A Long Island Rail Road union says that a proposal by the agency to stop using signals along an 8-mile stretch of track in Queens and Brooklyn could put drivers and residents near the rails at risk.
The LIRR and freight carrier New York and Atlantic Railway last month applied to the Federal Railroad Administration for an exemption that would allow them to discontinue their automatic block signal system between Long Island City and Jamaica on the Lower Montauk Branch.
In their application, the rail companies said signals are "no longer needed" in that area, because the LIRR stopped running passenger trains along that route in March, and New York and Atlantic will only operate trains there at a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour.
But, in a letter to the federal agency, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, which represents workers who maintain LIRR signals, said that decommissioning the signals "is an unacceptable risk to the residents of Queens and Brooklyn."
Christopher Natale, general chairman of the union, said even with light train traffic, signals play a vital role, including by alerting an engineer to a broken rail, which could cause a derailment. Without signals, gates at several crossings would not come down well in advance of a train coming through, Natale said. An engineer would instead have to stop 50 feet from the crossing to trigger the gates to come down.
"You're taking away the safety equipment and you're putting it into human hands. And people are not infallible," Natale said. "We don't feel that it's right that they leave the public unprotected like that."
New York and Atlantic president Paul Victor disputed that there was any danger in removing the signals from the segment of the system, which he described as "a long, skinny rail yard." He said freight trains rarely traverse more than 2 miles of the track in a trip, and often do so at "walking speed."
"It's an old system. It's dated. It's hard to get parts for it. And it provides absolutely no protection or safety," Victor said of the signal system.
The FRA can grant a waiver from signal regulations when "it is in the public interest and consistent with railroad safety," according to the agency.
In a statement, the LIRR said that "there is no safety issue and no need to maintain a signal system" along that stretch.
It added that, under the arrangement with New York and Atlantic, the LIRR will save "tens of millions of dollars" by not having to make improvements along the route necessary if it was still a passenger line.
Using the line exclusively will also let New York and Atlantic carry more freight, "which will mean greater revenue for the LIRR," which gets a percentage of New York and Atlantic's earnings, the railroad said.