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4 underused U.S. rail lines that should follow New York’s lead and be revived

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans for a 14-mile Interborough Express on train tracks that already exist. Other U.S. states should take note.

4 underused U.S. rail lines that should follow New York’s lead and be revived
[Photo: Dan Huntley Photography/Getty Images]

New York City is crisscrossed with train tracks. Some of them, like the Rockaway Beach Branch, have sat abandoned for 50 years; others are majorly underused, only traveled by freight trains a few times a day. In the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, in particular, an old track was recently thrust into the spotlight when New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans to revive an underused, 14-mile, right-of-way and build what she called the Interborough Express.

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Comprised of Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tracks in Brooklyn and CSX tracks in Queens, the Interborough Express would link Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to Jackson Heights in Queens, while connecting to over 17 subway lines and Long Island Rail Road stations. It would serve about 1 million riders daily, allowing riders to travel between Queens and Brooklyn without ever going into downtown Manhattan. “The concept of connecting lines circumferentially is filling a major gap in the NYC subway,” says Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. Freemark cites similar projects like Moscow’s Circle Line and Paris’ Grand Paris Express, which, when complete, will allow travel from one region to another without having to transfer in the city. “Not everyone needs to get to get to the center of the city,” he says.

[Image: MTA]
The Interborough Express is bound to fuel a long-standing debate between those who believe that old tracks should be turned into a public space and those who see potential to revive them as a working railway. Whether it will ever see the light of day remains to be seen, but it could provide a blueprint for other similarly underutilized rail lines all over the U.S. Some, like the Snoqualmie Pass route in Washington, have been paved over by an interstate. Others have been turned into walking or biking trails, like Manhattan’s famed High Line. And many others have been waiting to be restored to their former glory.

Here are four underused corridors that could be revived, selected with the help of five transit experts.

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The Atlanta BeltLine

With no mountains or shorelines to stop Atlanta from sprawling in the postwar boom, the city just kept growing. Today, the entire metropolitan area of Atlanta counts about 5.8 million residents, many of whom live outside Interstate 285, which encircles the city. With virtually no public transit, living in this vast sprawl means driving for hours.

[Photo: felixmizioznikov/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus]
Since 2005, the city has been working on reviving a 22-mile ring of rail lines–some abandoned, others only used for freight. Large segments of the Atlanta BeltLine have been turned into walking and biking trails, and while a light rail was part of the original plan, the loop still doesn’t feature any transit. The BeltLine encompasses 44 neighborhoods, but only transit would make it possible to link them efficiently: It would connect to existing MARTA stations and allow people to crisscross the city much more easily. A petition is underway to bring transit into the equation.

The Atlanta BeltLine provides a good template for how underused rail tracks can be transformed into both a walking trail and a light rail line. Which solution is better suited to any given city remains highly contextual, but for Michael Kodransky, the U.S. Director at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, both can coexist. “Abandoned rail lines offer an opportunity for renewed passenger travel, as opposed to being used as rail trails, but we don’t have to pick,” he says, noting that displacement remains an issue regardless. “It goes through historically Black neighborhoods where there is a real threat of serious displacement,” he says.

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The North Coast Hiawatha

When the North Coast Hiawatha line was inaugurated in the early 1970s, it connected Seattle and Chicago via six states. It ran for 10 years before budget cuts shuttered the line in 1980. In recent years, however, there has been a push to restore the corridor, which The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority estimates would generate more than $270 million in economic benefits.

Boise Station, 2009. [Photo: ©Jim Hamre/courtesy All Aboard Washington]
Charles Hamilton is the co-executive director of All Aboard Washington—a nonprofit passenger rail advocacy organization. According to him, restoring The North Coast Hiawatha and the Pioneer line (another long-distance line connecting Seattle to Chicago via Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Denver) is perfectly feasible. “Some areas would need additional sidings and the installation of safety equipment, but these needs are relatively minor,” he says, adding that both lines have an established network of stations available, and both could be used for national and commuter services.

The North Shore

After 68 years of service, the beloved North Shore rail line gave into the growing construction of highways and stopped operating in 1963. The interurban route, which stretched across 106 miles, linking the Chicago loop and downtown Milwaukee via Racine, Wisconsin, was partially brought back in 1963. But the 33-mile commuter line stretch, north of Milwaukee, never resumed.

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The North Shore Line in Milwaukee, WI, ca. 1962. [Photo: Roger Puta/Flickr]
The revival of the North Shore line would be particularly beneficial to Racine residents, connecting workers to over 7 million jobs within the Milwaukee-Chicago region. Now, Biden’s infrastructure bill, which includes $66 billion in new funding for rail, has local leaders hoping federal dollars could help complete the project. “This isn’t a new concept, and rail lines have been converted to different purposes all through the history of railroads, but what’s needed is a much bigger federal program to implement a lot more,” says Rick Harnish, the executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance. For Harnish, the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter line, colloquially known as KRM, would make for a great start-up project. “Racine is an important economic area, and there’s an asset that can be put to use to make it better connected to the rest of the world,” he says. “Let’s do it.”

[Photo: Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images]

The Downeaster extension  

Rail advocacy groups have been fighting to restore efficient rail service in Maine for years. According to Andrew Sandweiss, a director at the Maine Rail Group, the unused corridor between Portland and Bangor is particularly crucial in a car-dominated state like Maine, where cars account for 35%-40% of the state’s carbon footprint. “Beyond the occasional intercity bus service, most towns have no other means of reliable alternative transportation,” Sandweiss says. “A rail revival in Maine would catalyze new economic development, attract youth to move to or stay in Maine, provide greater mobility, and contribute to Maine’s environmental goals of reducing carbon emissions.”

[Image: Russell Barber of the Maine Rail Group]
The rail advocacy group’s work is particularly focused on extending Amtrak’s Downeaster line from its northern terminus in Brunswick. The line would run along existing tracks that are either abandoned or used for freight, and link Brunswick to Bangor, along a state-owned 34-mile line. “I grew up in Bangor and never owned a car,” says Sandweiss, who now lives in Washington D.C. “It has always been one of my dreams to be able to take rail all the way to my hometown.”

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