The only two options that freight trains have for accessing the east side of the Hudson River are to cross a bridge in Albany—140 painstaking miles north of New York City—or to ride a rail barge across the Hudson through the highly efficient marine-rail operation run by NYNJ Rail in Jersey City.
There used to be a handful of rail barge operations on the Hudson Bay. Now, the last one in operation—NYNJ Rail—floats twice a day all year round.
They exchange a variety of items across the Hudson—food like vegetables and beer, building materials like wood and rebar, and recycled materials from different places on Long Island and Brooklyn, including from the brand new SIMS MRF in Sunset Park.
The barge in use, capable of carrying 14 railcars at once, hauls a load equivalent to 56 semi-trucks. When freight trains use the other, much longer and highly inefficient route around New York City, they're forced to rely on passenger rail routes in addition to needing more resources.
It only takes 45 minutes to make the four-nautical-mile trip across the harbour with NYNJR.
Preparing a barge for crossing starts when NYNJ Rail receives the freight cars in their rail yard.
Before the rail barge can take these cars across, a conductor uses one of their locomotives to "build a train". Building a train is exactly what it sounds like: a process that involves planning the weight distribution of the cars on the barge and linking up all the cars on land in the sequence and order they will need when transported.
The locomotive pushes the train on each of the three tracks of the barge. Once part of the train is on one track, engineers lock the cars in place before detaching them from each other. At that point, the locomotive and remaining cars back off, and the process repeats twice more until the rest of the cars are on the barge.
After the barge is loaded up, the New Jersey crew detaches it from land. On the Jersey side, the barge hooks into a floating pontoon bridge. This dock acts as a ramp from the land to the barge and connects to the rails very precisely. The crew ties the barge up to the bridge and then inserts four pins--two on either side.
When leaving, the pins are removed, one side at a time, and the barge drops deeper into the water. The barge then sits tied up, waiting for a tugboat to move it across.
Standing on the barge and watching the pins come out, you get a sense of the dramatic weight of all the cars as they push the barge deeper into the water:
The tugboat, Joyce D. Brown, arrives. It's a beautiful, freshly painted, and family-run vessel, piloted by Captain Brown who is considered the most safe and respected captain in the harbour.
The tug pulls alongside the barge and ties itself on. Ropes holding the barge to the bridge are undone and the tug backs it out, flipping it around and pushing it toward the 65th Street Rail Yard in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Don Hutton, the Managing Director of NYNJR, fills me in on some details about the three crews responsible for the operation while we make our way to Brooklyn.
The Jersey crew docks the barge in Jersey City, he explains. They assemble the trains and take cars on and off there. The tugboat has its own crew from Staten Island in charge of the hand off: attaching the barge to the boat and bringing it over to Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn crew then does exactly what the Jersey crew does, but in Brooklyn. The Jersey and Brooklyn crews like to send messages to one another via the barge throughout the year.
Pulling into Brooklyn, a tugboat crewman walks to the bow of the barge and guides the captain toward the bridge over a radio. The Brooklyn shore utilises a Lift Bridge to dock the barge—a much more technically advanced way of matching the height of the bridge to the barge compared to the pontoon bridge.
The Brooklyn crew just hits an up or down button and it adjusts the height.
This type of system used to be on the Jersey side, but Hurricane Sandy annihilated it. In order to get the barge running again as quickly and cost effectively as possible, a pontoon bridge was installed as a replacement. With the pontoon bridge a locomotive needs to creep up the slope until it evens out perfectly with the barge. It's a lot of back and forth work until it matches, but the Jersey crew has it down pat.
At Brooklyn a locomotive begins the process of swapping the cars. What was once a barge filled with 14 freight cars is empty in a matter of minutes:
Today the barge is picking up scrap metal and some recycled material from the Sunset Park MRF a little further North in Brooklyn. This morning's exchange was a little out of the ordinary, in that New Jersey's shipment consisted mainly of empty cars. Usually both sides send over a lot of freight.
Once the barge is loaded back up they unpin the bridge and Captain Brown turns us around back toward Jersey City.
The trip back across goes by even smoother than the way there. The extra weight keeps the barge safe from the water's choppiness. NYNJR is a well known commuter on the Hudson and most boats know to steer clear—allowing for a smooth and direct trip back and forth.
The barge is guided back into the slip on the Jersey side three hours after it started the loading process early the same morning. I get off here, but the Jersey crew preps the barge for one more trip to Brooklyn and back.
What's remarkable about the whole system is how clean, efficient, and relatively quiet it is. NYNJ Rail's neighbours on either side of the Hudson are either noisy or smelly, but the maritime rail system Don runs is incredibly light-footed.
Don tells me some ideas he has for improving the system—a bigger barge able to hold 18 freight cars would effectively take 72 semis off the road, he explains. Only four maritime rail systems operate in the United States, two of which are on the East Coast. The NYNJ Rail, being the busier of the two, makes two trips a day as opposed two a few a month.
Furthermore, because NYNJR is so much lighter on the environment and conservative with city resources, companies like SIMS utilise the system and organisations like the Port Authority recognise its worth. Hudson maritime rail should be busy for the much foreseeable future.
Thanks to NYNJR for letting Gizmodo tag along for the ride.