Build an Actual Train to the Plane

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Issue 13, Volume 113

By Muhib Muhib 

Cover Image

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) launched the JFK Express in 1978: a direct express subway service from Midtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport, nicknamed the “Train to the Plane.” The impressive and unprecedented express service became a hallmark of the 1980s subway system. However, the system faced continued challenges before its discontinuation in 1990. Since the JFK Express did not serve the airport directly, passengers preferred the cheaper A train, which limited the JFK Express ridership profile to mostly people who were more well-off. Train service to the terminals did not arrive until 2003 with the JFK AirTrain, which connected Howard Beach station and stations in Jamaica to the terminals for a fare of $5 at the time.

While Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport have indirect rail links, LaGuardia Airport relies on rapid transit buses from Harlem (the M60 Select Bus Service), the major subway station in Jackson Heights, and the railroad station in Woodside (the now-free Q70 Select Bus Service). However, rapid transit buses limit the capacity of passengers who can go to the airport via rapid transit, encouraging people to take private automobiles, taxis, or rideshares to the airport, which are very inefficient and not environmentally sustainable. On the other hand, Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport’s respective rail links, called the AirTrains, cost $8.25 to enter and exit and are free within the airport zone. LaGuardia Airport was under consideration to receive either an AirTrain-type rail link (AirTrain LaGuardia), a subway extension, improvements to bus service, or a new ferry service, with LaGuardia Airport most likely getting one or both of the latter two. Despite the clear benefits of a direct subway line to LaGuardia (which has been proposed several times), the PANYNJ has inflated costs for such a proposal because it would not give them the revenue needed (since they would not get the fares of a subway line that they would not run) to increase the attractiveness of their airport to airlines through cheaper landing fees.

LaGuardia’s “Train to the Plane” should be a subway service because it would offer frequent, rapid service, low fares, and easy access to Manhattan. The current AirTrain JFK and AirTrain Newark run relatively frequently, though with the caveat that they are effectively shuttles from public transportation to airport terminals, which increases travel times. AirTrain JFK users must also purchase an additional fare upon entry/exit to the system and still rely upon MetroCards, which further increase travel times. Bus service is hindered by circuitous routes, traffic, their relatively small capacity, and most likely a multi-seat ride. The AirTrains also have an absurd $8.25 fare to merely use them to connect to public transportation, in addition to any fares paid to reach the AirTrain station while using them to reach a parked car or to pick up a rental car, for example, is free. Subway services would be integrated farewise with the rest of the subway system and not have additional fares for travel to the airport, resulting in a relatively affordable fare. A subway service, if you extend the right one, can provide a one-seat ride to Manhattan with no transfers required. Ideally, this would be the Astoria Line, as it gets the closest to the airport, and an extension would allow more trains to be run—possibly up to 40 trains per hour (a train every two and a half minutes) if service patterns are simplified, new signaling technology is installed, and the terminus is designed efficiently. It currently takes about 20 minutes to get from the northern terminus of Ditmars Boulevard to Midtown Manhattan, and a three-mile extension to the airport would likely result in a 30-minute travel time.

The Astoria Line should, as a result, be extended to LaGuardia Airport. Stops to serve the local area can be made without severely sacrificing travel speed to the airport (at most, a half an hour ride). The Astoria Line extension should have stops on 21st Ave at Steinway Street, Hazen Street, and the three airport terminals of LaGuardia Airport, serving the local area and the airport. New infrastructure should be considered as a part of the construction, such as a new maintenance facility and better connections, which would improve service reliability and enable as many people as possible to use the station.

Extending subway service to LaGuardia Airport would enable frequent, high-capacity, speedy, affordable one-seat rides to and from Midtown Manhattan. A “Train to the Plane” must be for all, not for the most well-off, and it must be frequent and fast. Such a service gets cars off the road (“if you build it, they will come”), as it provides a much better alternative to car use, compared to current journeys, where they are so circuitous that the car is a reasonable alternative. Fewer cars on the road are a much better use of scarce space, better for the environment, and much safer for pedestrians. Though it does not resolve the problem of air travel itself, a subway extension certainly makes long-distance journeys much less environmentally harmful due to the decreases in carbon emissions and pedestrian-automobile incidents. An Astoria Line extension could get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in less than half an hour, without even needing to use the center express track that already exists south of Astoria Boulevard, would only cost the subway fare, and would have many convenient connections. It certainly beats any bus service in speed and capacity, no matter what bus rapid transit improvements are undertaken. It is clear it is time for the return of the “Train to the Plane” and its associated jingle, but this time, it would be an actual “Train to the Plane.”