Editorial: LIRR should take over maintenance of Penn Station signals, tracks
Six weeks after superstorm Sandy walloped Long Island and New York City, the Long Island Rail Road was able to resume full rush-hour service out of Penn Station Monday. It was a long wait, but it could have been worse.
While service was restored incrementally, with the Long Beach branch the last to come on line, signaling in the East River tunnels was the most persistent barrier to full service.
So now, why can't the LIRR -- as the busiest user of Penn Station's infrastructure -- take over the maintenance of Penn's tracks, signals, switches and all the rest?
Amtrak, which maintains the signals Sandy destroyed, originally said they couldn't be repaired until Christmas or later. Credit Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for strongly suggesting that Amtrak fix the problem ASAP.
But unfortunately, riders have no guarantee against new problems that cripple operations in the century-old East River tunnels owned and maintained by Amtrak but primarily used by the LIRR.
The tunnels have been plagued with a litany of difficulties.
In the evening rush on the day before Thanksgiving last month, one of the busiest travel days of the year, switching and power issues stranded riders in the system for more than 21/2 hours. When Penn Station closed its doors to prevent overcrowding, throngs of furious riders gathered outside.
Two days before Passover last year, two broken joints in the tracks caused significant service disruptions.
Then there was the notice in 2011 that Amtrak might have to take two of the four East River tunnels out of service on weekends for the next four years to replace tracks.
After Sandy's 12-foot tidal surge knocked out the five 20-foot-long East River signal boxes, the LIRR and Amtrak wound up working together to make repairs. The result was Monday's accelerated return to full schedule.
While Penn is Amtrak's largest station, Amtrak is a national system whose priorities are nationwide. The LIRR, by contrast, depends on Penn for minute-to-minute precision. If signaling or switches are a problem, the misery will be greatest right here.
The LIRR has every incentive to make the trains run on time.
Sure, the details could get sticky. Would the LIRR oversee Penn Station along with the rails and ties and switches and tunnels that are used not only by Amtrak but New Jersey Transit? Negotiations would require an army of lawyers and a battery of political will.
Already Amtrak, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit work well togther in a joint command center for operations near Penn. And Amtrak continues to work smoothly with the LIRR to replace and repair multiple signal box casings that Sandy damaged beyond repair.
The LIRR would welcome a takeover as a way to get better efficiency. More efficiency would benefit New Jersey Transit, too. And the change would relieve Amtrak of a major headache.
Again, Sandy has shown us the way to get a tough job done better.