TODAY'S PAPER

Lawsuit spurs new calls to oust LIRR’s freight rail operator

A New York & Atlantic Railway train at Grand Avenue and Railroad Avenue in Lindenhurst in 2013. Credit: Steve Pfost

Lawmakers and activists cited allegations that New York & Atlantic Railway used unqualified workers for dangerous work. NYAR denies the suit’s claims.

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State lawmakers and community activists are renewing calls for the Long Island Rail Road to drop its freight rail operator after day laborers filed a lawsuit alleging they performed dangerous track work for the company without proper certification or safety gear.

The lawsuit, filed last month in State Supreme Court, accuses New York & Atlantic Railway, a subsidiary of Anacostia Rail Holdings, of directing the laborers — some of whom were picked up outside a Home Depot — to carry out jobs on the LIRR’s tracks that “they were never qualified, trained, certified or licensed to perform.”

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The tasks included installing and repairing rails and track switches and re-railing derailed freight trains, all while denying them proper safety equipment and paying them unfair wages, according to the lawsuit.

Activists demand changes in LIRR freight deal Queens community activists Mary Parisen and Gary Giordano gather outside the New York and Atlantic Railway yard in Fresh Ponds on Oct. 18, 2016, to discuss practices of the LIRR's longtime freight partner. ( Credit: (Newsday /Alfonso A. Castillo)

“They’re putting their heads and their bodies under trains with zero training,” Kristina Mazzocchi, the Manhattan attorney representing the plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action status, said Friday. “These workers were not supposed to be there because they hadn’t been qualified. They were not trained to be on those tracks.”

John Cassellini, a spokesman for New York & Atlantic Railway, known as NYAR, called the allegations “unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and unsupported,” and said the company would file a formal legal response.

“Safety of our employees, contractors, and guests is paramount to NYAR, and it is something we take very seriously,” Cassellini said. “We take great pride in creating a culture that sets rigorous standards for safety excellence, fosters an environment rooted in mutual respect in which we encourage employees and contractors to identify and raise safety concerns with management, and offers support in addressing any concerns.”

The suit has fueled calls from community activists and some state elected officials for the LIRR to break ties with NYAR, which has operated on its tracks since 1997. The Glendale, Queens-based freight railroad last year renewed its agreement with the LIRR for another decade — even after the Federal Railroad Administration in 2016 issued a report about unsafe work practices at NYAR, including a Queens crash in which the locomotive engineer left the scene.

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In a letter to the LIRR last month, Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) and Michael Miller (D-Glendale) and Sen. Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. (D-Ozone Park) urged the railroad to review the allegations in the suit, and other claims made by civic groups about unsafe work practices, and “sever its agreement with NYAR” if it found the allegations to be true.

LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said Friday that the railroad submitted a formal request to the State Department of Labor to investigate the claims in the lawsuit and has also referred the matter to the MTA inspector general. Donovan said if the allegations are proven, the railroad would take them into account in deciding whether to continue its relationship with NYAR.

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“We consider the safety of our customers, our employees and the general public our highest priority,” Donovan said.

The LIRR in October said NYAR had put in place safety upgrades to address the concerns raised by the federal government in the 2016 report and that it would continue monitoring the freight company and “act if we feel there has been any reduction of the improvements they have put in place.”

Mary Parisen, co-founder of Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, a Queens-based freight watchdog group, said the LIRR’s oversight of NYAR’s safety practices has been ineffective and urged the railroad to work to get out of its contract, even if it means going to court.

“Guess what, folks: That hasn’t worked. They didn’t change anything. If they changed anything, would we be in this situation that we’re in right now?” Parisen, of Glendale, said. “You’ve got lives at stake here.”

At a meeting last month, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski called the allegations raised in the lawsuit “news to us.” He said the LIRR’s legal team was reviewing the lawsuit to “learn more.”