Long Island Rail Road officials Monday announced safety initiatives to avoid accidents like the Dec. 1 Metro-North derailment that killed four people, but have no new plans to address a stretch in Suffolk County without signals or technology to monitor train speed and operations.
The track between Ronkonkoma and Greenport on the LIRR's Main Line is part of the "dark territory" that makes up a third of the system. In those areas, crews rely on a "manual block" strategy in which personnel communicate with each other by phone and radio to make sure two trains are not in the same area at the same time.
But two trains, including one carrying about 20 passengers, came within 700 feet of colliding head-on in Bridgehampton on the Montauk Branch in August 2009.
"It is just a fact . . . that parts of the system are safer than others," MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said at Monday's Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board committees -- the first since the Metro-North derailment that also injured 71 in the agency's worst train accident in 22 years.
The MTA board last month approved a $400 million contract to install electronic signals between Speonk and Montauk, a stretch also in the "dark territory." The signals are needed to meet a federal mandate for new "positive train control" accident-prevention technology by 2015.
The LIRR has maintained that the technology is unnecessary between Ronkonkoma and Greenport because of low train traffic. Weekday ridership between Ronkonkoma and Greenport is about 200 people, officials have said, although usage picks up in the summer. Two eastbound trains arrive at Greenport on weekdays, and three westbound trains depart.
MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said the agency would re-evaluate its position on adding the technology to the Main Line stretch.
"We have to make sure that any piece of track that the Long Island Rail Road operates on, or Metro-North, has the requisite piece of protection that our customers expect," he said.
Although the federal government has only called for stepped-up safety measures on Metro-North after the Dec. 1 derailment, MTA officials said that, wherever possible, they will take similar steps or additional steps on the LIRR, including expanding the use of crash-prevention technology.
"I can tell you, at a personal level for me, you do a lot of soul searching to determine what you can do to prevent a recurrence from happening," Prendergast said.
Safety improvements announced Monday include posting train speed limits on signs along tracks and increasing safety audits, "black box" analysis and the use of radar to monitor train crews and speeds.
The railroad also will install "alerter" systems in the cabs of 218 cars -- about 20 percent of the LIRR fleet -- that don't have them. The system requires an engineer to press a button every 25 seconds to acknowledge that he or she is alert and in control.
The LIRR will also install technology to better enforce speed restrictions at seven areas recently identified as "critical curves." Those locations are in addition to nine track curves where automatic speed control systems have been in place for years to slow down a train if it travels past a transponder faster than it should.
Such a system was not in place in the Grand Central Terminal-bound Metro-North train on Dec. 1, when the engineer momentarily lost focus and speeded through a sharp curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx at 82 mph -- nearly three times the speed limit. All seven cars on the train came off the tracks.
Some of the LIRR's initiatives, such as the new speed limit signs, have already been completed, while others will be in place by the end of next year, officials said. Until then, LIRR president Helena Williams said, engineers have been ordered to reduce speeds through the curves.
The safety measures are in addition to others recommended or ordered by the federal government, including creating a system to protect employees who report lax safety practices.
LIRR'S SAFETY IMPROVEMENT PLAN
Expand automatic speed control technology along seven curves where it was not in place, including in Hicksville and Syosset.
Increase safety monitoring of trains, including through the use of radar speed enforcement, onboard checks by supervisors, and downloads of train event recorders.
Install "alerter" systems in trains without them to help ensure an engineer is awake and in control.
Implement a "confidential close call" reporting system to protect workers who speak up about dangerous work situations.
Set "safety stand downs," in which employees stop what they're doing to review and discuss safety procedures.
Try to expedite the installation of positive train control technology to help prevent crashes. The MTA has applied for a $1 billion federal loan to help pay for the technology.