Commuters frustrated with scarce service and frequent breakdowns on Long Island Rail Road branches served by diesel engines got some good news Wednesday as the MTA approved a plan to spend nearly $80 million to buy several smaller, more reliable diesel trains.
The new, lighter trains would be used exclusively for what LIRR officials are calling "scoot diesel" travel on Long Island, largely in areas with lighter ridership, such as from Ronkonkoma to Greenport.
LIRR officials say the $78-million expenditure should allow them to buy about a dozen of the new trains, which come in sets of two cars.
The purchase was not included in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's original capital plan, but was added recently in what LIRR President Helena Williams said was a "refocusing" of the railroad's priorities.
The new trains are part of the MTA's $26-billion capital plan, which the transit agency's board of directors unanimously approved Wednesday. Because only the first two years of the five-year capital plan are funded, LIRR officials said the new trains would not be rolled out until after 2014, at the earliest.
The LIRR's existing diesel trains have been plagued with problems since the LIRR purchased them about a decade ago. The trains - especially those that switch between diesel and electric power - are prone to breakdowns.
Williams said the new trains are not intended to replace the LIRR's existing diesels, which the agency remains committed to improving, but rather will complement the diesel fleet.
In addition, many customers in the non-electrified portion of the LIRR system, which includes all points east of Ronkonkoma, have long complained about infrequent service.
Williams said she hopes to address some of those concerns with the new "scoot diesel" service. Rather than relying on the large, heavy diesel trains to haul passengers all the way into Manhattan, the new diesels would shuttle - or scoot - passengers in diesel territory to and from electrified stations at frequent intervals.
Because the new trains, known as "diesel multiple units," have smaller engines, are lighter, and will travel shorter distances, LIRR officials said they should have a long life. Williams said the new trains could "increase frequency of service, increase reliability" and promote intra-island commuting.
Over the next two years, the LIRR said it plans to identify an "off the shelf" model of the new diesels to purchase from a manufacturer. Depending on the success of the first fleet of light diesels, the LIRR said it could purchase more in future years.
But first, the LIRR has to find the money. The MTA approved the five-year capital plan, which is intended to fund infrastructure projects through 2014, with only enough money to pay for the first two years of projects, and that means the new trains will not make their debut for several years.
Peter Haynes, president of the LIRR Commuters Campaign, said the decision to invest in the new, lighter diesels could signal a shift in the LIRR's exclusive reliance on heavy rail and in its neglect of much of Suffolk County.
"Maybe - just maybe - they're getting the idea that there's more than just potato farms on eastern Long Island," Haynes said.