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The current public transport system in JFK requires that you take a train ('AirTrain') to Jamaica Station and then switch there for a train to downtown New York City. This makes it quite inconvenient (especially if you need to switch to another line later on) and makes taking a taxi more attractive time-wise unless it's rush hour. In comparison taking the train downtown in a city like Vancouver can be faster than a taxi at almost any time of day.

What's the historical reason behind not allowing direct trains to JFK? Or perhaps one is planned for the future?

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    Perhaps this belongs on History or Politics. It doesn't have much to do with travel. – phoog May 19 '18 at 16:08
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    @phoog we have a similar question on this site with a lot of votes. Feel free to cast a close vote if you think otherwise. – JonathanReez Supports Monica May 19 '18 at 16:35
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about history target than any immediate problem with travel. – choster May 19 '18 at 17:08
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    @choster: it's perfectly on-topic, and you can answer with present-day costings, timings and speeds to explain why it isn't possible. – smci May 20 '18 at 2:37
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    @choster I'm voting to leave open. This is about history and politics, but it is also about travel. – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica May 20 '18 at 8:53
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By the time air travel became economically accessible to the masses, such that high-classed public transportation to airports was on the political radar at all, New York City was already one of the most heavily built-up areas on the planet.

Fitting an entirely new transportation system into Lower Manhattan at that time would have been a non-starter, so the only way to provide a one-seat ride would be to integrate it with one of the transit systems already in place. The options are then LIRR and the subway, both of which were already working under congestion. This would severely limit the service frequency a new JFK line could get without reducing service for existing users of the system.

Since JFK is right next to the built-up area, getting a heavy-rail connection (with the attendant limits on gradients and curve radiuses) into the terminal area would also be difficult, possibly requiring politically troublesome demolitions. A peoplemover allows more flexible routing (and we'll come back to that). Digging tunnels under the airport might not have been feasible, given the low elevation (and proximity to vulnerable wetlands).

Finally, and possibly the kicker: With a large multi-terminal airport such as JFK, "single-seat train ride to the city center" is kind of an iffy proposition in the first place. You can't make the trains stop somewhere that is convenient for all the terminals, so many passengers would have to transfer between the train station and their terminals using some other mode. Perhaps a peoplemover, which can more easily snake around between the terminals?

(This is what they have at San Fransisco and Chicago O'Hare, for example: The city transit system does connect to the airport, but then most passengers have to change to a airport-internal peoplemover before they reach their check-in desk. Or, in Europe, consider CDG or London Gatwick).

And what JFK has is exactly that: A peoplemover that connects the individual terminals to the subway and LIRR. Giving one or perhaps two neighboring terminals a subway station would not make it appreciably easier to get to the others than it is today.

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    +1 I'd say that JFK AirTrain is significantly more obnoxious to use than SFO or CDG, given its slow speed, the distance you have to travel to reach Jamaica, and the damn $5 exit fee. At SFO, you can walk to BART fairly quickly from the international terminal and T3, and CDGVAL is both free and doesn't go five miles off the airport property. – Zach Lipton May 19 '18 at 19:21
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    But couldn't some of the A line trains terminate at JFK, serving all the terminals along the way? That's how it works in many other systems. – JonathanReez Supports Monica May 19 '18 at 20:08
  • @JonathanReez: Apart from those trains needing to be taken from the Rockaway branch, it would be a huge problem of geometry to get them to reach all of the terminals. They need much longer platforms than a peoplemover, and the platforms have to on fairly straight bits of track (otherwise you end up with dangerous gaps between the train doors and the platform), and even outside of platforms heavy rail needs larger curve radii than a peoplemover. If it can even be done we'd be looking at massive construction and disruption to existing infrastructure compared to a peoplemover circulator. – Henning Makholm May 19 '18 at 20:53
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    The trick is taking LIRR, rather than subway, from Jamaica station. It costs $7.50 more, but the trains leave more frequently, have less of a hike to the platform (I hate the subway elevator), and quickly get you into Manhattan, non-stop. The subway can take forever, especially if making local stops. From Penn Station I take a taxi (or possibly a subway if it makes more sense). Going to the airport is fluid, about 35 minutes from Penn Station to security. Sure, not as good as other cities, but it's ok, and better than no AirTrain, which is what we used to have not long ago. – Ivan X May 19 '18 at 22:57
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    "You can't make the trains stop somewhere that is convenient for all the terminals". Yes you can! In the middle of all the terminals, with moving walkways from that hub to the terminals, like in Miami airport, which serves nearly as many passengers. The only reason you can't have a transit hub in the middle of JFK is because the center is the Van Wyck Expressway cloverleaf, which was built in 1950. So JFK is what you get when you design an airport built around a freeway intersection. (Admittedly JFK walkways would have work reliably in the bad weather, but that's a solvable problem) – smci May 20 '18 at 3:49
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There used to be, in the early 1980s: Wikipedia - JFK Express

It ran more or less along the A train tracks as an express where a single door opened at the stations and you paid an additional fare. At JFK you transferred to a bus shuttle that served the terminals. Tearing up JFK to build a rail line that serves the terminals would be completely impractical.

My memory is that most of the passengers weren't going to or from JFK, they were commuters from the Howard Beach area who were willing to pay a premium for express service to Manhattan. This together with the cost of running it made it somewhat unpopular politically. Maybe Cynthia Nixon will bring it back?

  • It wasn't any more of a one seat ride than the A train currently is, though, or was in those days, unless you were traveling to or from Sixth Avenue instead of Eighth avenue. – phoog May 20 '18 at 3:37
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    @smci I think you mean Union Square, and it's not so easy... a train coming up from Howard Beach can't magically switch to any other line. The only places to switch off the Fulton (A/C) line are to the Rutgers tubes (F) at Metrotech or to the 6 Av local tracks (F/M) at W 4 St. There's no route up either the Broadway or Lexington lines. Union Square is on those two and Grand Central is on only Lexington. – Andrew Wonnacott May 20 '18 at 7:48
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    @smci A truly incredible amount of money. Look at the costs of recent Second Avenue Subway, East Side Acces, and Hudson Yards construction (all of which also involve stations). Also note that construction of said connection would disrupt service on existing lines. Also note this would require capacity from both lines, something very lacking at many points. – Andrew Wonnacott May 20 '18 at 8:07
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    One other issue: the Lexington line (4/5/6) (and other numbered lines) runs differently dimensioned trains from the A (and other lettered lines) so such no through trains would be possible. The one place this connection could be built, theoretically, without distrupting service, would be from the former Court St station in Brooklyn (now the Transit Museum) to Whitehall St in Manhattan. – Andrew Wonnacott May 20 '18 at 8:11
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    As constructed it shared a tunnel to Brooklyn with the Nassau St lines, which now terminate at Broad St and do not run to Brooklyn, but Whitehall St was built with provisions for a second set of tunnels to Brooklyn in case the capacity was needed. This would allow W trains to run on the A/C local tracks in Brooklyn, decreasing crowding on A/C trains through the Fulton St tunnel. However, consider the very high cost of construction of a new under-river tunnel. – Andrew Wonnacott May 20 '18 at 8:12
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The historical reasons are:

  • The rail network was developed between the 1830s and the 1880s, while the airport was not developed until the 1940s. The Rockaway line wasn't even part of the subway system until the 1950s, a decade after the airport opened.

  • When the airport was developed, during the middle of the 20th century, New York City was investing heavily in automobile infrastructure, largely under the influence of Robert Moses, who designed and built most of the city's expressways, and whose "building of expressways hindered the proposed expansion of the New York City Subway from the 1930s well into the 1960s." That the airport is well connected to the road network, but not the rail network, is no surprise.

  • Multiple proposals to connect the airport to the rail network have been considered and for the most part rejected since the 1960s, starting with the Program For Action and leading to the current AirTrain. Reasons for rejection include

    • low ridership projections
    • restricted funding, often because of financial crises
    • opposition from residents of affected neighborhoods

Some quotations from Wikipedia's AirTrain JFK article:

A railroad link to JFK Airport had been proposed since 1968 as part of the Program for Action, but was not actually implemented for almost three decades. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, various plans surfaced to try to build such a link. Meanwhile, the JFK Express subway service and shuttle buses provided an unpopular transport system to and around JFK. There were 21 failed proposals for rail links to New York City airports during this time.

...

There have been proposals for a railroad link between Manhattan and JFK Airport since 1968, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) proposed an ambitious subway and railroad expansion under the Program for Action. The Program for Action contained a plan to extend the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to the airport via the Van Wyck Expressway. ... Many Rockaway and central Queens residents wanted the link to run along the disused Rockaway Beach Branch, rather than along the Van Wyck, so that Rockaways residents could simultaneously get express service to Manhattan.

...

Ultimately, most of the lines for the Program for Action were canceled altogether due to the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975.

The article goes on to describe several other proposals, including:

  • Bus rapid transit in 1982, "scrapped ... in the face of near-unanimous opposition from the communities along the route."
  • A direct rail link from Manhattan to La Guardia to JFK in 1990, beset with planning problems and questions about whether its benefits justified its costs, that was scaled down in 1995 to the scope of the current AirTrain.
  • A 1999 plan for service from the Second Avenue Subway, through the Montague Street tunnel, to Jamaica via the LIRR Atlantic Branch, where it would join the current AirTrain system for access to the airport. (This plan will have to wait at least until the Second Avenue Subway is complete; it would also require building a new connection from the subway system to the LIRR at Atlantic Terminal.)

In short, it isn't accurate to say that direct trains to JFK are "not allowed." Everybody agrees that they would be great. The problem is that it has proven impossible to develop a politically acceptable plan to bring that about in a cost-effective manner.

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