Passengers jam onto a train at Penn Station as LIRR...

Passengers jam onto a train at Penn Station as LIRR trains are delayed by an issue on Amtrak tracks. Some trains were combined as others were cancelled. (April 18, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Angered MTA and Long Island Rail Road officials Thursday called for major changes in their working relationship with Amtrak, whose maintenance practices they blamed for a major service disruption this week.

Amtrak made emergency repairs Monday after a routine inspection in a tunnel revealed rail defects. The repairs, which took more than five hours, forced the LIRR to cancel 21 peak evening rush-hour trains and suspend all westbound service into Penn Station for more than three hours.

The disruptions happened as many commuters were rushing home for the seder on the first night of Passover.

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board's railroad committee, board members said Amtrak needs to do better in scheduling routine maintenance, inspections and repairs at times that won't seriously impact LIRR riders.

"The timing was terrible, and I think it happens with way too great frequency," said MTA Board member Patrick Foye, who represents Nassau.

The MTA contends that regular inspections, now conducted between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., should be done at other times, and that Amtrak needs to be able to mobilize its repair resources more quickly.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said Amtrak has a regular maintenance program to try to avoid such emergencies, but LIRR president Helena Williams questioned whether it was good enough. "What we don't want is spot fixes," she said.

The national rail corporation owns and maintains Penn Station and its tunnels, although it operates just 133 passenger trains in and out of the station on weekdays, compared with the LIRR's 447, according to Amtrak. New Jersey Transit runs 328 daily passenger trains in and out of Penn.

MTA Board member Ira Greenberg, who represents the LIRR Commuter Council, called it "shocking" that Amtrak officials behave as if they don't realize "that New Jersey Transit or the LIRR have rush hours."

Cole has said Amtrak had adequate staffing when it discovered the problem Monday, but it took a while to get necessary parts to the scene inside the tunnel, delaying the repair.

Williams agreed that Amtrak should have the ability to make faster repairs when problems are found.

"We work very well with Amtrak . . . and we will all work through this issue," Williams said. "But we feel very clearly that they need to understand with greater sensitivity the implications of what they do when they do an inspection and they don't have the resources readily available to do a fix."

LIRR and Amtrak officials met on the issue after the morning MTA meeting. Amtrak "agreed today to explore mutually beneficial options to enhance the federally mandated rail inspection process, with the goal of mitigating the overall operational impact to Long Island Rail Road and its customers," said a statement from its spokesman, Cliff Cole.

MTA Board member Mitchell Pally, who represents Suffolk, suggested that the LIRR try to take over maintenance responsibility for tracks it uses.

But Williams said there were obstacles to doing so, including likely challenges from Amtrak's union-represented track workers and a permanent agreement between the two railroads that calls for Amtrak to maintain the infrastructure it owns.

Pally responded that the MTA should tell Amtrak "that we want a new agreement."

"They run the least amount of trains and have the least amount of people in the service and run the program," Pally said. "I think this is, from our perspective, unacceptable."

Latest Videos