LIRR escalator upgrades hit more delays

Long Island Rail Road passengers ride the escalator

Long Island Rail Road passengers ride the escalator up to the platform at the Copiague Long Island Rail Road. (Jan. 11, 2013) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

The Long Island Rail Road has hit more delays in repairing and upgrading its oldest escalators but plans to complete the project before the first anniversary of an elderly woman's death on a Lindenhurst station escalator.

The LIRR embarked on a $5 million overhaul of 11 of its 19 escalators after the March 13 death of Irene Bernatzky, 88. She fell on the escalator and was asphyxiated when a piece of clothing became entangled in the machinery.

The project involves repairing and replacing components on the escalators and also installing new safety technology, including sensors that stop the stairs' movement when they detect something is caught in the machinery.

In October, the LIRR said it expected to have all the escalators back in service by November. But further inspections and testing revealed more issues, said Joseph Calderone, LIRR customer service vice president.

Two escalators remain out of service: Baldwin, which is expected to be running by the end of January, and Freeport, which returned to service in October after a four-month suspension, but was taken offline again in December for more repairs.

"Once we opened them up, we found out in certain cases that more work needed to be done," Calderone said. "This was all driven by safety concerns. We certainly weren't going to put an escalator back in service until it was ready."

The LIRR separately has plans to replace 12 of its oldest escalators, including all of those in the repair and upgrade project.

LIRR commuter William Vobis, 57, said that while he appreciates the railroad's push for safety, he considered the project a "knee-jerk" reaction to Bernatzky's death that inconvenienced too many riders.

Vobis, who said he has arthritis in his knees, climbed 48 steps each morning over the 10 months that the Copiague station escalator was out of service. It came back on line Jan. 4.

"All of a sudden, 11 escalators are all no good?" said Vobis, of Lindenhurst. "I didn't think it was done very well. If you're going to take everybody out, then quickly put everybody back in. But that's not the way it happened."

Patrick Carrajat, an escalator safety expert, said the LIRR was right to take all its aging escalators out of service at the same time.

"They're definitely doing what's needed, and they're probably going above and beyond," Carrajat said.

He said that while escalators are not "inherently dangerous," they require using extreme caution to protect riders from accidents -- such as the one at a Jersey City PATH station last week. Five people were injured when an escalator suddenly went in reverse.

"You have to be aware of what's going on around you," Carrajat said. "You're dealing with a device that creates approximately the same amount of thrust as a jet plane taking off."

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