New York’s Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) has existed since before the Statue of Liberty and the American Civil War and still runs today, having survived two World Wars, a number of bankruptcies, hurricanes and countless takeovers.
Still operating under its original name and charter, the oldest railroad in the US celebrated its 185th anniversary this year, having become a major institution for the region and one of the few services in the country to operate 24/7, all year long.
A state-owned commuter network running from the heart of Manhattan to eastern part of Suffolk County on Long Island, the LIRR today connects 124 stations along over 700 miles of track. It serves about 81 million commuters a year.
Having recently welcomed new plans from owner the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to invest $5.7bn in the expansion and modernisation of the network, the LIRR is finally poised for a long-overdue makeover.
How different will it look compared to its early days, and what has the journey been like for this historic network?
1834: the Long Island Rail Road Company is born
Now property of the MTA, the network was originally born as a private franchise in the 1830s.
Initially meant to be called the Brooklyn & Jamaica (B&J) Railroad Company – after the names of the two areas it was built to connect, Jamaica in Queens and Brooklyn– the service was the first rail network ever built on Long Island.
Yet the B&J didn’t live long enough to operate the line; in 1834, a host of New York and Boston investors formed the Long Island Rail Road Company to lease the B&J and extend services towards mainland US.
1840s: early troubles for the new network
Despite an auspicious start, problems rose quite quickly for the line, which found itself in trouble shortly after becoming operational.
At the core of the LIRR’s miseries, the company’s owners overestimated ridership and competition from other lines throughout the 1840s.
The first problem had to do with the line’s structure, which stretched towards the centre of Long Island, a scarcely populated area that offered far fewer opportunities than the coastline in terms of both passengers and freight.
Adding to that, the LIRR suffered a substantial blow in 1848, when the opening of a rail route connecting New York and Boston through Connecticut (also known as the New York and New Haven Railroad) challenged the LIRR’s very reason for existence.
1850s-1870s: bankruptcy and a refocus on local services
Incapable of competing with New York and New Haven Railroad, the LIRR was forced to declare bankruptcy.
But this wasn’t the end of the line, which managed to survive the crisis by turning its focus to local passenger services and expanding its reach to the island’s more densely populated areas.
Between the 1850s and 1870s, this was made possible through the acquisition of several smaller franchises, including the New York & Flushing Railroad and prime competitor the Central Railroad of Long Island.
In addition, new business opportunities came from the City of Brooklyn. After years of friction over its ban on the use of steam engines, the route eventually became part of the LIRR’s services.
1880s-1900: prosperity under Austin Corbin
The year 1880 was marked by the arrival of Austin Corbin, a robber baron from New Hampshire, whose takeover of the LIRR started a year of great prosperity for the service.
Under his leadership, a second line reaching the southern shore of the Atlantic Ocean was completed, while the network further expanded to destinations including Manhattan Beach, Long Beach and Port Washington.
Corbin also managed to buy out all of the line’s main competitors, making the LIRR the only rail service on Long Island.
1900-1949: welcoming the new century and a new owner
The turn of the century brought a new owner to the LIRR, which was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) for $6m.
The move was part of the PRR’s expansion bid, which meant to improve commuter services across New York and the nearby region. The construction of Pennsylvania (Penn) Station, in Manhattan, in 1901, was a key factor in achieving this purpose.
Under the PRR, nearly 30% of the Long Island Rail Road’s network was electrified. Its brand new all-steel cars carried over 800 passengers a day during the summer and just under 750 during the winter season.
This period of prosperity eventually came to an end, as a number of factors – from a decline in services during the Second World War to an increase in taxes between the 1920s and 1940s –damaged the service, which was also facing toughening competition with New York’s new subway system.
These issues culminated in 1946, when the PRR posted losses for the first time in its history and, having let go of the LIRR, left it to deal with a new bankruptcy.
1950s-1980s: the LIRR becomes state-owned
In the 1950s, the growing lack of funds and separation for the PRR had a particularly damaging impact on the service’s ageing equipment and infrastructure. The company’s declining reputation was further hit when a series of accidents on its line killed 115 people.
In the midst of this decline, the state of New York came to the LIRR’s rescue as it began subsidising the line throughout the 1960s.
During this period, the state invested around $60m in new rolling stock, locomotives and infrastructure upgrades that kept the line running.
The LIRR was eventually acquired by the State of New York’s newly formed Metropolitan Transport Authority, which kicked off further modernisation projects in the following decades.
1990s – 2000s: Penn Station and the issue of the East Side Access
A revamped Penn Station is the MTA’s most notable product of the 1990s, when Governor George Pataki launched extensive works to redecorate it, expand it and introduce air conditioning throughout the hub.
During these years, the MTA also decided to sell the LIRR’s freight division to the New York and Atlantic Railway after witnessing a 25-year drop in freight operations on Long Island.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the operator also began works on its East Side Access project, which entailed extending the mainline towards the east side of Manhattan via Grand Central Terminal.
However, the project, which officially launched in 2007, has been continuously hit by delays and cost increases. Now scheduled to be completed in 2022, it will be partially funded by the MTA’s capital plan announced earlier this year.
2010s – Present day: Hurricane Sandy and new funds
Over the last few years, the LIRR had to deal with several issues that made its need for modernisation and infrastructural upgrade more urgent than ever.
In 2012, the line fell victim to Hurricane Sandy, which forced a temporary suspension of the service and flooded parts of the system.
Seven weeks later, operations went back to normal, though some damaged parts of the network – including the West Side Yard and Long Beach Branch – are still undergoing replacement works.
Rail accidents in 2017, 2018 and 2019 further stressed the urgency to renovate, eventually leading, in September this year, to the MTA’s decision to invest $5.7bn in upgrade and expansion projects.
These include the above-mentioned East Side Access, a Main Line Expansion scheme adding 16km of track on the Main Line corridor. The MTA is also planning to expand the LIRR’s electric fleet by 13%.
Once completed, the projects will support a 60% increase in reverse commute and a 50% increase in peak service between Manhattan and Long Island.