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Trip Report

Opening Day On The JFK Airtrain

December 17, 2003

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Well at long last the JFK Airtrain opened for business today at 2:00 PM. For the first day, until midnight tonight, they were offering free rides. So I decided to take advantage of their generosity. I set out from midtown Manhattan on a Far Rockaway bound A train.

The Airtrain's Howard Beach Station looms over the A train's tracks to the Rockaways Upon arrival at the Howard Beach station, one finds a very seamless transfer from the subway to the upper level and the JFK Airtrain station. Escalators and elevators await arriving passengers from both subway platforms at the Howard Beach station. The new upper level is sleek and modern and under normal circumstances, one simply swipes their Metrocard and the five-dollar fare is deducted at the turnstiles that separate the subway concourse from the Airtrain concourse.

There are plenty of Metrocard machines, along with a staffed window at which to pay, should you need to increase the amount of money on your Metrocard. The one thing that is unclear here, is just what happens if one is coming from the airport. There is only one set of turnstiles here, not one set for the Airtrain and another for the subway. I'm guessing that someone headed to the airport swiping their Metrocard is charged $5, while someone headed out from the airport is charged $7 ($5 for the Airtrain & $2 for the subway).

Turnstiles guard the entrance to the Jamaica station Anyone familiar with Washington, DC's Metro system, will be able to picture the turnstiles that are in use on the Airtrain. Instead of a set of rotating metal bars, these turnstiles use two plastic panels that retract into the left and right walls respectively, once you've paid your fare. One however swipes their Metrocard in typical NYC subway fashion, unlike DC's turnstiles where one inserts the card into the turnstile, only to have it pop up from a different slot in the turnstile.

Once on board the automated two-car train, you are quickly and quietly whisked from station to station. Station A is the Howard Beach station. The first stop on this loop is Station B (Lefferts Blvd) and the long-term parking lots. Shortly after leaving Station B, the train storage area and shops are passed on the left side of the train.

Upper level boarding area at Station C; passengers board train headed to Terminal area on the right Train from Station A (Howard Beach), approaches Station C on the split level; tracks to Jamaica run straight ahead

Moving on, just prior to the next station, this line is joined by the line from Jamaica. Trains from both lines stop at Station C (Federal Circle). Here one can find hotel shuttles & rental cars. From here we proceed to the airport terminals themselves.

An inner-loop train leaving Terminal 4 passes us by as we approach Terminal 4 The trains from Jamaica and Howard Beach run around an outer loop counter-clockwise, while a terminals-only train runs clockwise around the inner loop. Anyone only wishing to move from one terminal to another can use the less crowded inner loop, which only runs (at least right now) with one-car trains. All trains make stops at all terminals. Terminals 1, 4, and 7 have their own stations, while terminals 2 & 3 share a station, as do terminals 5 & 6, and 8 & 9.

We entered the terminal loop between the stations for terminals 8 & 9 and 1. We then turned to the right to run counter-clockwise and then made our first stop at terminal 1. On the outer loop one encounters the terminals in numerical order, while of course anyone riding the inner loop would be counting down from 9 to 1.

Approaching the tunnel on the way to Station C After making the loop, I disembarked when the train returned to Station C. Station C by the way is a split level station, with inbound cars stopping on the uppermost level, while outbound trains stop at the middle level. The lower level of course leads to the hotel shuttles and the rental cars. Again elevators, escalators, and stairs are available to move from one level to the next.

This split level arrangement sets up the tracks for the flyovers just north of Station C, as the line from Jamaica joins & splits with the Howard Beach line. This avoids the conflict of having to cross-over out-bound Howard Beach trains on the Jamaica line's in-bound track. Conversely the in-bound Jamaica trains don't have to cross-over the Howard Beach line's out-bound tracks. This arrangement permits a steady and smooth flow of trains, and allows for headways of two minutes at peak times.

Aside from wanting to see the inside of this station, I needed to detrain here if I wished to go to the Jamaica station. The train that I had been on would be returning to Station A/Howard Beach from here. After exploring this station for a few minutes, I then boarded an inbound train from Jamaica, so I could run around the airport a second time.

After the two tracks return to the same level upon leaving this station, they gradually descend into a short tunnel under a few airport roads. This is the system's only tunnel. As we exit the tunnel and once again climb above grade level there are a few switches that connect to a short track. This short track in turn then connects to the inner loop, to allow trains to be added and taken off the inner loop.

Raindrops fall while the Airtrain streaks by bumper to bumper traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway I once again rode around the terminal loop and returned to Station C a second time. This time however I remained on the train for the run out to Jamaica. Shortly after leaving this station the train reaches the Van Wyck Expressway, where the tracks run on an elevated structure in the center median of the highway. At 4:30 PM, the Van Wyck was of course the typical parking lot that it is during rush hour. I of course was streaking by all the stopped cars & trucks at close to 50 MPH.

Riding down the escalator to the street level lobby at Jamaica Less than 10 minutes later, the train was slowing for the curve into the Jamaica station. This station without a doubt is the crown jewel in the system. A huge wall built entirely out of glass windows three stories high is at one end of the station. There is a direct connection to the LIRR via an elevated walkway that connects to one of the LIRR's two overhead walkways. This connection is at the same level as the arriving Airtrain.

At present though, one must go outside to connect to the subway. Hopefully this will be fixed soon, as with today's rain, I for one would not have wanted to lug my luggage outside in the rain, just to connect. Several elevators and escalators are available for use to reach the street level and the connection to the NYC subways.

Approaching Station D (Jamaica), with the LIRR station to the left Once again Metrocard machines abound here on both sides of the turnstiles, so that passengers can pay their fare for the Airtrain. There is also a LIRR day ticket machine available here for those wishing to take the LIRR home.

Finally there is a counter area where one will be able to check-in for flights and also check one's luggage. Not all airlines will be represented here, but the major ones will be. This check-in area was not yet in use on this first day of operations. What is unclear though, is how the airlines plan to get the checked bags to the airport. Will a Skycap simply ride the train? Or do they plan to use a truck, which could get stuck in traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway?

The Howard Beach station does not offer the above check-in perk.

A short ride on the E train with a connection to the #7 train, and I was back home. Total cost to me for today $4.00 thanks to the free ride on the Airtrain. Starting tomorrow this same ride will cost 14 bucks.

Interior of the Airtrain car Now for a few other observations about the new service. The cars are roomy, brightly lit, and there are some seats. There is no doubt however, that they were designed predominantly for standees. There are a few places that one can put luggage if you like, but most people seemed to keep their bags at their feet. The trains were quite busy today, in part due to a fair number of railfans, like myself. There was however a fair amount of passengers that were obviously headed to a plane, as they were loaded down with suitcases.

Since the system is automated, there are no signals to control spacing of trains. There are however dwarf-sized signals at the switches, but they are not typical railroad signals at all. While each signal consists of three aspects, like typical subway signals, the lights are not red, green, & yellow. Instead the top two aspects display a white arrow indicating the direction to which the switch is set. The bottom aspect is red to indicate that either the switch is in motion or it is not safe to proceed for other reasons.

Approaching the Terminal 9 station This signaling permits one of the bigger oddities that I found on the system. When I boarded at Station A, there were two trains in the station. I boarded the train on the left, since it was less crowded than the train on the right. The train on the right however would be the first to leave. As the trains leave the station there is a typical X crossover between the two tracks. Unlike a typical interlock though, which would require both the left and the right switches to operate together, the Airtrain does not have this requirement.

I could clearly see that the switch in front of my train was set to reverse, so that my train would crossover to the outbound track, even though it's counterpart was still in the normal position. Not only was the counterpart switch set to norm; it was busy handling the other outbound train. So our signal was showing a red aspect. Once the other train had cleared the counterpart, and placed a little distance between my train, the other switch was reversed and we were allowed to proceed.

The Port Authority of NY & NJ has issued a rather nice brochure that is available in all of the stations. An Adobe Acrobat version is also available on the PA's website and it includes a map of the system, which will help to give you some idea of what I've described above along with a few pictures. You can find the online version of the brochure at the PA's website, by clicking here. Please note that you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. A free version of the reader is available here.

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