The Long Island Rail Road has begun a $120 million effort aimed at protecting the vulnerable Long Beach line from powerful storms like superstorm Sandy.
Construction has started on the railroad's first elevated substations, with three planned for the branch.
The new facilities -- which provide power to trains -- will be raised 9 feet above ground level, replacing structures that flooded during Sandy.
After the October 2012 storm, it took a month before full service was restored on the branch, which serves 4.5 million riders a year.
"It made it very much a hardship for those who had to go back to work, who had to earn a living and didn't have the capability to just wait it out," said Raymond Pagano, president of the Oceanside Civic Association and a member of the LIRR Commuter Council.
LIRR engineers, working with Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, decided that elevating the substations 9 feet would be sufficient to withstand future storms, officials said.
"That's smart engineering," Pagano said Friday, "rather than building 10 years into the future, building 100 years into the future."
The Long Beach project also includes new switching machines, switch and signal systems, third-rail equipment and a fortified railroad bridge. The work, funded with federal Sandy aid, is slated for completion in 2018.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast heralded the project as needed protection for the branch and the city of Long Beach, a popular summer destination for LIRR travelers.
"There is no better insurance for the economic vitality of this region than ensuring the safe and reliable future operation of the LIRR's Long Beach branch," he said in a statement.
Nowhere did the commuter railroad sustain more damage from Sandy than on its Long Beach line, where debris -- and even boats -- washed up onto tracks and corrosive saltwater destroyed delicate electrical components. The substations filled with 5 feet of water from the storm surge.
"We always keep the connections off the floor; this just went to a level that was unforeseen," LIRR senior project manager Anthony Tufano said Wednesday at an Oceanside construction site near the East Rockaway station.
Standing beside workers erecting steel reinforcement bars on top of which the 400,000-pound substation will sit, he said: "The new building will be able to withstand a Sandy-type storm, or worse."
While workers made short-term repairs immediately after the storm to restore service -- even using hair dryers on soaked electrical components -- the substation was damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished last year.
Workers will begin installing the elevated substation in June, and expect to have it online before work begins on the other substations, in the Oil City section of Oceanside and in Long Beach. Other important structures along the line will also be raised, including new signal huts.
The Wreck Lead Bridge, which spans Reynolds Channel and serves trains heading into the Long Beach terminal, will undergo a $7 million overhaul that includes replacing the bridge's electrical system and generator, and an underwater cable, the LIRR said.
LIRR president Helena Williams believes the project, combined with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers effort to rebuild Long Beach's dunes, will help stormproof the area. "We are building for the long term," she said.