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1,000 LIRR riders stranded by Amtrak power failure near Penn

Third-rail power problems caused delays and cancellations during

Third-rail power problems caused delays and cancellations during the morning rush hour on Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Citybound commuters are seen leaving the Long Island Rail Road Hunterspoint Avenue Station in Queens to to take other trains into Manhattan. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Long Island Rail Road riders returning to work from a three-day weekend yesterday morning endured yet another disastrous commute after an Amtrak-related power failure near Penn Station stranded two trains carrying about 1,000 passengers and triggered delays of up to three hours.

Problems with an electrified third rail inside one of the East River Tunnels into and out of Penn Station resulted in systemwide delays for thousands of commuters averaging 75 minutes and the cancellation of at least 17 morning rush-hour trains. The miles-long backup of trains heading into Penn caused the LIRR to temporarily suspend service into the Manhattan terminal during the height of the morning rush.

It was the latest in a string of rush-hour service disruptions originating in or near the aging Penn Station, which is owned and maintained by Amtrak but primarily used by the LIRR and NJ Transit. And although Amtrak has announced a summerlong infrastructure renewal project at the Manhattan hub, which itself will cause service outages, the planned work will do nothing to address the issues that snarled yesterday’s morning commute.

The problem arose about 7 a.m., when two westbound trains, each carrying about 1,000 people, became stranded near the eastern portal of “Line 2” — one of the four East River Tunnels controlled by Amtrak, LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the power outage was caused by “the failure of a third-rail component just outside” the tunnel. “We are still working to determine a root cause,” she said.

“We got about a mile from Penn and the train just stopped, lost all power,” said Andrew Cohen, who was in the first car of the first train that broke down inside the tunnel — a Babylon train that he boarded in Massapequa. “There was no air conditioning. We just had the emergency lights going. They told us they were going to tow us, but it wound up taking an hour.”

As the backlog of trains waiting to enter Penn grew longer, LIRR conductors handed out emergency water boxes on some trains. Other trains were terminated at Jamaica, where passengers were sent to complete their commutes on the E subway line, which was also experiencing delays from a disabled train.

The LIRR, in its alerts to customers, made it clear that the disruptions were “due to Amtrak third rail problems,” however, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said the railroad communication efforts didn’t help passengers through the mess.

“You get an email that says ‘scattered 15-minute delays.’ The next thing you know, you get an email that says ‘61-minute delays,’ ” said Epstein, adding that commuters could have considered different options if they had been equipped with better information. “They [LIRR officials] just don’t look at things from the perspective of the person receiving the information.”

Shortly before 2 p.m. — nearly seven hours after the problem was first reported, the LIRR reported it was back running “on or close” to schedule. Minutes before 4 p.m., the LIRR said Amtrak had “completed its repairs.” No major problems were reported during the evening rush.

The problem marked the latest in a slew of major, rush-hour LIRR service disruptions in recent months.

Those problems prompted Amtrak to announce several proposed improvements at Penn, including a major infrastructure renewal effort on the western end of the station that is expected to disrupt LIRR rush-hour service for much of July and August. The planned repairs do not include tracks regularly used by the LIRR, which carries more than 230,000 customers through the station daily.

“The commuters I represent are incredulous that Amtrak repairs will cause major delays this summer, and yet the very thing that caused today’s delays will not even be worked on during that period,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said yesterday morning’s incident provided the latest evidence that Amtrak is ill-equipped to oversee Penn Station — the nation’s busiest rail station — and its needed repairs.

“I think this is going to go on and on and on and it’s unacceptable. And commuters have had enough,” he said at an event on Staten Island. “The entire system is just deteriorating and something dramatic has to happen.”

Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Manhasset) yesterday reiterated her call for Amtrak to subsidize fare reductions for LIRR riders “because they are not getting the service they paid for.”

Amtrak yesterday released details on how the summer work at Penn will affect its service. The agency is canceling six total trains between New York and Washington D.C., and originating and terminating some other trains in other cities.

With William Murphy, Rachel Uda and Matthew Chayes


6:12 a.m.

Train leaves from Babylon, due in Penn Station at 7:14 a.m.

6:13 a.m.

Train leaves from Massapequa Park, due in Penn Station at 7:08 a.m.

About 7 a.m.

Both trains, carrying more than 1,000 people, are stranded in a tunnel by a power failure on the tracks.

8:35 a.m.

One of the trains resumes service to Penn Station, according to Amtrak, which operates the tunnels. That train arrives at Penn about 75 minutes late.

9 a.m.

The train that originated in Babylon was being towed by a relief engine to another station, LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

The railroad tweets that eastbound service is delayed, averaging about 15 minutes.

10 a.m.

A passenger who boarded the 6:12 a.m. Babylon train at 6:34 a.m. in Merrick says the train is being towed backward and they are taken to Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens.

The train arrives about three hours late, the LIRR says.

The LIRR says westbound delays are averaging 60 minutes.

10:30 a.m.

Westbound delays were averaging 75 minutes, the LIRR says.

11 a.m.

A passenger on the train from Babylon, expected at Penn Station at 7:14 a.m., tells Newsday that after being rerouted to Queens and taking the No. 7 subway train to his midtown office, he was about to arrive at work just after 11 a.m.

About 11:30 a.m.

The LIRR reports “scattered residual system-wide delays,” but added that the MTA subway system was no longer honoring railroad tickets.

About 2 p.m.

Trains are operating on or close to schedule systemwide, the LIRR reported shortly before 2 p.m.

3:30 p.m.

The LIRR says Amtrak completed repairs to the third rail and it does not anticipate problems during the evening rush hour.

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