Carfloats on New York Harbor: What Goes Around Comes Around

By Lenis Rodrigues, Media Relations Staff

The maritime industry has a well-deserved reputation for reinventing itself through cutting-edge technologies that improve efficiencies at the port. In recent years, the industry’s game changers have included computerized gantry cranes and fancy robotics that load and unload cargo from ships.

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Greenville Yards circa 1969

A century ago, the numerous carfloats operating in New York Harbor were considered state of the art. These barges, outfitted with tracks and railroad freight cars, moved cargo to points west and east to warehouses in New York City, and to vessels tied up at the docks. But the benefits of floating freight cars dried up once major railroads went bankrupt, and the use of trucks in shipping began to rise steadily.

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One of three new locomotives purchased by the Port Authority at Greenville Yards.

That is, until the Port Authority decided that by investing in this 100-year-old operation, the old could once again become new. The result is a modernized railroad carfloat operation with a bright future on New York Harbor.

In 2008, the Port Authority purchased New York New Jersey Rail, LLC, (NYNJR) the railroad operating the last remaining carfloat service in New York Harbor. One of the agency’s priorities was lowering port-generated emissions by reducing the Port Region’s heavy reliance on trucking as the primary freight transportation mode over the long term. During the next decade, carfloats have handled an estimated total of 3,500 loaded rail cars and removed more than 12,000 tractor-trailers from the roads.

“The New York New Jersey Rail service is a good, reliable and efficient mode to get our products from origin to destination,” said Andy Goodman, the president of Sherwood Lumber Corporation, which has a facility at the 65th Street Rail Yard in Brooklyn. “It is more cost effective to receive the lumber via NYNJR’s carfloat as opposed to trucking it into Brooklyn.”

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65th Street Rail Yard in Brooklyn

Aside from lumber, NYNJR has moved large steel beams used to build the Housatonic River Bridge in Connecticut and boilers and generators for Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn and New York University in Manhattan, among other cargo. More typical cargo includes food products such as rice and onions and beer, as well as scrap metal and recyclables.

“The railroad has developed a great synergy. They move loaded beer cars to the east on one carfloat for consumption. The shredded glass from the beer bottles comes west on the return trip, which is then recycled into new beer bottles,” said Jeffrey Brauner, the principal transportation planner for the Port Authority’s Port Rail Program.

During operations, dock workers connect the barge to a transfer bridge that acts as a link between the barge and the rail yard. A locomotive shoves freight cars onto tracks located on the barge and workers distribute the weight as evenly as possible.  The crew then unhinges the barge and, with the help of a tug boat, it moves slowly on the four-mile trip across the harbor that takes 40 minutes.  One carfloat can transport 14 freight cars, the equivalent of 56 trucks, between Greenville Yard in Jersey City and the 65th Street Rail Yard.

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To dock the carfloat, workers manually connect pins to the carfloat to establish a seamless connection between the arfloat and the bridge.

In 2014, the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners authorized up to $133 million to fund the rehabilitation of NYNJR’s infrastructure, with funding from the Federal Highway Administration. The modernization projects include new environmentally friendly locomotives, higher-capacity carfloats, a new transfer bridge and support yard. These improvements are scheduled for completion in in 2020. In 2016, the railroad delivered more than 300 rail cars to the Sherwood Lumber Corporation warehouse.

“We plan to continue using NYNJR for many years to come,” said Goodman.

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