Abandoned Stations by Joseph Brennan. Copyright 2001, 2002.

Steam Railroad Laws in New York City

Folklore among railfans and New York City buffs is that there is a law against operating steam engines in tunnels in Manhattan, or something similar. This has earned the status of a FAQ on railroad newsgroups.

Here are the facts.

The Grand Central Law

Chapter 425 of the Laws of 1903 is titled "An Act to provide for further regulation of the terminals and approaches thereto of the New York and Harlem railroad at and north of Forty-second street in the city of New York. . .". This law was passed and effective 7 May 1903.

The lengthy text of this law generally provides the powers needed to close and regrade public streets, condemn property, and so on, to make possible the construction of Grand Central Terminal.

Section 3 requires plans for the reconstruction to be submitted within 30 days of the Act (i.e. by 6 June 1903) to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of the city of New York. This board was until recently the legislative body of the city.

Section 4 states that, beginning 5 years after approval of the plans (i.e. by about June 1908 or slightly later), "it shall not be lawful, except only in case of necessity, arising from the temporary failure of such other motive power as may be lawfully adopted, for any railroad corporation to operate trains by steam locomotives in Park avenue in the city of New York south of the Harlem river. If . . . trains shall be operated by steam locomotives in said Park avenue south of the Harlem river for a period of more than three days, the railroad corporation operating such trains shall pay to the city of New York a penalty of five hundred dollars for every day or part of day during which such trains are so operated, unless the mayor of the city of New York shall certify to the necessity for the use of steam locomotives arising from the temporary failure of other motive power." It goes on to detail how the mayor certifies the necessity and how the mayor may revoke the certificate at will.

It then states that the New York and Harlem railroad, the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad, and any successor companies using the railroad in Park Avenue, "are hereby authorized to run their trains by electricity, or by compressed air, or by any motive power other than steam and which does not involve combustion in the motors themselves, through the tunnel and over the improvements. . .". The "improvements" refers to the terminal itself and the Park Avenue viaduct.

This law is of the type known as an "unconsolidated law", so information on it is a little harder to find than for example the amendment to the Public Service Law discussed in the next section below. It appears in the annual Laws passed by the legislature and where it is appears it is indexed under New York and Harlem Railroad. This law was amended under Chapter 639 Laws of 1904 and Chapter 555 Laws of 1910, but not as to section 4. I could find no further reference to it in a search running into the 1940's. It is not in an unofficial two-volume work of selected unconsolidated laws used by the legal profession. Therefore it appears that as of the completion of the terminal in 1913, and the end of any need for powers to take property in connection with its construction, this law was forgotten.

If Chapter 425 of 1903 is still effective, then the use of any internal combustion engines is clearly outlawed by section 4, and so operation of any diesel engines is a violation except in emergencies. However the only penalty provided for is 500 dollars a day payable to the city, which, while effective for a for-profit railroad, makes little sense when government agencies are paying the railroad to operate. Clearly it was thought that the city would file an action under section 4 if there was any need.

The law does not limit steam operation in any other tunnels, and conversely it is also not limited to the Park Avenue tunnel but applies as well to the elevated viaduct from the portal at 97th St up to the Harlem River. Its application is not to tunnels as such but to the Grand Central Terminal approach on Manhattan Island.

The Electrification Law

Chapter 901 of the Laws of 1923, an amendment to the Public Service Law (chapter 480 of the Laws of 1910), prohibits steam operation in the entire City effective 1 January 1926:

"No railroad corporation, operating a railroad or part thereof within the limits of a city of the first class having a population by the last state or federal census of one million or more, shall on or after the first day of January, nineteen hundred and twenty-six, use any motive power in the operation of such railroad or part thereof within the limits of such city, except electricity to be generated, transmitted and used in such operation in a manner to be approved by the public service commission." The two other sentences provide for the Public Service Commission to approve the equipment and state that the law is in effect immediately, that is, as of 2 June 1923 when it was passed. New York is the only city meeting the description, but laws are required to be written generically.

The above, forming the new section 53a of the Public Service Law, was amended twice. Chapter 626 Laws of 1924 adds "or within the limits of a city adjoining such city", which describes Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and possibly New Rochelle. Chapter 845 Laws of 1926 adds that the Public Service Commission may, after a public hearing, extend the deadline to no later than "five years after the first day of January, nineteen hundred and twenty-six" (apparently hedging against the possibility of a different calendar being adopted before 1 January 1931 ?).

This law was repealed by Chapter 789 Laws of 1930. Section 53a is still listed in the Consolidated Laws under Public Service Law, as a repealed section.

In his book The Port of New York, Carl Condit mentions that the Public Service Commission held that use of diesel electric power was sufficient to meet the requirements, and that this is why some of the dock railroads began to use such engines during the time the law was in effect. Condit also attributes the electrification of the New York Central west side freight line to the law, although since that was accomplished after 1930, it must be that other factors, such as getting the line off the street surface, were just as important. According to company information in Moody's Railroad Manual, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railway electrified its lines in 1925 because of this law, but again it seems that other factors were really behind it, since electrification of the SIRT was being considered at least as early as 1920, just on practical grounds for a railroad with frequent service and short distances between stations.

There appears to be no law specifically applicable to, say, operating steam engines into Penn Station, but laws not directly about railroads could come into play. The resulting poor air quality for example would probably violate laws about public health and workplace conditions.

--Joseph Brennan

copyright 1994, 1999.

Abandoned Stations