Before Sandy, every A train trip between the Rockaway peninsula and the rest of New York City began and ended with a crossing of Jamaica Bay. The train moved along a piece of land so thin that, from inside the train, it appears to skim atop the water. But for months, that 3.6 mile railroad bridge has been out, doubling commutes for Rockaways residents and further adding to the sense of deprivation brought on by Sandy.
On October 29, Sandy's storm surge overwhelmed that thread of connection. When the waters receded, the A train's foundation was gone, removing a major transit link from the peninsula's 130,000 residents.
One of those residents is Senior Producer of The Takeaway, Jen Poyant. She moved to the Rockaways a few years ago for a relatively affordable beach home -- far from Manhattan, but still, a direct shot on the A train. Water filled Poyant's basement, and came within a foot of flooding her first floor. For a month, she and her family couldn't return home. When she finally got back, she was overjoyed, but the daily trip to work can feel overwhelming -- like a little bit of work squeezed between commutes.
The direct train ride has become an odyssey from a slow-moving crowded bus to the train miles into the mainland. Sometimes, fellow commuters told Poyant, it takes all night to get home from Manhattan.
The MTA says its aware of the frustrating commute, but can't promise relief until summer.
MTA executive director Tom Prendergast described the result to the City Council: "An entire bridge and critical subway line serving the Rockaways was destroyed."
With the A train out, the MTA put subway cars on a truck, drove them to the peninsula and lifted them by crane onto tracks that serve six stops at the end of the line. The H train now runs for free from mid-peninsula at Beach 90th Street to the eastern end of the Rockaways. Bus service has also been increased.
But these are temporary measures. The list of needed repairs to the A train is extensive, and the going is slow. "We had to build out the shoulders on the east and west sides of the track, where you saw the washouts occur," Prendergast said. "We've had to replace damaged and missing third rail protection boards and insulators. We've had to replace signal power and communications equipment, which is ongoing." And damage to the Broad Channel subway station has not yet been fully repaired.
The MTA has patched and reinforced the land bridge where Sandy took large bites from it. But crews are still laboriously laying track and rebuilding the signal system from scratch — both on the railbed crossing Jamaica Bay and on the west end of the peninsula.
In the meantime, the MTA says it'll keep increasing service on the Q53 line, using old buses that have been held back from retirement. Those buses are jammed with riders every weekday rush hour as they make their way over the Cross Bay Bridge. More buses are coming in April.
The A train is expected back no earlier than late June.