LIRR eyes protecting system, riders in cold

Trains enter the Jamaica LIRR station. (Feb. 8,

Trains enter the Jamaica LIRR station. (Feb. 8, 2013) (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

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The Long Island Rail Road is taking steps to protect its system, and keep riders warm, during frigid temperatures that can break rails, freeze track switches and slow trains, officials said Monday.

The weather, predicted to be below freezing for the next several days, poses a particular threat to the LIRR's steel rails, which are known to break during sudden and extreme drops in temperature, officials said.

"When it gets this cold, the steel actually contracts, and it will snap at the joints where you have plates with four bolts," said Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, whose workers maintain LIRR signals.

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LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said extra crews will be on hand this week to respond to any broken rails "if the need arises. Hopefully it does not."

Broken rails are a common winter problem for the LIRR, which experienced three such incidents in a single week last March.

The LIRR will also try to keep its customers warm by leaving station waiting rooms open round-the-clock for the rest of the week, Donovan said. "Folks need not stand on platforms until the very last minute when the train is approaching." Extra crews also will be available through the week to keep station platforms salted, he said.

To prevent the electrified third rail from icing over, the LIRR also planned to run trains which apply an antifreeze solution on all 700 miles of the system's track overnight.

Michael Quinn, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Local 269, the union representing LIRR engineers, said ice on the third rail can make a train sluggish and accelerate slowly.

"If it's really bad, you'll feel it kind of chugging along," Quinn said.

Extreme cold can also cause trouble for track switches, which need to be able to move laterally to route trains in the right direction. In frigid temperatures, the switches can freeze in one position.

Donovan said kerosene-powered heaters -- small pots that burn blue and orange flames -- will be used to protect the LIRR's critical switch locations.

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, which first called for extended waiting room hours during poor weather in 2012, commended the railroad for its response.

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