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Long Island

Pinpointing the problems

Four-year-old Brittany Walker fell completely through a gap at a Long Island Rail Road station. Robert M. Garren, 38, of Flushing, fell up to his hip, and Patricia Freeman, 64, of Manhattan, fell up to her elbows.

Commuter rails across the country and internationally have grappled with ways to achieve smaller gaps to prevent these kinds of falls. At the same time, they are constantly mindful of leaving enough space for trains to safely operate at stations. Trying to do both simultaneously is especially challenging at stations with curved platforms. Gaps must be larger at those stops to prevent rectangular train cars from striking curved platforms.

National industry standards and state railroad laws in many states set a minimum distance between platforms and tracks; this results in different minimum gaps for different railroads, depending on the width of the trains in use. The Federal Railroad Administration, which monitors the 20 commuter rail systems around the country, notes that minimum gap standards for different systems range from 4 inches to 13 inches. The agency would not identify which rail lines had
those standards.

The LIRR has a minimum standard of 8 inches for straight platforms, which is based on the distance from the center of the track to the platform. A minimum is necessary to allow bigger freight trains to safely pass.The railroad administration last year began discussions on setting a new maximum standard for newer stations, with the aim of making railroads more accessible to the disabled, a spokeswoman said. Now, the only national maximum-gap standard is 3 inches, set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA standard, in effect for stations built after 1991, is now under review because it doesn't give enough clearance on commuter lines.

System-wide accounting

Starting in late summer, the LIRR took measurements at all its stations after the August death of Natalie Smead, 18, who fell through the gap at the Woodside station and was struck by an oncoming train. Before Smead's death, the railroad had not compiled a systemwide accounting of gap measurements.

Yesterday, LIRR acting president Ray Kenny announced that about 100 of the railroad's 262 platforms at passenger stations need work to address gap problems.

Of the 40 stations the LIRR measured for federal investigators from Sept. 5 to 12, 17 had gaps that were 10 inches or wider. Since those measurements were taken in September, the railroad has moved tracks and platforms or added edgeboards to platforms at more than two dozen stations to reduce gaps.

Work has been done at 13 of the 40 stations where the LIRR took measurements, so the gaps at those 13 stations may be narrower now than they were in September.

Examining busiest stations

On Dec. 5 and 6, Newsday measured the railroad's 20 busiest stations, which account for 73 percent of daily ridership, and also found numerous wide gaps, including one at Syosset that measured 131/2 inches.

Using a Stanley tape measure, reporters started at the outermost edge of the platform and measured horizontally to the lip of the doorstep while the train was stopped. In places where workers had installed wooden edgeboards to close the gap, measurements were taken from the end of the board.

Newsday obtained a copy of measurements LIRR officials took at the 40 stations in September. It is unclear how those 40 stations were chosen, though they serve 76.7 percent of daily ridership, according to the LIRR.

LIRR employees rode non-passenger trains to the 40 stations. An LIRR employee at each door used folding rulers to measure the gaps from the outermost edge of the platform horizontally to the lip of the door when the trains stopped at stations.

The LIRR figures detail which track, platform and door the measurements were taken from, as well as where on the platforms they were taken and from what model of car. They also indicate the side of the car  --  north or south  --  and whether the station is straight or curved.

Some of the findings from the LIRR measurements include:

Out of 30 measurements taken at the Shea Stadium station, all were wider than the 8-inch LIRR minimum standard, with the widest 133/4 inches, taken on Platform A, Track 2. The platform is straight.

All of the 12 measurements taken at the Greenvale and Montauk stations were wider than 8 inches. Greenvale ranged from 9 inches to 111/2 inches and Montauk was between 91/4 inches to 93/4 inches.

After 16 measurements were taken, Westbury was found to have only one gap that was larger than the 8-inch minimum. It measured 81/2 inches.

Because the LIRR took measurements throughout each of the platforms and Newsday was only able to take a couple of measurements at each platform, it is difficult to compare the two sets of data to determine the impact of the quick, partial fixes the railroad has undertaken to reduce the gaps.

Newsday's measurements were limited to only a couple at each station, and they were taken mainly during off-peak hours so as not to block the doors of trains and endanger passengers.

Response to public outcry

Newsday first started taking its own gap measurements three days after Smead's death, in part because the railroad would not release gap measurements. The newspaper's effort found gaps as wide as 15 inches.

Measurements such as that found at Syosset set off a public outcry over large gaps throughout the rail system.

Newsday then took measurements at stations where there was a gap fall or where commuters expressed concern. At 25 of the LIRR's 124 passenger stations, gaps ranged from 3 to 15 inches.

Then on Dec. 5 and 6, Newsday reporters took measurements at the 20 busiest stations, as defined by the railroad's most recent ridership figures available from 1998, in order to get a better idea of the systemwide impact of gaps on LIRR passengers.

In addition to the wide gap Newsday found at a curved platform at Syosset, Newsday measured gaps generally ranging from 31/2 inches to 10 inches at the Flatbush station.

Toward one end of Track 5 at Flatbush, a sharp curve results in a nearly 13-inch gap. LIRR personnel at the station said they do not open train doors for the last two cars and ask riders to exit from another car.

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