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Nowakowski derides LIRR shortcomings, aims to avert future meltdowns

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski speaks about the recent

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski speaks about the recent derailment on Sept. 16, 2015 in Westbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski Monday criticized technological shortcomings that worsened several major service disruptions over the past three weeks, including communications systems that are "confusing people more than they're helping people."

Nowakowski, at a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's LIRR Committee, also said that he would push for increased safety measures from a freight railroad whose train derailed on the LIRR's tracks last week.

The nightmare month for LIRR commuters included a Sept. 2 power outage just outside the East River Tunnels that caused a suspension of service into and out of Penn Station during the height of the morning rush hour. Nowakowski said at the time that the problem somehow knocked out the signal system's primary electrical feed and its backup.

But, he revealed Monday, there was no backup.

"By design, there should be redundancies, but you can reconfigure things in the field in such a way that eliminates that. And for some reason, that happened sometime in the past," he said, adding the inexplicable change hindered the LIRR's probe and prolonged repairs.

After the discovery, he had employees make sure all LIRR signal systems had backup electrical supplies as far east as Jamaica, Nowakowski said.

While accepting the explanation for the problem, MTA board member Ira Greenberg, who represents the LIRR Commuter Council, reiterated riders' complaints about the railroad's communication efforts during the service meltdown. He encouraged the railroad to consider hiring an outside consultant.

"The communications with passengers just isn't cutting it," Greenberg said.

While noting that the LIRR did not have much information to provide riders during the power problem, Nowakowski agreed that the agency could do a better job of relaying the information it does have to customers already at platforms. He noted automated visual and audio messaging systems at stations can give inaccurate information about train service during major service disruptions.

"That system works very well when things run normal or close to normal. It does not work very well when things go bad," said Nowakowski, adding he's since instructed employees, during major service problems, to "turn the . . . thing off and start doing it the old-fashioned way, which is real people make real announcements based on what they know."

Further limiting the LIRR's ability to communicate with customers, Nowakowski said, is a dispatching operation that is "probably in the worst condition of any railroad I've ever seen anywhere in the country."

Unlike other railroads, including Metro-North, that have the capability to monitor the location of all their trains in real time, Nowakowski said his dispatchers are "operating in the blind." Different "towers" in different parts of the LIRR system monitor their respective regions, but there is no centralized control capability.

"It makes the challenge that much more difficult in terms of trying to make good decisions and then letting people know what those decisions are," Nowakowski said.

In another reaction to the recent spate of service problems, Nowakowski said the LIRR will demand unspecified changes from freight railroad New York & Atlantic Railway before renewing its contract, which is set to lapse soon. New York & Atlantic has been involved in at least three derailments on the LIRR's tracks since May 2014, including in New Cassel a week ago.

The Federal Railroad Administration is also conducting a comprehensive "deep dive" review of the company's safety procedures. New York & Atlantic president Paul Victor has said safety is a top priority for the railway.

"There are things that I need, in my opinion, to be inserted into that agreement," said Nowakowski, who would not specify the changes he will seek. "Suffice to say I would like to have information shared more openly between us."

The LIRR also announced Monday that, effective next month, it will do away with its WebTicket program, which allows customers to order railroad tickets online and have them shipped to their home. The LIRR said the popularity of the ticket had "declined significantly."

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