The air above rail yards still free

(The following story by Mary Voboril appeared on the New York Daily News website on March 26. Bob Evers is General Chairman of the BLETís Long Island Railroad General Committee of Adjustment.)

NEW YORK -- The West Side rail yards are almost entirely hidden from public view by an 8-foot wall.

But the air above that 13 acres is open and, for the moment, still free.

More than two decades ago, during the rail yards' rebuilding, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recognized the potent value of that air as a funding source for its capital programs, said Peter Derrick, a transit historian.

"There were provisions made to put columns between the tracks so you could do an overbuild without interrupting use of the yard as a transit facility," Derrick said.

At the yards -- officially the Sen. John D. Caemmerer West Side Yard -- 31 Long Island Rail Road tracks coalesce in a tidy pattern that flares out like a flat wine glass. Under the development bids submitted to the MTA, the site is to be decked over, blotting out open sky and, to the west, views of traffic at the Air Pegasus Heliport.

For the 250 who work in the yards, construction also will cut off glimpses of the Hudson River, not that it's such a soul-enhancing view: "When you're in the yard now, it's very hard to see the Hudson. All you can basically see is the traffic on the West Side Highway," said Derrick, who also is an archivist at the Bronx County Historical Society.

"Basically," he added, "it's an uninteresting rail facility."

That may be, but its history has intriguing elements. A British Army Headquarters Map, dated 1782, shows unspecified British colonization on the very site of the rail yards, said Meta Brunzema, a Manhattan architect and urban designer who has worked with the anti-stadium Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association.

Maps from 1832 and 1836 show a chemical works on the site at 32nd Street, with 11th Avenue abruptly ending. The Hudson River freely flowed where 11th and 12th avenues now run.

By 1851, the shoreline was being filled in. The Hudson River Railroad built a depot on the site, its tracks running south along 11th Avenue to 33rd Street.

"They were not allowed to run below 32nd Street for fear of explosions," said Kathleen Hulser, public historian at the New-York Historical Society. "It developed where it did, from 32nd Street up, because in the early days of railroads, steam engines and boilers would blow up."

Also in the neighborhood, according to an 1856 insurance map, was a lumber basin, stone works and tannery.

Abraham Lincoln used the depot on his way to his inauguration, and his funeral train passed through in 1865, said David Morrison, a retired LIRR branch line manager and amateur rail historian.

Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the Hudson River Railroad in the 1860s, and eventually it merged with the New York Central, which used the site as a freight depot that grew into a major freight terminal. An 1879 map shows it already had assumed the configuration of a lopsided wine glass.

By the late 1970s, the yards, bordered by West 30th and West 33rd streets and 10th and 12th avenues, had fallen into disuse.

Enter state Sen. John Caemmerer of East Williston, then-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, who insisted that a bond issue include $100 million to acquire the site for the LIRR. After morning runs, its trains had to return to Long Island empty. The yard would provide storage space between rush hours.

The project, folded into an MTA capital project and ultimately costing $195.7 million, formally was named for Caemmerer in 1987. However, his name now is rarely invoked in connection with the yards, much to the annoyance of some.

"The name 'Caemmerer' should stick with whatever is built over the Caemmerer Yard," said Morrison, the retired LIRR manager.

LIRR spokesman Brian Dolan says the site now includes a six-track indoor maintenance shop for inspections and light maintenance, such as "wheel trueing -- we round the wheels if there's a flat spot," he said. There is a 12-car cleaning platform, an area for traffic control, a locker room and lunchroom.

The impenetrable 8-foot wall was added to thwart graffiti artists.

"The yard was totally reconfigured," said Derrick, who worked for Caemmerer. "The tracks that are there now feed in from Penn Station. There was never a direct connection to Penn Station until the yards were turned into an MTA property."

As part of the 1980s rebuilding, a tunnel also was blasted out of the bedrock below the yard, allowing Amtrak to connect to Penn Station.

Robert Evers, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, has his doubts about the ease of moving multi-car trains during large-scale construction.

"It's not going to be as easy as the riding public is being led to believe," he said. Specifically, "Nobody has gotten into the details of what the construction of this platform is going to entail."

And the decked-over site itself? Evers sighed.

"From our perspective," he said, "it will be another gloomy station."

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

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