Take the train from the plane

I’m in New York City for a few days for work. I’ve never particularly enjoyed the uncomfortable, often jam-plagued taxi ride from JFK into Manhattan so this time I thought I’d take the train.

New York only built the Airtrain to JFK a few years ago, but even that development was half-hearted. The Airtrain is really a glorified shuttle to a rail junction in Jamaica, Queens, where passengers can transfer to either the Long Island Railroad or the subway. It all works well enough, and I reached my midtown Manhattan destination in about 50 minutes.

But woe betide new visitors to New York who venture onto the Airtrain. I can’t recall a public transport experience in the developed world that did less to help newcomers figure out what to do.

Getting from the terminal to the Airtrain isn’t bad, but there the problems start. There are two tracks, but there’s no clear signage to explain that one track is purely for a shuttle between JFK’s many terminals. The other track connects to the subway system. I expected big signs saying something like: “For Midtown Manhattan, take the Airtrain to Jamaica, Queens, and transfer to the E train.” You must be joking. No help whatsoever. Not even any obvious system maps that I could see.

If you get to Jamaica without trouble, further information cluelessness continues. You need to pay before you leave the Airtrain, even though there were no signs at the JFK end explaining the need for a ticket. I think a lot of visitors will expect the relatively short journey to be a free service.

I knew I had to pay, so I walked up to one of the ticket machines. “Single ticket or Metrocard?” What’s a Metrocard? “Ordinary Metrocard or Airtrain Metrocard?” Explain the difference, please. Of course, I figured it out, but didn’t someone consider that public transport from a major international airport will attract all sorts of people, many unfamiliar with New York.

All that said, I think I’ll probably use the Airtrain as a first choice in NY in the future. It’s inexpensive, reasonably fast and comfortable compared to most NY taxis.

At dinner this evening, I told some friends about my unsatisfactory experiences. They declared that it was consistent with New York. If you don’t know, why should we tell you? I concluded that there’s an Augustinian impulse to the culture: the difficulty of attaining the knowledge is part of the reward.

5 thoughts on “Take the train from the plane

  1. Felix

    The Airtrain is a fiasco. You neglect to mention that the change at Jamaica is pretty nasty, especially in the opposite direction (subway to Airtrain), entailing the dragging of luggage up many flights of stairs and along ill-lit streets. And the signage at the airport is pretty gruesome too: nothing bothering to tell you which escalator takes you to arrivals and which to departures, for instance.

    There’s still a vague hope for a JFK-Lower Manhattan rail link, but no one really seems to believe it will happen. At the moment, the closest equivalent to what we’ve got is to imagine arriving at Heathrow and then having to spend $10 to take a monorail to the far end of the Picadilly Line. In other words, it’s worse than what London had before it built its fast rail link into Paddington.

    I don’t take the Airtrain all that much, I have to admit: basically only when (a) there’s a fair amount of traffic — ie I’m not on an early-morning flight out of JFK, when you can get there in a cab in 20 minutes — and (b) when I don’t have much luggage. Getting off a 10-hour flight from Buenos Aires and then having to schlep your bags around rail terminals in Jamaica — not to mention getting from the subway to your final destination once you get into Manhattan — is no one’s idea of fun.

  2. Lance Knobel

    I kind of knew that post would be a red rag to Felix’s bull. I haven’t yet experienced the reverse trip, Manhattan to JFK, but I guess I’ll now expect the worst on Wednesday.

  3. Ed Costello

    The Airtrain was built primarily to connect Long Island RR users to JFK, not NYC. They chose a different gauge than used by NYC transit so that there’s no chance of interconnecting the systems.

    I don’t know that it would be any faster, but an A train to Howard Beach (Far Rockaway line) ($2.00) followed by the Airtrain ($5.00) might be more logical if you’re going to/from Lower Manhattan.

  4. Maria

    I don’t know where you’re going in Manhattan, but taking the LIRR from penn station to Jamaica is a bit faster than the subway (about 15-20 mins from Penn to Jamaica, and the frequency is fairly high).

  5. Dwayne

    I’m going to Harlem from JFK next week and this JFK-Jamaica-subway to midtown sounds like a really confusing trip. I don’t travel to NYC often. Will I be confused? I’m only in town for two days and I’m trying to save money but this sounds like it’s infrequent and confusing.


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