|Locale||connecting JFK International Airport to various points within Queens, New York City|
|Daily ridership||approximately 17,773 paid
approximately 27,000 within airport (2014 average)
|Opened||December 17, 2003|
|Owner||Port Authority of New York and New Jersey|
|Character||Elevated Rail Line|
|Rolling stock||32 Bombardier Innovia Metro vehicles|
|Line length||8.1 miles (13 km)|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
|Electrification||Third rail 750 V DC|
|Operating speed||60 mph (97 km/h)|
AirTrain JFK is a 3-line, 8.1-mile-long (13 km) people mover system and elevated railway in New York City, serving John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. It contains 10 stations serving six terminals as well as connections to the New York City Subway and Long Island Rail Road in Howard Beach and Jamaica. AirTrain JFK is operated by Bombardier Transportation under contract to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the operator of the airport. It runs a 24/7 service all year round.
A railroad link to JFK Airport had been proposed since 1968 as part of the Program for Action, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, various plans surfaced to try to build such a link, while the JFK Express subway service and shuttle buses provided an unpopular transport system to and around JFK. There were 20 failed proposals for rail links to New York City airports during this time. Serious planning for a dedicated transport system at JFK began in 1990, after the results of its environmental impact statement were released in 1997, the current people-mover system started construction a year later. Despite several lawsuits and a death during system testing, AirTrain JFK opened on December 17, 2003.
Since opening, it has seen higher-than-expected ridership. While 4 million paid passengers and 8.4 million inter-terminal passengers were originally supposed to ride the system daily, the system accommodated 6.4 million paid passengers and 10 million inter-terminal passengers in 2014.
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, this plan would have been implemented under Phase 2 of expansion. It would have entailed extending the LIRR through the under-construction 63rd Street Tunnel's lower level before turning southward in Manhattan and ending at a new "Metropolitan Transportation Center" below Third Avenue and 48th Street. William J. Ronan—the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operated Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK Airports in the New York City area—proposed bringing the link to Penn Station instead.
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, the revised plan for a link between Penn Station and JFK via the Rockaway Beach Branch was approved by the New York City Board of Estimate in 1969. Later during the planning process, a Woodhaven Junction stop was added along the link's route due to requests by residents of the Woodhaven neighborhood.
The $210 million LIRR plan faced great criticism, and one particular section received heavy opposition. New York State Senator John J. Santucci, representing the Rockaways, raised concerns that a 2,900-foot (880 m) tunnel for the link, which would connect to the Rockaway Beach Branch, would require razing part of Forest Park, a plan that was opposed by his constituents. Santucci said that the link's construction would irreversibly destroy part of the park, destroying a community landmark and "stripping away the resources of the people for the luxury of the few." In October 1974, the president of the Hammel Holland Seaside Civic Association wrote to Mayor Abraham Beame, "It is our earnest plea to you that your decision on this rape of Forest Park be rescinded." The association's president further said that although it would be cost-ineffective to create a premium service to JFK Airport, the Rockaway Beach Branch should still be reactivated for local passengers.
Ultimately, most of the lines for the Program for Action were canceled altogether due to the 1970s fiscal crisis; in April 1976, Port Authority Chairman Ronan said that the link was "not feasible" due to the economic downturn and a corresponding decrease in air traffic. In 1978, after the Program for Action had been mostly scrapped, independent organizations fpushed for the construction of a direct subway link from the IND Rockaway Line south of Aqueduct–North Conduit Avenue. A subsequent study for a dedicated two-lane bus rapid transit line to JFK along the Rockaway Beach Branch, called the "Transitway", was released in 1982, the line would also host taxis, limousines, and vans going to the airport. The Port Authority scrapped the plan the following year in the face of near-unanimous opposition from the communities along the route.
Following the failure of the JFK rail link, the MTA started operating the JFK Express (advertised as "The Train to The Plane"), a premium-fare service of the New York City Subway that connected Midtown Manhattan to the IND Rockaway Line's Howard Beach–JFK Airport station, it ran from 1978 until 1990, transporting passengers to Howard Beach via subway and then to the airport via transfer to a shuttle bus. For many years, the shuttle buses transported passengers between the different terminals of the airport, within JFK's Central Terminal Area, as well as between Howard Beach and the terminals, the JFK Express service was unpopular with passengers because of its high cost and because the shuttle buses would often get stuck in traffic, negating their benefits.
The Port Authority then proposed an inter-terminal rail connector at JFK in 1987, the connector, proposed as part of a $3 billion renovation of the three airports, would originate from a new five-story, $500 million transportation center, connecting all the terminals to that transportation hub. The two-track system would be able to accommodate 2,000 riders an hour and would also connect to another new structure, a $450 million terminal proposed by Pan American World Airways, the connector and transport hub were proposed to alleviate traffic at the airport, since during the previous year, all three airports had experienced an unusually large increase in passenger counts and were now accommodating 1.5 to 2 times their design capacity. This construction was proposed in conjunction with the JFK Expressway, which was already under construction. Architect Henry N. Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners created a design for the terminal and the proposed people mover system. However, the Port Authority withdrew its plans for the large transport hub in 1990 after opposition from the airlines there, which could not pay for the costly renovation.
By the 1990s, there was also a need for a direct link between Midtown Manhattan and JFK Airport, which are 15 miles (24 km) away by highway. During rush hour, the travel time from JFK to Manhattan could average up to 80 minutes by bus, outside of rush hours, a taxi could make that journey in 45 minutes, and a bus could cover the same distance in an hour. The Port Authority, foreseeing economic growth for the New York City area as well as increased air traffic at JFK, started planning for a direct rail link between Manhattan and JFK; in 1990, the United States Congress passed the Aviation Safety and Capacity Expansion Act (H.R. 5170), which allowed airport authorities to impose fees on passengers departing from their respective airports, with the intention of using these funds to improve their airports. This allowed the Port Authority to add a Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) fee of $3 for every passenger departing from JFK. This charge was implemented in 1991 and was projected to add $120 million annually in additional funding.
In 1990, the MTA proposed such a direct rail link to the two Queens airports (LaGuardia and JFK), which would be funded jointly by agencies in the federal, state, and city government, the rail line was to begin in Midtown Manhattan, crossing the East River via the Queensboro Bridge's lower-level outer roadways, which had been formerly used by trolley cars. It would stop at Queens Plaza, then use the right-of-way of the Sunnyside Yards and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to access LaGuardia Airport. After stopping at LaGuardia, the line would continue parallel to the Grand Central Parkway an intermediate stop near Shea Stadium in Willets Point, with a connection to the 7 <7> trains at Willets Point Boulevard. Continuing down the parkway, the line would have another intermediate stop in Jamaica, connecting to the LIRR at Jamaica Station, and then proceed nonstop down the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK Airport. However, the Port Authority found in April 1991 that the ridership demand might not be able to justify the cost of the rail link between the two airports, as a result, the MTA reduced the priority of building the link.
In September 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo put his support toward this rail plan, which would cost $1.6 billion if built. Queens borough president Claire Shulman also endorsed the rail link. However, the Regional Plan Association opposed the link, with RPA leaders calling the plan "misguided." The East Side Coalition on Airport Access's executive director later said of the plan, "We are going to end up with another Second Avenue subway, another 63rd Street tunnel, another uncompleted project in this city."
By 1992, the rail link proposal had gained traction with the Port Authority, which had started reviewing blueprints for the JFK rail link, at the time, it was thought that the link could be partially open by 1998. In 1994, the Port Authority set aside $40 million for engineering and marketing of the new line, as well as created an environmental impact statement (EIS), the EIS, conducted by the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), found the plan to be feasible. However, the project also accumulated opposition from area residents and advocacy groups, the PFC funds being collected by the Port Authority were supposed to fund the project, whose budget had grown to $2.6 billion. The project was to start in 1996, but there were disputes over where to place the Manhattan terminal, the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street was originally proposed for the terminal's location due to its high concentration of airport travelers, but Manhattan community leaders were concerned over the amount of traffic that would result from building the terminal there. Many East Midtown residents opposed the Manhattan terminal outright because it would cause more limousine and taxi traffic in the neighborhood, as well as remove two travel lanes from the Queensboro Bridge, the Port Authority also did not consider a connection to Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station, which both have a higher ridership base, because such a connection would be too expensive and complicated. To pay for the project, the Port Authority would charge a one-way ticket price of between $9 and $12.
However, by February 1995, plans for the link were in jeopardy, as the cost of the proposed link had increased from $2.6 billion to over $3 billion in the previous year alone. This caused the Port Authority to consider abridging the rail link plan, seeking federal and state funding, or partnering with private investors. Mario Cuomo's successor, George Pataki, had expressed skepticism about the viability of the JFK rail link during the previous year's gubernatorial campaign. Instead of going to Manhattan directly, the rail link might have connected to Queens subway stations to reduce costs.
Curtailment of plan
The direct rail link between LaGuardia/JFK and Manhattan was canceled outright in May 1995. The plan had failed to gain traction politically, as it would have involved raising tolls and PATH fares to pay for the new link, plus the 1990s economic recession meant that there was little chance of the entire plan being enacted due to the plan's rising price. The proposed JFK Airport connection was curtailed to a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) monorail or people mover. The plan was originally to create a monorail, similar to the AirTrain Newark monorail that would open the next year; in August 1995, the FAA approved the Port Authority's request to use the already-collected PFC money to instead fund the new monorail plan. By this time, the Port Authority hoped to start construction in 1997 and open the $827 million line to Howard Beach by 2002, it had already collected $114 million in PFC fees for the canceled JFK rail link project, and was planning to collect another $325 million from the charge. By 1997, the agency had collected $441 million in PFC funds.
The Port Authority voted to proceed with the scaled-down system in 1996. A final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the JFK people mover, conducted by the Port Authority and released in 1997, examined eight possible transport improvements that could be constructed in order to provide this direct connection. Ultimately, a light rail with the qualities of a people mover, tentatively called the JFK Light Rail System, was selected as the most feasible mode of transportation for the new system, it would replace the shuttle buses that traveled between the terminals as well as to and from Howard Beach. The FEIS determined that an automated system with frequent headways was the most optimal design, the light rail would run from the airport terminals to either Jamaica or Howard Beach. Prior to the approval of the JFK Light Rail, there had been 20 proposals for direct links to New York-area airports that were all canceled.
While Governor Pataki supported this revised, $1.5 billion people mover plan, Mayor Rudy Giuliani voiced his opposition over the fact that it was not a direct rail link from Manhattan, and thus would not be profitable because of the need to transfer from Jamaica. Additionally, Giuliani did not like that the city had to effectively pay $300 million toward the new light rail system, the Port Authority was originally planning to pay for only $1.2 billion of the project, with the other $300 million to be used to pay the rent at the airport instead. In order to give his agreement, Giuliani wanted the Port Authority to study the possibility of extending the Astoria elevated to LaGuardia Airport, as well as make the light-rail system compatible with the subway or LIRR to allow possible future interoperability; in late 1997, Giuliani agreed to the plan under the condition that the state reimburse the city $300 million of the system's cost, with the city paying the $300 million for the line from 2002 through 2017. As part of the agreement, the state would also conduct a study on a similar train link to LaGuardia Airport.
In 1999, the RPA created a proposal for a full-length Second Avenue Subway from Broad Street to 125th Street, along with the LIRR East Side Access, the extension of subway services along commuter rail lines in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and an extension of New York City Subway service directly to JFK Airport via the JFK Light Rail. The new set of extensions proposed by the RPA, dubbed "MetroLink", consisted of 31 new metro stations, 3 recycled commuter rail stations, and 19 new route miles of track. A subway service would have started at Grand Central–42nd Street, went down the IND Second Avenue Line and to Brooklyn via the Montague Street Tunnel, used the LIRR Atlantic Branch from Atlantic Terminal to Jamaica Station, and then used the JFK Light Rail's trackage to JFK Airport.
The Port Authority was only allowed to use the funds from the Passenger Facility Charge for the exclusive benefit of airport passengers, as a result, only the portions linking Jamaica and Howard Beach to JFK Airport were approved and built, with the expectation that airport travelers would be the sole passengers of the system. The federal government approved the use of PFC funds for the new light rail system in February 1998, allowing construction to proceed. However, some $200 million of the funding could not be paid off using the PFC tax.
Construction of the system began in May 1998, the majority of the system was built one span at a time, with cranes mounted on temporary structures erecting new spans as they progressed along the structures. However, some sections were built using a balanced cantilever design, where spans were first built on their own and then connected to each other using the span-by-span method, the fact that the Jamaica branch had to be built in the middle of the Van Wyck Expressway, combined with the varying length and curves of the track spans, caused complications during construction. One lane in each direction was closed during the off-peak hours, causing congestion on the Van Wyck.
The AirTrain JFK was mostly routed along existing rights-of-way, but three commercial properties, including a gas station and a vacant building, were seized and demolished to make way for the AirTrain alignment. Members of the New York City Planning Commission approved the condemnation of several buildings along the route in May 1999, but voiced concerns about the logistics of the project. The commission's concerns included the projected high price of the tickets; ridership demand; and unwieldy transfers at Jamaica.
Community leaders supported the project because of its connections to the Jamaica and Howard Beach station. However, almost all of the civic groups along the Jamaica branch's route opposed that branch due to concerns about nuisance, noise, and traffic. There were multiple protests against the AirTrain project; during one such protest in 2000, a crane caught fire in a suspected arson. Homeowners in the vicinity believed that the concrete supports would lower the prices of their houses. Residents were also concerned about the noise that an elevated structure would create, which was a main factor in the cancellation of the LaGuardia Airport connection. According to a 2012 study, the vast majority of residents' complaints were due to "nuisance violations." The Port Authority responded to residents' concerns by imposing strict rules regarding disruptive or loud construction activity and implementing a streamlined damage claim process which quickly compensated homeowners who suffered damage to their homes as a result of the construction. Through 2002, there were 550 nuisance complaints about the AirTrain's construction, of which 98% had been resolved by April of that year, on the other hand, at least one community board—Queens Community Board 12, which includes South Jamaica along the AirTrain's route—recorded few complaints regarding AirTrain construction.
In January 1999, the Air Transportation Association of America (ATA), a lobbying group and trade organization representing several airlines, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit against the FAA over alleged misuse use of Passenger Facility Charge funds for the project. In March, Judge Laurence Silberman ruled that the FAA did not misuse PFC funds in constructing the Van Wyck section of the AirTrain; however, he also found that after the AirTrain's public comment period had lapsed, the FAA had incorrectly continued to collect and make use of comments posted after the deadline. As a result, the project's approval was vacated, the FAA then opened a second request for public comment, and the approval was accepted again. In 2000, the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors (SQCN) and the Committee for Better Transit (CBT), two advocacy groups consisting of local residents, also filed a federal lawsuit in which they claimed that the FEIS had published misleading statements about the effects of the elevated structure on southern Queens neighborhoods, the ATA, along with the SQCN and the CBT, appealed the funding decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The ATA subsequently withdrew from the lawsuit following negotiations with the Port Authority. However, the CBT proceeded with an appeal, which it lost; in denying the lawsuit, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote that "...the FAA's interpretation of the PFC statute is reasonable and consistent with the statute's purpose."
By the time the AirTrain case appeal was decided in October 2000, two-thirds of the system's viaduct structures had been constructed already, the system was ready for its first test trains by December 2000. The state spent $75 million to renovate the Howard Beach station, which brought it into ADA compliance and facilitated passengers' transfers to and from the AirTrain, the new Howard Beach station was completed in May 2001. The Port Authority also contributed $100 million toward the renovation of the Jamaica LIRR station, with the State of New York paying for the rest of the $387 million project, the purpose of this renovation was, in part, to facilitate AirTrain connections. The renovation of the Jamaica station started in May 2001 upon the completion of the Howard Beach station. By this time, the system's guideway rails were complete and the guideways were being constructed, the first two AirTrain cars were delivered in March 2001 and were undergoing testing at the AirTrain maintenance facility near Lefferts Boulevard. The guideways were completed in August 2001. However, a parking structure, proposed near the Jamaica terminal as part of a long-term plan to redevelop downtown Jamaica, was largely unfunded by 2002, the year the AirTrain was originally supposed to open.
Opening and effects
Service was set to begin in October 2002, with the Jamaica station set for completion by 2005, the Howard Beach branch was supposed to open first, with the Jamaica branch opening later, in 2003. In July 2002, an AirTrain derailed during testing, injuring three workers on board the train, on September 27, 2002, a train operator died in another derailment during a test run, which delayed the system's opening. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash and found that the train had been speeding excessively on a curve at the time of the crash. After the death, Southeast Queens residents feared the project could become a "boondoggle." By this time, the system had cost $1.9 billion to build. The entire system was set to open in June 2003 following the fatal crash, but its opening date was pushed to on December 17, 2003. AirTrain JFK and the rest of the airport, like other Port Authority properties, did not receive subsidies from the state or city for its operating costs, which became one of the reasons cited for its relatively high fare.
As a result of the AirTrain JFK, Jamaica saw a boom in commerce, with a 15-screen movie theater opening in the area within a year of the AirTrain's debut, the effects were evident even before the AirTrain opened; by June 2003, a 50,000-square-foot (4,600 m2), 16-story building was being planned for Sutphin Boulevard across from the new station. Other nearby projects built in the five preceding years included the Jamaica Center Mall; Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building; the Civil Court; and the Food and Drug Administration Laboratory and Offices. In 2004, a 40-block swath of Jamaica, centered around the AirTrain station, was proposed to be rezoned as a commercial area, the mixed-use "airport village" would consist of 5,000,000 square feet (460,000 m2) of space, and by the time the rezoning was proposed, a 400,000-square-foot (37,000 m2), 13-floor structure in the area was already being proposed by a developer. The purpose was for Jamaica to be re-envisioned as a "regional center," according to the RPA, since during the average weekday, 100,000 LIRR riders and 53,000 subway riders used stations in the core Jamaica. A proposal called for a 250-room hotel above the AirTrain terminal, but this was canceled after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Port Authority itself estimated that the AirTrain JFK would get 12.4 million passengers a year. The Jamaica station's renovation was completed in 2006, three years after the system opened.
Before the AirTrain was completed, there were already plans to extend it to Manhattan. Between September 2003 and April 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the MTA, the Port Authority, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation conducted a feasibility study on the Lower Manhattan–Jamaica/JFK Transportation Project. This project would use the LIRR's Atlantic Branch to Downtown Brooklyn and a new tunnel to Lower Manhattan, this would provide faster service to JFK via a one-seat ride and LIRR service to Lower Manhattan via a transfer at Jamaica (i.e. the same plan proposed by the RPA in 1999). Under this proposal, baggage could be checked in Manhattan and transferred directly to planes at the airport, the study examined several alternatives. The project was halted in 2008 before an environmental impact statement could be created.
On January 4, 2017, the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to renovate the entire airport at a cost of $7–10 billion, as part of the project, the AirTrain JFK would either see lengthened trainsets or a direct track connection to the rest of New York City's transportation system. There would also be a rebuilding the Jamaica station so that there is a direct connection to the Long Island Rail Road and New York City Subway. There is no proposed start date for the overhaul. Shortly after Cuomo's announcement, the Regional Plan Association published a study in which it studied a possible direct rail link from Manhattan; in July 2017, Cuomo's office began accepting proposals for master plans to renovate the airport.
AirTrain connects the airport terminals and parking areas with LIRR and subway lines in Queens, the system consists of three routes: one route each connecting the terminals with the Howard Beach and Jamaica stations, and one route looping continuously around the central terminal area.
The Howard Beach route begins and ends at Howard Beach–JFK Airport, adjacent to the IND Rockaway Line (A train). It also stops at Lefferts Boulevard for shuttle bus service to long term parking lots A and B and the airport employee parking lot as well as the B15 bus to Brooklyn. The segment of line from Howard Beach to Federal Circle, which crosses the employee and long-term parking lots, is about 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long.
The Jamaica Station route begins and ends at Jamaica, adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road with a connection available to Sutphin Boulevard–Archer Avenue–JFK Airport on the Archer Avenue Line (E J Z trains). The AirTrain and LIRR stations are connected to the subway station by an elevator bank. Many Nassau Inter-County Express, MTA, and private buses are available at the station. Leaving Jamaica the line overshadows 94th Avenue before curving southward onto the Van Wyck Expressway, the segment of line from Jamaica to Federal Circle is about 3.1 miles (5.0 km) long.
Before separating for their final destinations, the Howard Beach and Jamaica routes stop at Federal Circle for car rental companies and shuttle buses to hotels and the airport's cargo areas. South of Federal Circle, the routes share track for 1.5 miles (2.4 km), entering a tunnel before the two directions of tracks separate for the 2-mile (3.2 km) terminal loop. Both routes continue in a counterclockwise direction, stopping at each of the six terminals in order.
The All Terminals loop, an airport terminal circulator, serves the six terminal stations (Terminal 1, Terminals 2/3, Terminal 4, Terminal 5, Terminal 7, and Terminal 8), it operates in the opposite direction as the Howard Beach and Jamaica branches, making a continuous clockwise loop around the terminals. Connections to the Q3, Q10 and B15 local buses are available at Terminal 5.
As planned, counterclockwise trains, to and from Jamaica and Howard Beach, would have run every 2 minutes during peak hours, for a frequency of 30 trains per hour (tph), each branch would have been served by a train every four minutes, or 15 tph. The final environmental impact statement planned for even higher frequencies of 40 tph, or a train every 90 seconds in the central terminal area. However, as of 2014[update], actual frequencies were much lower, with each branch being served by one train every 7 to 12 minutes during peak hours, or 5 to 8.5 tph. During middays, trains come every 10 to 15 minutes, with 4 to 6 tph on each branch; during nights, trains come every 15 to 20 minutes, with 3 to 4 tph on each branch; and during weekends, trains come every 16 minutes, with 4 tph on each branch. Trains make the journey between the terminals and either Jamaica or Howard Beach in about eight minutes.
All AirTrain JFK stations are fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), being wheelchair- and disability-accessible. Each platform is 240 feet (73 m) long and can fit up to four cars. The stations all contain platform screen doors for passenger safety and climate control, as well as for ensuring the safe operation of the unmanned trains, they also contain safety systems such as CCTV cameras, alarms, and emergency contact points, and are each manned by attendants.
All of the stations have island platform layouts except Federal Circle, which has a split platform layout, the Jamaica and Howard Beach stations are designed as "gateway stations" where, upon entering, passengers transferring from the subway and LIRR are made to feel like they are in the airport.
||Originally named Terminals 2 and 3.|
||Originally named Terminals 5 and 6.|
||Originally named Terminals 8 and 9.|
With the exception of Terminal 4, all AirTrain stations are outside the terminal buildings, sit on the other side of the terminal roadway from each building, and are connected to their respective stations through elevated walkways over the roadway, the actual Terminal 4 opened in 2013, after the AirTrain JFK opened.
The total route length of the system is 8.1 miles (13.0 km), with the terminal-area loop being 1.8 miles (2.9 km). The system consists of 6.3 miles (10.1 km) of single-track guideways and 3.2 miles (5.1 km) of double-track guideways. The tracks are set at a gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm). This enables possible future conversion to LIRR or subway use, or a possible connection to LIRR or subway tracks for a one-trip ride into Manhattan. However, the current rolling stock are not qualified to use either LIRR or subway tracks due to the AirTrain rolling stock's inadequate structural strength and differing method of propulsion; in particular, the linear induction motor system that propels the AirTrain vehicles cannot be used on LIRR and subway tracks because these are manually propelled by electric motors. If a one-seat ride is ever implemented, a hybrid-use vehicle would be needed to operate on both subway/LIRR and AirTrain tracks.
The system is mostly elevated, the elevated portions were built with precast single and dual guideways; the underground sections using cut-and-cover, and the at-grade sections using concrete ties and ballast trackbeds. The single guideways are 19 feet 3 inches (5.87 m) wide and the double guideways are 31 feet 0 inches (9.45 m) wide. Columns support the precast concrete elevated sections at intervals of no more than 40 feet (12 m). The system has seven electrical substations to ensure that in the case of power outages at one substation, trains could still operate, the elevated structures were designed for resistance to minor seismic events, utilizing seismic isolation bearings and soundproof barriers to protect from small earthquakes as well as prevent noise pollution. The AirTrain uses steel tracks that are continuously welded across all joints except at the terminals; the elevated guideways are also continuously joined. Double crossovers are used at Jamaica and Howard Beach to terminate trains. There are also crossover switches north and south of Federal Circle, counterclockwise from Terminal 8, and clockwise from Terminal 1; in case of an emergency, a control tower would run the train to the next stop, where passengers would be able to disembark, as there are no emergency exits between stations.
AirTrain JFK is free within the terminal area and to the hotel and car rental shuttle buses at Federal Circle. Entering or leaving the system at the Jamaica or Howard Beach stations requires that a $5 fare be paid using a MetroCard. A $1 fee is charged for all new MetroCard purchases. Transferring to the Q3, Q10, or B15 from Terminal 5 requires an extra $2.75 fare, since the MTA does not offer free transfers from the AirTrain. Consequently, entering the subway at either Jamaica or Howard Beach costs $7.75, and entering the LIRR at Jamaica costs $14.25 during peak hours and $9 during off-peak with the LIRR CityTicket.
AirTrain JFK MetroCards can be purchased from vending machines at Jamaica and Howard Beach with cash, credit card, or ATM card. One reduced fee option is the "30-Day AirTrain JFK MetroCard", which is $40 for unlimited rides and valid only on AirTrain JFK, the AirTrain JFK 10-Trip MetroCard costs $25 and is good for ten trips on the AirTrain only until midnight six months after first use. This card is only accepted on AirTrain JFK, and one trip is deducted for each use. Initially when the AirTrain JFK system first opened, the fare was only payable with pay-per-ride MetroCard; this option is still available, and one can use a general pay-per-use MetroCard for AirTrain JFK as well. Standard unlimited MetroCards are not accepted on AirTrain JFK.
As originally planned, the fee to enter or exit at Howard Beach and Jamaica would have been $5, with airport and airline employees receiving a discounted fare of $2. Trips within the airport terminals would be free, as is currently the case.
On July 25, 2008, to celebrate the airport's 60th anniversary, the Port Authority let riders use the AirTrain for free for one day.
When AirTrain JFK was being planned, it was expected that 11,000 passengers per day would pay to ride the system between the airport and either Howard Beach or Jamaica, while 23,000 more daily passengers would use the AirTrain to travel between terminals, this would amount to about 4 million paid passengers and 8.4 million in-airport passengers per year. The system would cause a reduction of approximately 75,000 vehicle miles driven per day, as well as accommodate over 3,000 daily riders from Manhattan, according to the FEIS, during the first month of service, an average of 15,000 daily passengers rode either the paid or unpaid sections of the system, less than the 34,000 expected daily riders. This made it the second-busiest airport transportation system in the United States, even though it had been open for only a month, since then, ridership continued to rise. AirTrain JFK transported 1 million riders within its first six months.
In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, AirTrain JFK carried 6,487,118 paid passengers, with another 10 million using the service for free on-airport travel, this is a 247% increase over 2004, the first full year of operation, when 2,623,791 riders paid. The 2014 paid ridership is 12% of the 53.2 million passengers that used JFK that year. The ridership of AirTrain JFK has risen each year from 2004 to 2014, which Governor Andrew Cuomo touted in a 2015 announcement in which he also announced the plan for AirTrain LaGuardia, a similar system to be built at LaGuardia Airport, the $5 fare is much cheaper than the $45 one must pay for a taxi between Manhattan and JFK, which may be a factor in the increased ridership.
AirTrain JFK uses Bombardier Transportation's Innovia Metro rolling stock and technology, identical to the SkyTrain in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and the Kelana Jaya Line in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The computerized trains are fully automated, using a communications-based train control system with moving block signals to dynamically determine the positions of the trains. The cars do not have any conductors or motormen, making AirTrain JFK a wholly driverless system, the CBTC system uses Thales Group's SelTrac technology. The trains are operated from and maintained at a 10 acres (4 ha) train yard between Lefferts Boulevard and Federal Circle, atop a former employee parking lot.
The 32 individual (non-articulated) Mark II vehicles operating on the line draw power from a 750V DC top-running third rail. A linear induction motor pushes magnetically against an aluminum strip in the center of the track, the vehicles also have steerable trucks that can navigate sharp curves and steep grades, as well as align precisely with the platform doors at the stations. The cars can operate at up to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). Each individual car is 57 feet 9 inches (17.60 m) long by 10 feet 2 inches (3.10 m) wide, with similar dimensions to rolling stock used on the B Division of the New York City Subway. Trains can be operated to run in either direction, and they can run in consists of between one and four cars, each car has 26 seats and can carry 97 passengers with luggage or 205 without luggage, though the cars' operating capacity is only 75 to 78 passengers because most passengers are expected to carry luggage. There are two doors per side per car, and each pair of doors is about 10 feet 5 inches (3.18 m) wide. The trains can operate on trackage with a minimum railway curve radius of 230 feet (70 m).
On November 28, 2009, two doors fell off from an AirTrain that had just been maintained, since the incident happened in the overnight hours, no one was aboard the train when the doors fell off.
In May 2012, following a thunderstorm, a power outage caused trains to lose power for a few hours; in August of the same year, the discovery of an "unknown liquid" on the Jamaica station's platform forced the temporary shutdown of AirTrain service.
Following President Donald Trump's signing of Executive Order 13769 in January 2017, which restricted immigration from some countries, protests at JFK Airport forced the Port Authority to shut down the system for a short time. Governor Andrew Cuomo later reversed this shutdown.
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Route map: Google