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LIRR takes major steps to modernize oldest commuter rail

LIRR workers thread a new 1,000-pound copper cable

LIRR workers thread a new 1,000-pound copper cable into a hole to replace an old third rail copper cable that was damaged in a fire. (Aug. 27, 2010) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

At 176 years of age, the Long Island Rail Road is the oldest commuter railroad in North America. And along much of the system's 700 miles of track, you can tell.

Century-old lever machines controlling Jamaica Station's switching system. Much of Suffolk's system in "dark territory" with no modern signaling. A Westbury bridge so deteriorated that nets are set up to catch falling rubble. And more than 133 miles of the nation's busiest commuter railroad consisting of a single, unelectrified track, much the same as in Long Island's rural and agricultural days of the 19th century.

Saturday, the LIRR begins the final stage of what it says is one of its most dramatic modernization projects in recent history - computerization of the complex switching and signal system at its busiest hub, Jamaica Station.

LIRR officials, elected leaders and transit experts all say there is much more to be done to bring the LIRR into the 21st century, and most agree the biggest challenge to modernizing the aged rail system is finding the money to do it. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority pays for infrastructure projects through its five-year capital plan, which requires state approval and relies heavily on state and federal aid and borrowing.


'It's all a question of money'

All those wells appear to have run dry. The MTA does not know how it will pay for any infrastructure projects beyond next year. Already, the agency was forced earlier this year to trim $2 billion from its current capital plan, scaling it back to $26.3 billion.

Of that, $2.6 billion in projects is earmarked for the LIRR, but $400 million of that is currently unfunded.

"We need to modernize, and we need to have the flexibility that new technology gives us," LIRR president Helena Williams said. "It's all a question of money."

At a builders' conference last month, MTA chairman Jay Walder said the vulnerabilities of the LIRR's aging infrastructure were illustrated in August, when a fire at a 97-year-old switching and signal tower at Jamaica caused a week of major service disruptions for the LIRR's 300,000 daily riders.

"The Long Island Rail Road - the largest passenger railroad in North America - was brought to its knees," Walder said. "The point is that there are similar vulnerabilities - the equivalent of 1913-dated infrastructure - across our entire system."

After the Jamaica incident, the MTA's two board members from Long Island raised concerns about some of the LIRR's antiquated infrastructure. In a letter sent last week to Williams, board members Patrick Foye, of Nassau, and Mitchell Pally, of Suffolk, noted that some equipment still in use at Jamaica was built "when silent Cal Coolidge was president."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) said the LIRR is the "poster child" for an "infrastructure crisis" plaguing several railroads across the country.

"What is happening to the Long Island Rail Road is happening throughout the country. Rail systems are being neglected and overused," said Israel, who agreed state and federal governments need to provide more money for capital needs. "Some say we can't afford to repair infrastructure, but how much does it cost commuters when the train stops running?"

Still, by several accounts the LIRR system remains sturdy and reliable, thanks in part to regular maintenance and restoration. A 2007 report by Donald Nelson, a hired consultant and former Metro-North Railroad president, said "the infrastructure of the railroad is probably in better condition now than ever in its history."


Setting priorities

Maureen Michaels, chair of the LIRR Commuter Council, said the railroad has done a "marvelous job" of prioritizing its infrastructure needs, given the inconsistent financial support from the state and federal governments.

"Who wouldn't like to have a couple billion dollars to swap out the entire system?" Michaels said. "This is their railroad, and they're the experts on how to keep things running. And I think we have to afford them that discretion in what needs to happen now and what can be done tomorrow."

With a finite amount of funding at the railroad's disposal, Williams said the agency has historically opted to spend money where customers will notice it the most - on its "rolling stock" of train engines and cars. Nearly three-quarters of the LIRR's fleet of 1,140 trains is less than 10 years old.

"It was a calculated decision, and if you can get away with it, you're much better off having new equipment that people see and feel than old equipment," said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, a consortium of construction professionals. "If you can't do everything, you make strategic decisions."

LIRR officials also noted that the biggest chunk of capital money goes to the agency's track program, for routine inspection, repair and replacement of tracks and their components. The LIRR anticipates spending $62.4 million on this year's track program alone.

Other infrastructure upgrades - including those to the old switching and signal system - have been slower coming.

In his report three years ago, Nelson called the LIRR's signal system "outmoded" and "the most neglected" of the system's major infrastructure components.

Even with the "Jamaica Cutover" project that begins this weekend and modernization projects in recent years at major train junctions in Valley Stream, Queens Village and Long Island City, the LIRR is well behind Metro-North, its sister MTA commuter rail system, which has had a computer-based, centralized switching and signal system for 15 years.


Little room for error

East of Ronkonkoma on the Main Line and east of Patchogue on the Montauk line, there is no signal system at all. Rather, train directors in towers monitor trains' positions over radios and cell phones.

The archaic system leaves little room for error, as evidenced by a July 2009 incident in which two trains came within 700 feet of colliding head-on because of a miscommunication among train crew members.

"If more than one mistake happens, you can have an incident. And people, unfortunately, do make mistakes," said Peter Haynes, a former systems project specialist who now heads the LIRR Commuters Campaign, a passengers' watchdog group.

Many of the LIRR's track switches, including most at Jamaica, rely on technology dating back to the 1930s in which switches are moved by compressed air. Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, which represents the LIRR's signal workers, said the system is vulnerable to problems of low air pressure and harsh weather, including freezing in the air lines.

"This is really outdated technology, but it's still here," said Natale, who lost 24 union members to layoffs last month. "It's just absolutely obsolete."

The compressed-air switches have been replaced by more modern, reliable electrical switches in some locations across the LIRR. By comparison, Metro-North did away with the last of its compressed-air powered switches 25 years ago, a spokeswoman said.

Williams said any discussion of the age of the LIRR's infrastructure should take into consideration that the railroad is in the midst of one of the most ambitious modernization projects in its history - East Side Access, which will bring the LIRR into Grand Central Terminal. With that project comes other infrastructure upgrades, including replacement and reconfiguration of many of Jamaica's track switches.

"It isn't just getting a new terminal. It's a new way of operating the Long Island Rail Road," Williams said of the $7.3-billion project and its accompanying upgrades. "It's the moon shot."

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