Guest Spot: Shifting freight from road to rail on LI

You don’t have to be a transportation expert to grasp that something is seriously out of whack with how freight travels on Long Island and the rest of downstate New York. 

According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, rail’s share of long-haul freight shipments is 24% in the west-of-Hudson part of the metropolitan region and a mere 3% east of the Hudson; trucks move almost all of the rest.

The excessive dependence on trucks east of the Hudson (New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties) is downright alarming since reducing fossil-fuel consumption is imperative if we want to curb global warming. Here’s where rail comes in: One railcar can haul as much freight as four trucks and do it with 75% less fuel.

Fortunately, the use of rail by freight shippers to Long Island — after years of decline — is expanding, thanks in no small part to a flourishing eight-year-old rail yard in Yaphank near Exit 66 of the Long Island Expressway.

Visit the sprawling yard, which is owned by Brookhaven Rail Terminal, and you’ll see rows and rows of lumber destined for dozens of local Home Depot and Riverhead Building Supply stores. You’ll also see railcars filled with cement from Pennsylvania, flour from North Dakota and crushed stone from upstate. Before BRT opened, these cargoes used to arrive on Long Island by truck.

In the past, some of the items, such as Douglas fir lumber from the Pacific Northwest or flour from the Midwest, came most of the distance to Long Island by train. But then they were offloaded at rail yards in northern New Jersey, the Albany area or southwestern Connecticut and trucked the rest of the way — always across the congestion-plagued highways and bridges of New York City.

And until the yard began operating, other goods, such as the cement from Pennsylvania or pressure-treated lumber from Virginia and Tennessee, had to be trucked the entire distance, in some cases many hundreds of miles.

This year, BRT expects to handle a record 3,800 carloads of freight, the equivalent of nearly 16,000 truckloads. The yard’s doing almost too well, to hear BRT’s president, Andy Kaufman. “We’re now operating at 113% of our design capacity,” he told me recently when I stopped by the yard.

To accommodate its growth, the yard, which now occupies 30 of the 330 acres it owns, is adding more than a quarter-mile of track this year. What makes this success story remarkable is that BRT has no sales force. “We’ve been fortunate to garner all of our traffic by word of mouth,” said Mr. Kaufman.

The great majority of freight that arrives by rail on Long Island is brought by trains that travel down the east side of the Hudson into the Bronx and then cross the East River on the Hell Gate Bridge into Queens. There begins the last leg of trip, which is handled by the New York & Atlantic Railway, the short-line railroad that took over the Long Island Rail Road’s dwindling freight business in 1997. (It has tripled since then, aided in part by the opening of BRT.)

Good teamwork by the LIRR and New York & Atlantic set the stage for ventures like the one in Yaphank, says William Galligan, former executive director of the East of Hudson Rail Freight Task Force, a now-inactive group established to boost rail’s market share.

“The LIRR and NYA gave investors the confidence to look at the demand for goods better moved by rail than by truck,” he told me.

Shippers applaud the increase a few years ago in the maximum permitted weight for a fully loaded freight car on LIRR tracks as far east as Riverhead from 263,000 pounds to 286,000 pounds. Just ask Andy Polbos.

“I can put the equivalent of a whole extra truckload of lumber on that railcar now,” said Mr. Polbos, transportation and logistics manager at LBM Advantage, a building materials cooperative to which more than 400 independent lumber yards, including Riverhead Building Supply, belong.

His company now sends up to 550 railcars of lumber annually to BRT’s yard.

Of course, BRT generates lots of truck traffic of its own; the lumber and other products that arrive at the yard go to their final destinations in tractor-trailers. But the total truck mileage is still significantly less than if there were no Yaphank rail yard.

Mr. Polbos says that before LBM Advantage started using the yard, freight trains would bring its lumber from the West Coast and the Southeast to Hawleyville, Conn. From there, a dozen or so tractor-trailers a day would convey it to Riverhead Building Supply stores, a trip that might be as far as 130 miles one way and take three hours “on a good day.”

“Now you can go back and forth between Riverhead and Brookhaven [to pick up lumber] four times in one day, and it’s still less miles than a one-way truck trip from Hawleyville,” he told me.

Long live Brookhaven Rail Terminal, I say. Our planet needs you!

John Henry is a journalist and author who is a former writer and copy editor for Times Review Media Group. He lives in Orient.