History of the Rockaway Beach Branch

1880-1962: Long Island Railroad

The Rockaway Beach Branch began life as the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad. Opened in 1880, the line ran along the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) Montauk Division (today, the Lower Montauk Line) to Glendale, where it branched off and ran south through Woodhaven, across Jamaica Bay on a wooden trestle, and finally to Rockaway Beach. A year later, the line was connected to the LIRR Atlantic Branch, with direct service to downtown Brooklyn.

The line was in direct competition to the LIRR as it tried to provide a more direct route from the Rockaway peninsula to the East River. But because it had to use LIRR tracks, it lost any money it made to the LIRR. In 1887, the line went bankrupt and was sold to Austin Corbin (owner of the LIRR), who reorganized it as the New York and Rockaway Beach Railway. Corbin then leases the line to his own LIRR.

In 1910, the LIRR completely rebuilt their Main Line from the new Pennsylvania Station to Jamaica. As part of this work, a large flying junction was built between the Main Line at White Pot Junction in Rego Park and the Rockaway Branch. This became known as the Glendale Cutoff and allowed Rockaway trains to run directly to the new Penn Station.

Between 1939 and 1942 the LIRR rebuilt the Woodhaven portion of the line to eliminate grade crossings. The LIRR Atlantic Branch was put into a subway under Atlantic Ave, while the Rockaway Branch was elevated. A new connection was built between the two lines at Woodhaven Junction to allow Rockaway trains to reach downtown Brooklyn via the tunnel. In the Rockaways, the previously at-grade tracks were elevated from Rockaway Park to Mott Ave.

In 1950 the wooden trestle through Jamaica Bay caught fire and the LIRR cut service back to Howard Beach. The bankrupt railroad then sold all portions of the line south of Ozone Park station to the City of New York in 1952. The city rebuilt the trestle and converted the line for subway use as an extension of the A train.

LIRR continued to run trains to Ozone Park until, due to low ridership, in 1962 it was decided to cut all service on the remaining line.

Brooklyn Hills Improvement Co. map 1888
LIRR map from 1942 showing Rockaway Beach Branch. From "Change at Ozone Park:, Herbert George

1929-1963: Subway Proposals

The City of New York had considered using the Rockaway Beach Branch as a subway line as far back as 1929. The first proposal involved extending two new lines along the route; one to Manhattan through Bushwick and Williamsburg, and the other through Glendale, Middle Village, Maspeth, before linking up with the IND Queens Blvd Line at Roosevelt Ave. An unfinished terminal platform was even built at Roosevelt Ave for this line.

By 1939 the city had simplified plans to connect the branch at the 63rd Dr-Rego Park station. Turnout provisions and an underpass were built east of the station that would allow for a future connection to the branch to be built. At least one Queens Blvd Line station had tile signage indicating service to the Rockaways.

After World War II the city envisioned a massive subway expansion into Queens using the proposed 2nd Ave Subway and a new tunnel between Midtown Manhattan and Long Island City, Queens. The lines to Rockaway would have run along the LIRR Main Line to Rego Park as an express service, then connected to the Rockaway Beach Branch.

After the LIRR sold the branch to the city in 1952, the New York City Transit Authority began work on rebuilding the trestle over Jamaica Bay and connecting the line to the IND Fulton St Line. In 1956 the section south of Ozone Park was opened and the A train was rerouted to Rockaway. Service north to Woodhaven with a connection to the J train and Rego Park with a connection to the Queens Blvd Line, but neither of the lines offered enough extra capacity for additional Rockaway service.

LIRR service to Ozone Park was formally abandoned in 1962. A year later, a renewed push was made by the city to convert existing LIRR lines for subway service. The city proposed a new East River tunnel between midtown Manhattan and Queens for both subway and LIRR service. But available funds were used for propping up the failing NYC Transit Authority or for other projects like new highways by Robert Moses.

1968-2003: JFK Express

In 1968, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA, was formed to combine all mass transit agencies under one roof. In that year a far-reaching transportation plan, the Program for Action, which proposed an ambitious rehabilitation plan for the decaying subways, while also building new extensions to serve suburban growth. The Program for Action proposed reusing the Rockaway Beach Branch for express rail service between Midtown Manhattan and JFK via a new East River tunnel.

Work began on a new tunnel under 63rd St in Manhattan and 41st Ave in Queens. The tunnel was designed with two levels. The top level would be used for subway service along Queens Blvd and a new super-express bypass that would run out to Forest Hills. The lower level would be used for LIRR service to link up with a new East Side terminal, planned around 3rd Ave and 48th St.

As an extension of this project, direct JFK-Midtown East service was proposed over the LIRR and the Rockaway Beach Branch. Later, a branch to Jamaica was added that would have run up the Rockaway Beach Branch, tunneled under Forest Park, and doubled-back to Jamaica via the LIRR Lower Montauk Line. There would be no local stations along the line. Residents fought the proposed line, protesting the loss of trees in Forest Park and demanding transit that would serve the community.

The financial crisis that hit the city in the 1970s doomed most of the proposals from the Program for Action, including the JFK express along the Rockaway Beach Branch. The 63rd St tunnel had progressed further, but work remained slow. The tunnel was eventually opened in 1989, but was a virtual line to nowhere until it was connected to the Queens Blvd Line in December 2001. In 2003, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey opened their AirTrain to JFK Airport, an elevated train running above the Van Wyck Expressway.

The 63rd St tunnel connection allowed a 33% increase in service between Manhattan and Queens on the Queens Blvd Line. Before this, there had not been nearly enough local service to serve the entire line, as well as a branch to the Rockaways. Now, with two local trains, there would be enough extra service for a future Rockaway Beach Branch connection.

MTA Program for Action map showing proposed JFK express train on Rockaway Branch. 1969
"Neighborhoods: Subway is Issue in Forest Hills" New York Times, 1969