I Rode The JFK Airport Air Train, NYC's Little Known 5th Rail Line, and This Happened

JFK Air Trainm 9 photos
Photo: Wikimedia User Ad Meskens - Own work
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This week, I had to take a flight from JFK Airport to Orlando. Apart from being my first ever commercial airline flight at the ripe old age of 25, it was the first time I'd ever left my car at home for a long trip.
This meant I was stuck taking public transportation to the airport, which involved riding on New York City's little-known fifth rail-based mass transit system. This is the MTA's JFK Air Train, a cute little one-to-two-car tram system dedicated entirely to servicing commutes to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Safe to say, most tourists don't have much use for this tram line unless they're catching a flight.

Being neither part of the Subway, the Long Island Railroad, the Metro North, or the New Jersey Transit systems, the Air Train is a pariah in the middle of the NYC Borough of Queens. An 8.1-mile-long (13 km) stretch of rail encapsulates the bulk of JFK airport and eight of its terminals. Helping connect the airport to the LIRR and the Subway to help get locals and flocks of tourists wherever it is they need to go.

The Air Train traces its lineage back to the little-remembered but much reviled JFK Express Subway line. A train line that used largely similar rolling stock to normal Subway railcars like Pullman Standard R46s and Westinghouse R68s. Even if the Subway as a whole wasn't in the best shape in the late 70s to early 90s, the JFK Express was especially drab. Especially with its inflated price over standard Subway fares.

From then until December 17th, 2003, the only way to get directly from the airport to connecting Subway lines in the Howard Beach neighborhood or from the popular LIRR and subway hub in Jamaica, Queens, was by bus. That was until the Air Train took the best intentions from the JFK Express, merged it with the convenience of a bus line, and made something better altogether.

JFK Air Train
Photo: Wikimedia User Jim.henderson - Own work
But did any of this translate into a better experience than what you would get with a bus? Well, at least in my case, the results were mixed. My journey started normally enough. It began by departing from an LIRR train at Jamaica Station, a place I was more or less familiar with, from using the E and 7 Trains to get from there to the gem of a neighborhood that is Long Island City.

Getting from the LIRR platform to the Air Train was simple enough, with ample signs everywhere to direct you to its location that are actually fairly helpful for once. The meager fare of $5 didn't hurt either, especially because I managed to save a dollar by using an old metro card I'd kept in my wallet from the last time I was in town. The Air Train terminal that morning was marginally crowded, but it wasn't like the 1 train during rush hour, thankfully.

The glass outer doors slid open, allowing us to enter one of two Bombardier Innovia ART 200 people-mover tram cars. As these same cars are used in cities like Detroit, Vancouver, Ryadh, Toronto, Beijing, and Kuala Lampur, these are some of the most dependable air tram cars on the planet. The automated cars can also seriously hoof it, with an operating speed of 60 mph (97 kph).

The seats situated around the circumference of both cars looked fairly plush and comfortable. I even spotted two people taking a power nap while sitting down on them. Not that I would know, as I was stricken with standing thanks to being one of the last people at the Jamaica Terminal to get on.

JFK Air Train
Photo: Wikimedia User Ad Meskens - Own work
Instead, I assumed the time-honored New York City Subway rider position of gripping the vertical handrails tightly with my right hand with both heels firmly on the ground in case of a sudden stop. No leaning on one foot to look cool for me. It'd been foolproof to me in the considerable time I spent traveling by train on all four of the city's major railroads to see friends. That was, until today.

In-between JFK terminals two and four, our tram suddenly slammed on the brakes and went from what must have been 30 to 40 mph (48.2 to 64.3 kph) down to zero in what felt like no time at all. The only logical explanation is someone must have pressed the emergency brake button. The force wasn't quite enough to rip my grip away from the vertical metal pole.

Still, it was enough to violently swing me forward, sending me more or less face-first into an open seat-back cushion right next to a young mother and her son, minding their own business a few feet away from me. Happily, none of us made contact in the affair, but things could have been much worse on so many levels.

And so, the Air Train promptly dropped me off at JFK Airport's Terminal four, completing my first airport tram ride with an experience unlike I'd ever had in the Big Apple. Overall, the Air Train is a fast, convenient, cheap, and comfortable way to get to the JFK airport quicker than a bus or combination of the Subway or LIRR and taxis can manage.

JFK Air Train
Photo: Wikimedia User Ad Meskens - Own work
When all was said and done, it was one of the least stressful parts of my travels that morning, despite everything. But good lord above, if someone hits the e-brake in that machine, you can only pray it doesn't end with a claim to your dental insurance company. You're going to get bucked like a Bronco and not one made by Ford.
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