The MTA is finally acknowledging what anyone with Google Maps can see for themselves: The massive Belmont Park redevelopment project and future home of the New York Islanders cannot easily accommodate frequent train service from Long Island.
Last month, Governor Cuomo and a gaggle from the Long Island business and real estate community held a triumphant press conference proclaiming the pending return of the Islanders to Long Island after two-plus seasons in Brooklyn. Specifically, the announcement proclaimed that the bidding group that included the Islanders’ owners had won the rights to develop land adjacent to Belmont Park, just east of the Queens-Nassau border, with an 18,000-seat arena, retail space, a movie theater, and a hotel.
At the time, Cuomo’s office issued a press release stating that as part of the deal, the MTA had committed to “developing a plan to expand LIRR service to Belmont Park Station for events year-round,” but offered nothing in the way of detail.
Currently, Belmont Park is served by a short one-stop spur off the LIRR’s Hempstead branch that only sees trains on event days. And trains only run to and from the west via Jamaica station, meaning riders coming from points east — such as anywhere in Long Island, where Islanders fans are most likely to come from — have to transfer at Jamaica before doubling back on a shuttle to Belmont.
This wasn’t good enough for Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky. Earlier this month, he spelled out that LIRR service should not merely be on event dates, but year-round and with regular service. He considers mass transit service to Belmont “a vital part of the community, not just when there is horse racing and not just when there is a concert or a game. All the time.” Politicians agreed, with Rep. Todd Kaminsky tweeting, “A full time LIRR station at Belmont w/ expanded service is key for Belmont community & to reduce Isles traffic,” while New York City Council representative Barry Grodenchik echoed his concerns: “Any expansion at #Belmontpark must be accompanied by a serious expansion of @LIRR service for residents on both sides of #Queens #Nassau border.”
But, as I wrote for this website shortly after the project’s unveiling, the MTA had no estimate of what that would cost. And now, it turns out that with the LIRR tracks configured as they are, full-time service to and from Long Island may not be possible at all.
The first hint of trouble came at last week’s MTA hearing, when chair Joe Lhota said he was “concerned” about the LIRR service expansion for two reasons. First, the LIRR main line, which runs parallel to the Hempstead branch at this part of the network, is already at capacity during rush hour, when most Islanders games would be played. The second reason, though, is that the track design itself prevents Belmont Park from acting as a normal train station.
The Belmont Park spur, says David Clarke, the director of the Center for Transportation Research at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is what’s called a “Y” connection because of the track design:
Currently, the tracks are set up only for use of the left-hand, western side of the Y, allowing trains to run to and from Jamaica. A series of switches allow trains on that side of the Y connection to get to whatever track they need. And since the trains can wait on the Belmont spur until the coast is clear and switches are enabled, service isn’t disrupted.
Recent satellite images show that the right side of the Y connection, the one that could provide easy access to the Hempstead line going towards Long Island, is not in service. (It appears to be used as rail car storage.) So at least one necessary upgrade requires getting that other half of the connection into working order.
But even then, Belmont will have service in only one direction: from the city to Belmont, and from Belmont to Long Island. How can the LIRR provide service going to the arena from Long Island, as most Islanders fans will want, which doesn’t require a transfer at Jamaica?
Currently, Clarke says, there are no switches east of Belmont that allow trains to navigate the tracks in such a way that allow them to get to Belmont. The only option using existing infrastructure would be, as Clarke put it, to “zigzag”: overshoot the Y connection by a few hundred feet and then reverse across the switches to get to the Belmont spur. It would be like a three-point turn in the middle of a highway, but for a train. For this reason, Clarke added, “they probably wouldn’t want to do that, especially if this is a really busy corridor.”
The only solution, then, would be to build switches on the Long Island side of the Y connection. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, switches can’t be installed just east of the Y connection because the tracks cross over the Cross Island Parkway there, and according to Clarke it’s not good practice to build switches on bridges. And the farther east from the Y connection you put the switches, the dicier it gets, because it means more time the train is running westbound on eastbound tracks.
Moreover, there isn’t very much space around these tracks for installing necessary infrastructure like control towers and power boxes to operate the switches. Plus, because the LIRR is a commuter rail line, the switches would have to be incorporated into the system’s developing positive train control technology, which the LIRR is already way behind on installing.
Clarke estimated the cost for these switches is “not the kind of thing that’s trivial as an investment.” He estimated a price tag of several million dollars just to purchase the switches for crossing over from one track to the other.
Assuming the LIRR doesn’t want to undertake this project, either due to the cost or the complexity of operating this service, there’s still the option of running trains in one direction.
But another problem with that plan relates to the switch issue above. The eastbound tracks off the Y connection lead onto the Hempstead branch, a fairly minor line that splits off to the east; there’s no easy way to get trains onto the tracks that lead to the main line serving the rest of Long Island. The only two stops before the split, Bellerose and Floral Park, are not serviced by main line trains. Bellerose cannot act as a transfer point because it doesn’t even have a platform for the main line. Floral Park could, in theory, act as a transfer point, but it would need to be renovated to handle the crowds and the LIRR schedule would have to be adjusted. Absent that, there are two potential solutions to allow trains leaving Belmont to run on the main line to the rest of Long Island, and they’re going to sound familiar: the zigzag maneuver or new switches.
Even if the LIRR could enact any of these solutions, it’s not clear they’re much of an improvement over the current state of service at Belmont. Almost everyone would still have to transfer, and at a much less convenient location. At least Jamaica is already a major transfer hub where passengers can access the entire LIRR system, not to mention the J and E subway lines.
Certainly, Islanders fans anticipating one-seat train service (as they’ve had for the games at the Barclays Center) might be disappointed, but they’ll have plenty of time to adjust. Over the next three years, the Islanders will play 60 home games at Nassau Coliseum, a refurbished version of the arena they abandoned to play at Barclays in the first place, which requires a bus or taxi to access from the nearest LIRR station. And while Belmont LIRR service is likely to be inconvenient, it’s hard to imagine the Islanders’ owners willing to make enough of a stink about it to jeopardize the entire project. The LIRR has more important priorities.
“Nothing’s impossible,” Clarke concluded about full-time LIRR service at Belmont. “If there’s enough demand they can probably do it, but if they’re just trying to do it for convenience of a few people riding to get to the stadium … I would bet it’s not the kind of thing they’re going to be real enthusiastic about doing.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated the Belmont train currently runs only to and from Jamaica station. It also continues past Jamaica to Penn Station.