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LIRR derailment fuels debate over $1B plan for 3rd track

Nassau County and MTA police and firefighters respond

Nassau County and MTA police and firefighters respond to the Long Island Rail Road derailment on Oct. 8, 2016, in Garden City. Photo Credit: Brad Trettien

A Long Island Rail Road third track might have prevented or lessened the impact of last weekend’s train derailment and other recent service disruptions along the railroad’s Main Line, supporters of the plan say.

Opponents, however, say the incidents are maintenance issues that Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have failed to address while using incidents such as Saturday night’s Garden City derailment near the New Hyde Park station to push a $1 billion “red herring.”

The third track along a 9.8-mile stretch between Floral Park and Hicksville would give the LIRR more capacity to run trains, MTA officials have said.

Although the LIRR’s capacity problems are not new, numerous incidents along the Main Line in recent months have added urgency to calls for the third track, which MTA officials have said would allow the LIRR to provide service when one or even two tracks are down.

The derailment was the cause of just one of at least four major LIRR service disruptions to originate within a 3-mile stretch of track over the last week. Less than two hours after the LIRR announced it had restored full service after track damage from the derailment Monday afternoon, an unrelated switch problem in Mineola snarled the evening commute, canceling trains and causing delays of up to an hour.

With every service meltdown, proponents have taken the opportunity to point out how a third track could have made a difference. Standing in front of the derailment site Sunday morning, hours after an LIRR work train collided with a passenger train, injuring 33 people, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said a third track would give the LIRR “more flexibility.”

“If you had a third track now and had an incident involving two tracks, you could still be running trains,” Cuomo said.

Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), a longtime opponent of the third track who visited the derailment site Sunday, said attempts to use the incident to forward the project are “inappropriate.”

“It’s absolutely the wrong message. The third track is a billion-dollar investment that runs through communities in Nassau County and it needs to be addressed separately,” Martins said. “This is a maintenance issue that the MTA is refusing to address, and is throwing out this third track red herring,” Martins said.”

In January, Cuomo and the LIRR proposed building the third track to also give the LIRR the ability to bounce back from service problems. Project officials have said they plan to release an environmental study later this year and begin construction in 2017.

The proposal resurrected a similar plan that was defeated by local opposition about a decade ago. Unlike the original proposal, the new third track would be constructed largely within the LIRR’s property and not require taking private property, project officials have said.

Last week, an MTA spokesman likened the situation to the kind of traffic jams that occur when a car breaks down on one lane of a two-lane highway. Martins said a better comparison would be a two-lane highway riddled with potholes.

“I think the answer is fix the potholes, not build another lane so people get around the potholes.”

MTA project officials said Tuesday the LIRR continually maintains its tracks, and noted that the work train involved in the derailment Saturday was doing just that.

The project officials said that, more than just help recover from service disruptions, the proposed Main Line expansion project would prevent some incidents from occurring at all by eliminating seven grade crossings prone to accidents, involving vehicles and pedestrians.

Kevin Law, co-chairman of the Right Track for Long Island Coalition, a consortium of supporters of the project, said Tuesday that although “you never like to see people get hurt in some of these incidents,” the potential for a third track to have helped in each circumstance is clear.

“The commuters are suffering. Every time there’s an incident, everything backs up. So it’s critically important to the region,” Law said. “And it’s amazing that we’ve gone the last 50 years without it.”

Recent Main Line Disruptions

Oct. 8. A derailment just west of Merillon Avenue Station near New Hyde Park stops service on both tracks, and as repairs are ongoing, only one-track service is in service during the Monday morning rush. Delays and cancellations affect westbound passengers and there is a complete shutdown for eastbound passengers.

Oct. 5. A broken rail east of Mineola Station just before 6 a.m. halts service in both directions during the morning rush, causing delays and cancellations for thousands of passengers.

Oct. 5. A truck strikes an LIRR bridge in Mineola, suspending rail traffic there for a half-hour.

Aug. 19. A person is struck by a train at Mineola Station stopping service in both directions during the morning rush, triggering delays and cancellations for thousands of commuters.

Aug. 19. A car strikes a crossing gate in Westbury that’s proposed to be eliminated in the Expansion Project, causing further delays for passengers.

On Aug. 15. A person is struck at Westbury Station, halting service during the evening, and causing delays and cancellations for thousands of commuters.

July 27. A person charged with drunken driving enters a grade crossing and strikes the third rail, putting the Main Line out of service during the morning rush, and causing delays and cancellations for thousands of passengers.

July 20. A car strikes a crossing gate in New Hyde Park that’s proposed to be eliminated in the Expansion Project, causing delays for passengers during the morning rush.

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