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LIRR president Phillip Eng: Faster replacement of track switches

LIRR president Phillip Eng, seen here on April

LIRR president Phillip Eng, seen here on April 17, announced plans on Monday to improve service. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road’s new president Monday unveiled a sweeping plan aimed at improving service and entirely transforming railroad operations, including by replacing breakdown-prone switches and hardening other areas of infrastructure by year’s end.

The “LIRR Forward” initiative calls for replacement of 10 track switches that are responsible for about 40 percent of all switch problems over the next six months, having crews clean trains in the middle of their runs, and providing a “systemwide pass” for customers and up to four guests on Saturdays in the summer.

“Think of this not so much as a plan, but a philosophy and mindset. It’s a blueprint for a new way of thinking when tackling our problems and evaluating our effectiveness. More than anything, this is about putting riders first in every aspect of our work,” railroad president Phillip Eng said at the monthly meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee in Manhattan. “These are not simply a list of initiatives. They are efforts toward a full culture change.”

The LIRR Forward initiative seeks to build on the Performance Improvement Plan announced earlier this year by Eng’s predecessor, Patrick Nowakowski, and infuse it with “new ideas, new energy and urgency,” Eng said.

That added urgency means expediting several planned infrastructure improvements — in some cases by years — to the nation’s largest commuter railroad. As an example, Eng said he’s directed the LIRR to begin preparing for hurricane season. The railroad will double its vegetation control efforts, clearing brush along an additional 180 miles of tracks by the end of 2018 — a year ahead of schedule.

Under Nowakowski’s plan, the railroad would install new covers to protect track switches from snow at 60 locations over the next three years. The railroad will now aim to do all 60 this year, and also install 14 new third rail heaters throughout the system.

The new initiative also means moving away from a “fix and repair” approach and toward a “prevent and protect” strategy, Eng said. That means making permanent repairs instead of temporary ones, even if they cost the railroad more money up front.

Eng noted that one of the railroad’s most troublesome track switches, in Jamaica, recently failed twice on the same day. However, like the 10 other switches targeted in the plan, it wasn’t in line to be replaced until the MTA’s next capital program, which is at least two years away.

Eng said he and his staff decided they “don’t have the luxury of sitting back” and waiting to address pervasive problems.

“We need to tackle them now, get ourselves back to a reliable system, And, in the end, that will actually save us money,” Eng said.

LIRR officials said they had not yet tabulated the full cost of the new plan, but expect to have a cost estimate by the time the MTA presents its proposed 2019 operating budget in July.

New communications improvements will include having all stations fitted with arrival countdown clocks by next week, and installing GPS devices on most trains that will provide updates on their location every 10 seconds.

In a statement, the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council — the agency’s official watchdog group — said it agreed with Eng “that the LIRR must move to a new way of doing business,” and that it looked forward to having the opportunity to provide input on issues that the group has raised concerns about for years.

“In the coming days, riders need details about how necessary work on the LIRR will be accelerated while riders receive the service on which they rely, as well as details on how necessary resources will be made available to maintain, repair, and improve the rail infrastructure that makes Long Island run,” council chairman Mark Epstein said.

Eng suggested the new approach will necessitate more extensive track outages to carry out the work. LIRR officials said the railroad will try to bundle work during the same time to maximize efficiency.

Eng also said that to show customers how much the railroad appreciates them, the LIRR is launching a new fare discount program that will allow monthly ticket holders to travel anywhere in the railroad system during 13 Saturdays over the summer for no additional cost, and bring up to four guests, who would pay only $1 each per trip.

The changes were praised by some MTA Board members from Long Island, and by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who called Eng’s proactive approach to addressing lingering LIRR problems “refreshing and right on point.”

“Now the key is installing that sense of urgency into the entire agency and providing more spaces for riders to share their concerns and thoughts,” Kaminsky said.

MTA Board member Vincent Tessitore Jr., who represents the LIRR’s labor force, pledged the support and cooperation of railroad employees.

“If the workforce sees us doing things . . . and putting resources where they belong, they’re going to dive and be working harder than anyone else,” he said.

The LIRR Forward Plan:

--Replace the 10 most problematic track switches, which account for 40 percent of all switch problems, in the next six months.

--Upgrade 370 track circuits, which have caused 36 percent of track circuit failures, by early 2019.

--Work with PSEG to replace 80 aging utility poles by the end of this year.

--Install new safety devices at 296 grade crossings by the end of 2018.

--Clear vegetation along 180 miles of track this year — one year ahead of schedule.

--Install snow covers on track switches at 60 locations this year — three years ahead of schedule.

--Insulate manhole covers along the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel to protect electrical components and install lightning protection at 30 interlocking locations before this year’s hurricane season.

--Install 14 new third rail heaters this year.

--Accelerate the replacement of 3,300 threshold plates on trains that have resulted in door malfunctions by mid-2019 — a year ahead of schedule.

--Complete installation of countdown clocks at all LIRR stations by next week.

--Install new GPS devices on trains that will provide real-time location information every 10 seconds.

--Look for ways to improve how information is provided and displayed on the LIRR’s mobile app, website, at stations and by employees.

--Position cleaning crews at six key stations to board and clean trains during their runs, instead of only before and after their runs.

--Increase station cleaning efforts by 30 percent, including with new equipment to allow for more detailed cleaning.

--Launch a fare discount program that will allow monthly ticket holders to travel anywhere in the LIRR system at no additional cost during Saturdays in the summer, and bring up to four guests paying $1 each.

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