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LIRR switch system hit by fire is nearly 100 years old

In this 2008 photo, LIRR block operator Latisha

In this 2008 photo, LIRR block operator Latisha Johnson throws switches at Hall Tower to navigate trains on the right tracks in and out of Jamaica station. (Feb. 13, 2008) Credit: Newsday File / Alan Raia

The near-century-old LIRR track switching system in Jamaica that caught fire Monday and nearly shut down the nation's largest commuter rail system will be replaced this fall with state-of-the-art computer technology that transit advocates hope will be less vulnerable.

During two weekends in October and November, the Long Island Rail Road will change to a microprocessor-based switch and signal system in Jamaica that will be operated out of the adjacent AirTrain building. The project is expected to cost about $56 million.

The LIRR eventually plans to operate its entire switching and signal system out of one location, officials said. Metro-North upgraded its entire signal and switch system 15 years ago, a spokeswoman said.

The upgrades will replace Jamaica's two signal towers, Jay and Hall, from which workers operate all of the transit hub's 155 ground switches using the same hand lever technology that was designed for the station in 1913.

LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone noted that in recent years, the LIRR had already upgraded to a computer-based signal system in Bellerose and Valley Stream. The latter location's signal and switch board was donated to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Transit Museum.

A late-morning electrical fire at Hall Tower Monday knocked out service on all but one of the LIRR's lines, and is expected to cause delays and cancellations at least through Tuesday.

It also forced the LIRR to rely on a "block and spike" system, in which trains are manually routed through designated tracks whose switches are locked in place with wooden blocks and spikes.

Peter Haynes, president of the LIRR Commuters Campaign and a former LIRR operational systems employee, said that while the LIRR's current signal and switch system is safe and reliable, a problem at a major switching point, such as Jamaica, can cause havoc. He said a computer-based system will be more flexible because of the potential for backup and redundant systems in the event of a failure.

"Jamaica is the key location of the Long Island Rail Road," Haynes said of the station, through which 10 of the LIRR's 11 lines run. "It's the worst possible place for this to happen, because everything goes through there."

While Jamaica's existing switching technology is old, train experts still swear by its reliability. The system, which moves switches using compressed air, is subject to routine maintenance, federal inspections and replacement of parts. The cable that caught fire Monday was less than 10 years old, LIRR officials said.

"As far as safety is concerned, you can't make it any better," said David Morrison, a retired LIRR branch line manager. "The Panama Canal was opened in 1914, and it's worked flawlessly all these years."

LIRR Commuter's Council chairwoman Maureen Michaels said the system may work, but "not well." She chided the LIRR and the State Legislature, which helps fund MTA infrastructure projects, for not keeping the nation's largest commuter rail on the cutting edge of technology. "When you're moving this number of people, you have to be proactive, as opposed to reactive," she said. "While I know they're planning to fix it in the fall, clearly it needed fixing last fall."

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