Sunnyside Yard: It’s the Busiest Rail Junction in the U.S.

bsQ_ssyrds_000

The ironic thing is that you can’t catch a train here. Yet.

The Sunnyside Yard opened in 1910, and was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The rail complex was the largest coach yard on Earth back then, occupying some 192 acres which carried nearly 26 miles of track that could accommodate a thousand train cars. In modern times, the busiest rail junction in the United States is found here, called the Harold Interlocking.

A fantastic overview of the history of rail in Long Island City — with maps — can be found at the website trainsarefun.com.

The Sunnyside Yard tends to insulate Long Island City from the rest of western Queens, forcing its residential and business traffic to pass through and around narrow or crowded choke points like Queens Plaza. Its borders are defined by Jackson Avenue and Northern Boulevard to the north, while the southern border is found along Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside. In the east, it’s 48th Street and the west border is 21st Street.

There’s a reason I use a lot of adjectives when describing the place — ones like “gargantuan,” “cyclopean,” or — a noun — “titan.”

The traffic viaducts which cross over the southern part of the yard — Hunters Point/47th Avenue, Thomson Avenue, Queens Plaza South — are all oriented in a mostly easterly direction, while the 35th Street (or Honeywell Street) Bridge and the 39th Street (or Harold Avenue) bridge at Steinway Street offer rare and spread out pinchpoints of north south egress for automobiles across the facility.

All told, there are five vehicular crossings, six if you count the Long Island Expressway, but technically the highway crosses the LIRR tracks, not Sunnyside Yard.

bsQ_ssyrds_002

Note: To see a much larger version of the panorama shot above, click over to this link at flickr.

This post is actually a result of having visited the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm at the corner of Steinway and Northern Boulevard, described earlier this week, which offered a spectacular overview of this brobdingnagian rail yard.

Sunnyside Yard is the property of Amtrak these days, and it’s in the midst of flurry of construction in anticipation of the forthcoming East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road’s Main and Port Washington lines in Queens to a new LIRR terminal beneath Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

As a point of interest, not too long ago I managed to capture some shots of the tunnel boring machine used to open the new passage as it was being prepared for transit out of Queens. Check them out here.

bsQ_ssyrds_003

Amtrak runs part of its high speed Acella service out of the yard, but lots of “ordinary” trains move through here as well. The LIRR tracks are to the south, and there is talk of creating a Sunnyside Station for commuter trains at the corner of Skillman Avenue and Queens Boulevard as soon as 2019.

The thinking handed down from those who understand such things is that building this station will help spur industrial, commercial and residential growth around Queens Plaza.

bsQ_ssyrds_004

On any given day, excess capacity from Penn Station will execute a turnaround on the so called balloon track, which is found further east, near 48th Street, to re-enter Manhattan. It is not uncommon to find New Jersey Transit trains here, alongside the rolling stock which services Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor or the ubiquitous LIRR trains. During Hurricane Sandy, every track here was filled with trains sheltering against flooding.

They repair and service damaged locomotives here as well, and there is also a train wash,

bsQ_ssyrds_005

Every so often in the historical record, a plan is floated by some ambitious soul to “deck over” the yard and build a new neighborhood on top of it. The gargantuan factories which surround it, whether they be the Degnon Terminal to the south or the Standard Motor Products building (from which most of these photos were captured) to the north, are no longer connected to the rails or truly industrial, and the locales they sit in are transitioning from manufacturing to residential.

The plan to cover over the Sunnyside Yard was most recently advocated by former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel Doctoroff. A technical analysis his team compiled of the situation can be perused at nyc.gov.

Personally, I can’t bear the thought of losing this view.

Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman blogs at Newtown Pentacle.