LIRR president: Amtrak must fix tunnels by year's end

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Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams wants Amtrak to complete its repairs inside the flood-damaged East River rail tunnels by the end of the year to avoid train cancellations and heavy crowding into 2013.

But an Amtrak spokesman said Monday that the repairs -- the last hurdle for the LIRR to restore full service following superstorm Sandy -- will likely not be done until mid-January.

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's railroad committee Monday, Williams detailed the problems faced by the LIRR in bringing back 100 percent service following Sandy, which flooded two of the four East River tunnels used by the agency to access Penn Station.

Amtrak has installed a temporary signal system inside the two damaged tunnels while it awaits completion of repairs of several complex signal cases that were destroyed by the corrosive floodwaters. Until the signal system is completely restored, the LIRR can run only about 70 percent of trains during the morning and evening rush hours.

Williams said she is anxious to see Amtrak fix the problem, which is causing heavy crowding on LIRR trains.

"We want to start the new year giving customers back the full train schedule," Williams said. "We are certainly not in control of our own destiny, but we are very strong advocates."

Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole said the new signal cases are expected to be delivered by next week, but the repairs probably won't be done soon enough for the LIRR's liking.

"Amtrak is aware of Long Island Rail Road's desire to have the replacement process completed by the end of 2012," Cole said. "Amtrak will make every effort to expedite the process, but the anticipated completion stands as mid-January of next year."

Williams said the reinstallation of the two signal cases would likely be done over two weekends, but she has not received a work schedule from Amtrak. Williams said the upcoming holidays could also impact the effort.

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The LIRR offered its own crews to assist in the repairs, but Williams said Amtrak "wants to try to handle it with their own workforce." Cole said Amtrak officials "appreciate" the offer.

The tunnel repair concerns mark the latest dust-up in an uneasy relationship between the LIRR, which is the primary user of the East River tunnels, and Amtrak, which owns and maintains them. After Amtrak issues inside the tunnels twice caused major service disruptions for the LIRR in the spring of 2011, state and federal elected officials intervened and called on Amtrak to step up its maintenance efforts.

Last Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year and the night before Thanksgiving, power and signal problems inside the tunnels forced the LIRR to suspend service to and from Penn during the evening rush. Amtrak blamed a commercial power outage.

"It continues to be unfortunate that all of our Long Island Rail Road riders are subject to the deficiencies of Amtrak," MTA board member Mitchell Pally said. "It's becoming more and more intolerable every time something happens."

The LIRR Commuter Council and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) plan a news conference Tuesday to call for Amtrak to provide a timetable for the tunnel repairs and to be more "transparent."

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