The Bushwick Branch, also called the Bushwick Lead Track, is a freight railroad branch that runs from Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Fresh Pond Junction in Queens, New York, where it connects with the Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road. It is owned by the LIRR but operated under lease by the New York and Atlantic Railway, which took over LIRR freight operations in May 1997.
The Bushwick Branch dates back to the South Side Railroad of Long Island. The South Side had been chartered in 1860 to build a railroad from Jamaica, Queens all the way to Islip along the south shore of Long Island. Building of the line from Jamaica to Islip began in 1866, with service commencing as far as Babylon in 1867. Between 1867 and 1869, with the addition of a charter amendment, service was extended to Patchogue. The South Side sought to build a line west of Jamaica to the East River so that’s its passengers could connect to ferries that would take them into Manhattan. The two main railroad routes leading to the East River ferry terminals were along Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, a route owned by the LIRR, and in Long Island City, a route owned by the Flushing and North Side Railroad (FNSRR).
The South Side originally wanted to build to Long Island City, and tried to buy out the interest of the New York and Flushing Railroad, a small competitor to the FNSRR. However, the LIRR, who was also looking for access to Long Island City, beat out the South Side bid for the New York and Flushing and bought it out instead. Thus the only recourse for the South Side was to build a line from Jamaica to Fresh Pond, Queens and then southwest into Bushwick, a connection that opened in July 1868. Once the trains terminated in Bushwick, trolley cars would transport passengers to the 8th Street Ferry terminal in Williamsburg, which would then take passengers into Manhattan. Eventually the South Side extended the tracks west of Bushwick directly to the ferry thus eliminating the transfer. MaspethThe LIRR service to Long Island City, via the old New York and Flushing route was not well run and disliked by the public. Most chose the far superior Long Island City service offered by the Flushing and North Side Railroad. The LIRR abandoned its Long Island City service and sold its tracks east of Winfield, Queens to the FNSRR. The rest of the route west of Winfield to Long Island City remained unused. Seeking an opportunity the South Side decided to buy up the remaining tracks in 1872 and extended service west from Fresh Pond to Maspeth along Newtown Creek and onto Long Island City, thus gaining a new terminal on the East River (this line today is referred to by the LIRR as the Lower Montauk). However, the South Side only used this new line for freight service, due to the competiting passenger service offered by FNSRR. Passenger trains still ran through Bushwick to Williamsburg.
In 1874 the South Side along with the other railroads on Long Island, such and the Central Railroad of Long Island and the FNSRR, came under control of wealthy Brooklyn rubber baron Conrad Poppenhusen. The South Side was reorganized as the Southern Railroad of Long Island. By 1876 Poppenhusen also took control of the LIRR. Seeing the LIRR as the most formidable of his newly acquired railroads, he began to consolidate the competing roads into the LIRR. The LIRR thus gained the FNSRR tracks to Long Island City making it the primary route for passengers and freight looking to reach Manhattan. The LIRR Atlantic Avenue line was cut back from South Ferry, Brooklyn to a terminal at Flatbush Avenue, where passengers could transfer to the Fifth Avenue Elevated, and later in 1910, the IRT subway to reach Manhattan making Flatbush Avenue a secondary terminal for the LIRR. In 1876 most of the lines of the ex-Southern, referred to as the old Southern Road division, were immediately rerouted to Long Island City via the Lower Montauk branch (full integreation of the old-Southern Road division with the LIRR Main Line, would not be achieved until the Jamaica Station improvement project of 1912-13.) The ex-Southern line between Bushwick and Williamsburg was abandoned and cut back to a terminal at Bushwick. By the 1880s Poppenhusen's successor Austin Corbin had successfully consolidated all the railroads. The Bushwick Branch, much like the Atlantic Branch to Flatbush Avenue, acted as a secondary terminal for the LIRR, however, it offered no convienent transit connections into other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Heavy industry in the area saw much use for the line in freight service, while the many industrial jobs in Bushwick warranted passenger commuter service for workers traveling to factories in the area. Nevertheless the Bushwick Branch became a less and less important terminal and as cars began to become prevalent, coupled with the fact that the branch had no direct transit connections into Manhattan, the branch’s main passenger trade began to dwindle. By the early 1900s LIRR began a series of electrification and grade elimination projects for its routes throughout Brooklyn and Queens. While its Main Line, Montauk Branch, Rockaway Beach Branch, and Atlantic Branch received these improvements the Bushwick did not. By 1913 steam trains were eliminated along the line and replaced with battery-powered electric multiple unit trains that were also used on the West Hempstead Branch. Timetables from the era show fewer and fewer trains leaving from Bushwick Terminal. On May 13, 1924 passenger service was completely discontinued. Bushwick Branch== Current Operations== Despite the end of passenger service limited freight service continues down the line. The Bushwick Branch was downgraded to a secondary freight track; most often refereed to as the Bushwick Lead Track, and can be accessed by using LIRR's Fresh Pond Yard. The branch is mostly single track with passing sidings in a few places. In May 1997 all freight traffic on the LIRR was privatized and contracted out to the New York and Atlantic Railway, which took a lease out over the Fresh Pond Yard and the Bushwick Branch. The original Bushwick passenger terminal from the days of passenger trains existed as late as 2005 until it was demolished. Most of the freight traffic that runs down the line today is garbage collection and transfer from many of the factories in the area. This coupled with the branch’s limited use often cause the right of way to be littered with trash.
Unlike most other LIRR branches throughout Brooklyn and Queens, the Bushwick Branch still has seven active grade crossings (the busiest is Metropolitan Avenue) along its route all of which are unprotected. This requires flag protection from train crews to safeguard motorists when movements are made through the crossing. Originally the crossings had crossing gate protection, however, due to the limited use of the line they were deemed unnecessary and removed in 1990. The unprotected crossings restrict the trains and lite engines to a 10 MPH speed limit while traveling down the line.
On March 10, 2004 a LIRR engine undergoing a quick turnaround switching move, uncoupled from two other engines and rolled down a slight incline in the Fresh Pond Yard and onto the Bushwick Branch. While passing through the unprotected crossings the engine struck several vehicles seriously injuring four motorists. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration invesitigation into the incident revealed that the engine's air brakes failed causing it to break loose and roll away. Parking brakes had not been applied due to the expected quick turnaround of the engines. The NTSB and FRA now mandate the air and parking brakes be applied to all engines or trains laying idle regardless to length of time that they will be laid up. The report also suggested that the pavement along each of the crossings be repaved to allow both trains and cars to move over the crossings more gently. In addition they recommended that more advanced railroad crossing signs, and in the future the reinstallation of crossing gates, be installed along the branch to protect motorists.