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By Jack M. Turner

Contributor: Eric A. Harms

Photos By John C. Turner

    After a restful night at the Affinia Manhattan Hotel, located directly across the street from Penn Station, we made our way back across 7th Avenue where we would begin our commuter train ride to Montauk,117 miles to the east at the tip of Long Island.  The first order of business was to pick up a deli snadwich for lunch as the commuter train had no food or beverage service nor would we have time at the end of the line to find something to eat.

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The Affinia Manahattan Hotel, directly across from Penn Station.

    With those details covered, we met LIRR Assistant Director of Media Relations Sal Arena and LIRR Assistant Trainmaster Matt Retzel for a tour of the LIRR stationmaster's office on the lower level of Penn Station.  There we observed an array of monitors displaying the intricate LIRR track layout that is served by 693 revenue trains and 168 other equipment moves per day with a morning peak of approximately 110 trains in an hour.  Stationmaster Dennis Schindler and colleague Scott Fedderman explained that aside from managing track assignments, the busy office must keep passengers informed about last minute platform changes necessitated by the slightest deviation in train schedules or other unforeseen events.  "Regular riders are used to their train departing from the same platform every day and you have to make them aware of changes to their routine," stated Mr. Schindler.  Aside from the standard display of red and green lights indicating open and occupied tracks and train positions, operators in this office use live video to monitor station tracks and platforms for the nine station tracks used by the LIRR (two are shared with Amtrak).  Meanwhile, the Service Planning Office oversees equipment usage to assign specific train sets to each scheduled departure, a system that is put to the test by bad ordered equipment that requires shuffling assignments among the line's 134 coaches.

The LIRR station master's office in Penn Station directs trains to the proper tracks and passengers to the correct platforms

    After this enlightening tour, it was time to board LIRR train # 46, an eastbound train departing at 11:08am that would take us to Jamaica.  We rode in car 7042, an M-7 model coach built by Bombardier four or five years ago.  We learned from Mr. Arena that even numbered cab control cars operate eastward while odd numbered cars lead the trains westbound.  The train we were riding was a self propelled electric train hence there was no separate locomotive.

    Soon after leaving Penn Station, train # 46 entered one of four 2.5 mile long tubes that pass below the East River.  These are shared with Amtrak to access Sunnyside Yard and are used by Amtrak to continue along the Northeast Corridor to Boston.  Sunnyside Yard appeared on our left at 11:15 and yard crews were busy servicing overnight and corridor Amtrak trains as well as LIRR commuter equipment.  A loop track used to turn Amtrak trains dropped down from our line on the right then passed below our track to access the yard.  Construction on the right was part of the new East Side Project which will allow LIRR trains to also serve Grand Central Terminal; the estimated opening date is 2016.  A quick glance to the left provided a view of the diverging Northeast Corridor with Hell Gate Bridge in the distance.  A couple of minutes later LIRR's Port Washington Branch diverged to the left as we passed the historic location of Forest Hills Stadium, where the US Open tennis tournament was played before it moved to Flushing.

Sunnyside Yard services LIRR and Amtrak trains

   The new Air Tran rail line that runs to JFK Airport soon appeared on the right, signaling our approach to the transfer station at Jamaica at 11:26am.  The Jamaica station is extremely busy with trains serving multiple LIRR branch lines exchanging passengers like a well orchestrated ballet.  Fortunately ours would be an across the platform transfer and with Matt serving as our escort and guide on this day, we had no worries about these logistics.  The train we had just left would continue on to Babylon making all stops on the southerly Babylon Branch.

LIRR Train # 46 at Jamaica

    Our stay in Jamaica was brief as LIRR train # 2706 departed at 11:34am behind  DE30 engine # 420 which was built in October 1998 by Super Steel Schenectady.  The LIRR owns 46 of the modern looking DE30 units.  Trailing the sleek engine were six bi-level coaches constructed in 1997 by Kawasaki.  The LIRR team had arranged for us to ride in the rear cab control car where we could view the right-of-way and provide a better description to TrainWeb readers without affecting train operations.

DE30 # 420 leads train # 2706 into Jamaica.

TrainWeb photographer John Turner in the rear cab control car.  It should be noted that the safety conscious LIRR permitted this access to allow better photographs of the line from the backward facing rear windows rather than the head end.

    The maze of tracks on the east side of the Jamaica station was impressive as we began our eastward journey.  Concrete ties were the norm for much of this territory and 80 mph speed limits were in effect between many stations along this stretch.  Having a veteran engineer as an escort was a blessing as Matt pointed out details such as the high speed crossovers that allowed us to sail through Queens Interlocking at 67 mph.  Shortly the Hempstead Branch bore off to our right while we were traveling over the more northerly main line as far as Hicksville.  Near New Hyde Park at 11:47 we crossed over from Main Line 2 to Main Line 1 to run around a train bound for Oyster Bay during its stop at Mineola.  That train would crossover at Nassau Jct. then take the Oyster Bay Branch.  Two minutes later we crossed back over to Main Line 2 near Westbury.  A couple of switch engines spotted at Westbury serve as protect engines to be employed in the event an LIRR train is stranded along this section of the line.

Beginning the trip from Jamaica to Montauk

LIRR switch engines are strategically located to assist in the event of disabled trains

Busy LIRR yards house trains between morning and afternoon commute rushes

Breezing past the Merillon Avenue station

Nonstop through Mineola.  An eastbound train is stopped at this station before crossing over to the Oyster Bay Branch en route to that community.

    A minute after our train passed through Hicksville, the Port Jefferson Branch diverged to the northeast then we passed a former Grumann Aircraft plant at Bethpage.  Shortly we branched off to the southeast onto the single track Central Branch for an 11 mile nonstop trek to the Montauk Branch.  Meanwhile, the Main Line which we just left continued on to Greenport, the farthest east LIRR destination other than Montauk. 

The Port Jefferson Branch bears off at Hicksville.  Both lines are elevated at this point.

    Many sidings along the Central Branch lead into businesses served by the New York & Atlantic Railroad which handles freight traffic over the LIRR.  An alternative to our nonstop run through Hicksville and the Central Branch was available via the Babylon Branch which we joined near Babylon at 12:07pm.  East of Babylon the line is designated the Montauk Branch.  After passing through Islip, we passed through Great River at 56 mph through an area where the railway was lined by trees.  Long Island was indeed a far cry from the big city as our train offered views of rural landscapes interrupted by picturesque villages.  The overhead position light signals of the Central Branch had given way to traditional color signals along the Montauk Branch and small marinas occasionally came into view as the rails paralleled the shore albeit a short distance inland.  Evidence of our proximity to the coast was visible as signs at Bay Shore, Sayville, and Patchogue directed passengers to ferryboats bound for Fire Island.

The Central Branch joins the Babylon Branch near Babylon.  That line provides an alternate route from Jamaica.

Overhead position light signals on the Montauk Branch

The line passes through rolling terrain near Patchogue

    Westbound LIRR # 2707 glided past at 12:55pm near Mastic-Shirley on its journey from Montauk to Long Island City.  Twenty minutes later our eastbound called at Westhampton, the first of five stops serving the Hamptons, one of New York's most exclusive and most expensive regions.  A few minutes later Shinneock Hills Golf Club, frequent home to the US Open golf tournament, came into view between Hampton Bays and Southampton.  The latter community was founded in 1640 and is among the oldest settlements in the nation.  Attractive homes, town centers, and a golf course or two followed at Bridgehampton, East Hampton, and Amagansett after which our train reached 63 mph while passing large sand dunes to the south and Gardners Bay on the north.  The dunes offer protection from the Atlantic Ocean which lies directly behind the dunes while Gardner Bay provides a tranquil setting with beach homes along its shore.  At 2:10 we passed milepost 110 and five minutes later Fort Pond Bay, a favorite of local beachgoers, came into view on the left side of the railway.  The 3 hour, 10 minute trip from New York City ended with our 2:19pm arrival in Montauk.  

Passing through a wooded area near Mastic-Shirley

Westbound LIRR # 2707 is met near Mastic-Shirley

The Westhampton station

A trestle near Hampton Bays

Deaparting the Southampton station


Golf courses are plentiful in eastern Long Island.  This one is near Amagansett.

The author surveys the route from the rear cab control car.
Fort Pond Bay is a favorite with Long Island beachgoers

Train # 2706 discharges passengers at Montauk

    Montauk is located at the tip of Long Island and popular inns and lodges located atop tall oceanfront bluffs stand sentinel over the surroundings.  Long Island Railroad's stop at Montauk is comprised of a modern high level platform beside a fairly spacious parking lot, however, there are no station facilities.  We appreciated our hosts' advice to pack a lunch as there was nowhere to grab a quick lunch during our 35 minute layover.  Had time permitted, we would love to have spent a couple of nights in this charming seaside community as the beaches and fishing are renowned for their excellence and the villages comprising the Hamptons would have been great for exploring.  

Engine # 420 after arrival at Montauk.  This engine would push train # 2709 westbound to Jamaica.

The end of the line at Montauk.  This is the farthest east point served by Long Island Railroad, just a couple hundred yards short of the Atlantic Ocean.

    Westbound train # 2709 eased out of Montauk on-time at 2:54pm and this time we sampled the upper level coach seating in the lead car.  The DE30 engine was now pushing our train which carried a large Monday afternoon crowd that would swell to near capacity later in the trip.  Looking out the side windows revealed sights we had missed while peering backwards during the outbound run.  Extensive vineyards bounded the tracks east of Southampton while we made note of the conveniently located Hertz rental car agency opposite the Southampton station.  This would facilitate sightseeing on a future visit to the area.  The Shinnecock Canal west of Southampton also had gone unnoticed during the eastward ride.  

Fort Pond Bay as seen on our westbound trip

Vineyards and nice homes along the track near Southampton

Shinnecock Canal between Southampton and Hampton Bays

   We made an unlisted (but altogether scheduled) stop 73 minutes into our westbound run at Speonk Yard for a crew change.  An eastbound LIRR train passed near Sayville at 4:53 and another slammed past between Islip and Babylon.  The timetable showed our next stop as being Jamaica so we anticipated being routed over the Central Branch once again.  Much to our surprise, we soon spotted the Central Branch bearing off to the right as LIRR # 2709 headed on the Babylon Branch through Lindenhurst, Amityville, and over a dozen other villages that seemed to flick past the window every minute or so.  Much of this line was elevated which provided a bird's-eye view of diverging Long Branch, West Hempstead, Far Rockaway, and St. Albans branch lines.  Along with about half of the passengers, we detrained at Jamaica at 5:58pm and made a cross platform connection to an LIRR train to Penn Station which departed at 6:02.

    With rush hour in effect, this train was packed but we managed to locate seats in car 9937, one of the older M-3 model coaches employed by the LIRR.  As Sal and Matt had pointed out earlier in the day, this was a westward facing car with an odd road number.  Brief stops at Kew Gardens and Forest Hills exchanged a few new passengers for an equal number who detrained.  Shortly we passed through the East River Tunnel and pulled into Penn Station at 6:22pm.  The round trip to Montauk had taken a tad more than seven hours but had proved to be even more enjoyable, scenic, and educational than we could ever have anticipated.  An element of suspense was offered since our trains ran nonstop in either direction between Jamaica and Babylon which left us guessing until the last moment which branch we would traverse between those communities.  

Train # 2709 after arrival at Jamaica.  The cab control car leads westbound after bringing up the markers on the eastbound run.

The connecting train to Penn Station arrives in Jamaica behind an M-3 cab control car

    Long Island Railroad is marketed as more than the typical commuter railroad as a number of Long Island Getaways are advertised in an informative brochure listing escorted tours and packages to a variety of activities and events.  A sampling includes golf and tennis outings; trips to a water park; Sunday brunch cruises; lighthouse tours; shopping trips; and festivals celebrating wine and cheese, seafood, strawberries; and other events.  Another LIRR brochure advertises New York City getaways to various museums, television studios, Broadway shows, etc.  And yet another brochure offers packaged trips to the various beaches that line Long Island.  For information about LIRR schedules, routes, and package plans, visit

    Our day on the LIRR was truly ranked as one of the best, if not the best, commuter train rides we have ever experienced.  A trip to Montauk offers a world of possibilities with activities to suit almost any taste.

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