The Long Island Rail Road ran off the rails again this week, in the heart of the Monday evening rush, when a Hempstead-bound train from Penn Station jumped the tracks in an East River tunnel. No one was hurt, but crews had to evacuate about 800 riders, and the accident slammed LIRR operations into a shambles for more than 24 hours, with delays and cancellations on nearly every line.
Don't blame the LIRR, though. The main suspect in this catastrophe is a loose part in a track switch owned and maintained by Amtrak, which happens to own all rail infrastructure in and around Penn.
That last fact poses a big problem for the LIRR. The LIRR runs 563 trains a day through Amtrak's four East River tunnels. Yet it doesn't control the upkeep and repair schedule for this crucial part of its of network, which is a bottleneck in the best of times. That needs fixing.
The LIRR pays Amtrak to maintain tracks, signals and switches on the right-of-way it uses, and often finds itself in the role of a customer working with a contractor who has other priorities.
Amtrak runs a national rail system. While the East River tunnels are an important part of that operation, they're not as crucial to Amtrak as they are to the LIRR, which feels a systemwide shudder whenever there's trouble there. When Sandy struck in late October, Amtrak said it couldn't get the tunnels reopened until Christmas or later. But after New Yorkers raised a fuss, Amtrak collaborated with the LIRR and got them reopened by early December.
The good news is that Thomas Prendergast, who once ran the LIRR, appears to be on his way to confirmation in Albany as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent agency. He knows what the LIRR needs, and he's in a position to start talks with Amtrak and work out a deal. Taking over maintenance of the East River tunnels should be one of the first goals on his list. LIRR riders have suffered enough.