretty dure I didn’t sleep every night. When I was a kid in Maspeth, my father would frequently take me to watch the activity in the yards.

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Kevin Walsh January 4, 2022 - 11:47 pm

Crosses it under the elevated 7 train

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chaaad January 7, 2022 - 6:37 am

Here’s a Google Maps Streetview image from June 2009 – I believe these are the tracks the railroad crossing sign in your photograph refers to.
https://tinyurl.com/42nd-Pl-2009

And in a current Streetview image, you can still see remnants of the track (looking west from 42nd Pl)
https://tinyurl.com/42-Pl-current

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S.+Saltzman January 7, 2022 - 6:34 pm

Another odd thing is where those tracks exited that area on 48th street. Up until about twenty years ago, there was a railroad crossing cross buck sign on 48th street north of 37 th avenue. This sign was mounted on a piece of rail about ten feet high stuck in the ground a few feet north of the tracks that are still visible in the sidewalk. The piece of rail sticking out of the ground is also still there. The curious part is that I guess some traffic engineer looking at a print for that area noticed that the railroad crossing sign was missing and ordered a replacement installed. The sign installers found no railroad crossing in the street so a brand new large railroad crossing sign is mounted on the LIRR( or Amtrak?) trestle just south of 37th Ave.
I always assumed that part of the job of this spur was to deliver poles and other street lighting equipment to the now abandoned DOT street light store yard. When I first walked around the stockyard in 1973 it also encompassed the land that is now the Church. At the time the stockyard was part of the Dept. of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity. I also assumed that delivery of large water pipes, valves and other material for the water supply system were made to the yard via the rail spur.

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