51° Good Afternoon
51° Good Afternoon
Long Island

LIRR officials: Railroad fixes may take till week's end

LIRR employees near Jamaica station resort to an

LIRR employees near Jamaica station resort to an old-fashioned "block and spike" manual train routing system on Tuesday. A fire that broke out Monday disabled the LIRR's regular routing system for many lines. (Aug. 24, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

LIRR riders spent a third day dealing with major delays and canceled trains on most routes maintained by the nation's busiest commuter railroad -- with the added burden of pelting rain.

The MTA website showed, once again, delays and cancellations on every line except for Port Washington.

And forecasters said riders and other LIers can expect scattered rain throughout the day, and a chance of showers into the evening commute.

Officials predicted Tuesday it may take the rest of the week to repair damage to an old track-switching system and resume normal service.

Officials said it would take "several more days" to fix fire damage to a nearly century-old system of switches outside Jamaica station in Queens, a crucial transfer area where 10 of the system's 11 branches converge.

On track to restored service

Tuesday night, LIRR president Helena Williams issued a statement of apology and assured riders that LIRR employees are "working diligently around the clock to restore service."

"At this time, the LIRR continues to determine the extent of the damage and take steps to fully restore service safely. Repairs are under way and will continue around the clock for the next several days until the entire signal and switch system is operational," Williams said in the statement. "Given the safety issues as we attempt to provide service amid ongoing repairs, we will be operating at reduced levels for several days."

She referred riders to the railroad's website for up-to-date information on the status of LIRR service.

Commuters tough it out

The fire's aftermath caused 33 of the system's 144 morning-rush trains to be canceled, with about the same number stalled during evening rush and widespread delays on the trains that did run, officials said. Only the Port Washington line, which does not go through Jamaica, was spared.

Many commuters, accustomed to delays, took the news stoically, making new arrangements after checking the LIRR website or asking questions of LIRR employees wearing orange vests who fanned out across Penn Station and Jamaica to give information.

"It's very unfortunate, but we're New Yorkers - we gotta make it work," said Regina Voarino, 39, of Lloyd Harbor, who said she endured a 21/2-hour delay.

The fire's cause still was under investigation Tuesday, but officials said it appeared to have started when an underground cable carrying 750 volts of electricity to the third rail touched a separate underground cable carrying power to the signal system.


Flames set off chaos

The electricity somehow moved through the insulation of both cables and sent a power surge that erupted into flames at Hall Tower, a hulking signal center east of Jamaica, officials said.

The cables are not designed to touch, and officials said they may have shifted when the ground became wet after heavy rain over the last few days.

"We are trying to determine why the insulation didn't protect the cables, but we think it may be weather-related," Williams said at a news conference earlier Tuesday.

The fire overwhelmed the railroad's 1913-designed lever-thrown switching machine - called a Modelboard 14 - inside Hall Tower, frying or melting about 200 of thousands of tiny, spaghetti-like wires that carry signals to the tracks. The system is due to be replaced this fall.

Repairs went slowly Tuesday. One or two workers, crammed into a 3-foot-high opening, traced each melted wire's path, inspected and replaced it if necessary, then tested and re-tested it, officials said. About 70 wires had been replaced and tested Tuesday, Williams said.

"This is very old technology," she said.


Keeping things rolling

To keep trains moving through the web of tracks and switches at Jamaica, the railroad used a manual system called "block and spike," whereby workers dedicate trains to particular tracks and secure switches in place using wooden blocks and steel spikes on the tracks.

That system, which dates back to the 174-year-old railroad's early days, allowed the LIRR to operate 75 percent of its typical service during Tuesday's peak morning hours, and 66 percent during the evening rush, officials said.

Despite the disruption, LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone said train overcrowding was not a problem, with customers making adjustments and lighter ridership because of summer vacations.

It took Sandra Clark of Northport three and one-half hours to get home from Manhattan Monday. But Tuesday, she was part driver, part rider - a combination that got the handbag saleswoman into Manhattan with no problems.

"Today, I drove to Huntington because I didn't want to have any Port Jeff trains to cancel and be stuck with it," she said as she waited for an eastbound train home at Penn Station. "And I'm going to do the same thing tomorrow."

Joe Mawhinney, 44, of Babylon, waited an hour Tuesday afternoon for a train home from Penn Station.

"You accept it to a point, but there should be some type of contingency plan other than the one we have now," he said.

Latest Long Island News