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Critics: Failure to fix aging Penn signals a red light for LIRR

Long Island Rail Road passengers wait for their

Long Island Rail Road passengers wait for their train's track to be posted during the evening rush hour at Penn Station in Manhattan on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Signal issues caused delays and cancellations during the evening's rush hour. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Amtrak’s planned Penn Station track rehabilitation project — expected to add significant delays to the commute of LIRR riders this summer — will not address one of the most problem-plagued parts of the station’s infrastructure: its 80-year-old railroad signal system.

After a series of major service disruptions originating at Penn, Amtrak — the station’s owner — in April said it would cram years of planned track work into two months this summer, resulting in major rush-hour service disruptions to the Long Island Rail Road, Penn Station’s primary tenant.

Amtrak officials said that at around 40 years old, the track components being replaced in the project were well past their useful life. However, the agency later revealed, the project would do nothing to address the Manhattan rail hub’s signal system, which is about twice as old as its tracks.

“They’re not even talking about the signal issue,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has pushed for major improvements at Penn Station for LIRR commuters. “Their priorities are definitely screwed up . . . To not have a plan going forward for the signal issue, I think, is a looming catastrophe.”

Mostly installed in the 1930s, Penn’s signal system is a complex electrical network of wires and colored light displays that performs a critical function — providing vital information to engineers, and directly to trains, on how to proceed. At complex rail junctions, or “interlockings,” signals are controlled by dispatchers monitoring train movements from control centers or towers.

With some 1,300 trains from three railroads moving 600,000 riders daily into and out of Penn — the busiest train station in the United States — a modern, functional signal system is essential, said Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, whose members work on the LIRR’s signal system, but not those at Penn.

“It tells them what speed they’re supposed to be going. It tells them if they should be stopping at the next signal. It tells them the traffic conditions ahead of them so they can control their train accordingly,” Natale said. “You could not run a railroad without them. You could run a coal mine, but that’s about the end of it.”

But, Natale said, at the LIRR’s most critical origin and destination, Penn Station, the signal system is “completely antiquated” and in dire need of renewal.

“We’re running trains the way we did 50 years ago,” Natale said. “I don’t know what a bigger priority there could actually be, unless the tunnels were collapsing.”

Minor hiccup to major headache

With 230,000 LIRR customers traveling into and out of Penn Station daily, even a minor hiccup with the station’s signal system can have major repercussions. And a big signal problem can be disastrous, as evidenced on May 10, when a signal problem involving one train resulted in the LIRR canceling nearly 90 trains during the PM rush and police restricting access to the station for hours because of dangerous crowding.

At a State Assembly hearing last month, Amtrak president and CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman acknowledged the need to modernize Penn’s signals, and said the agency is trying to develop plans and a budget to do so. Completing planned infrastructure renewal work at the station, including this summer’s effort, will free up resources to tackle other priorities, including the aging signals, he said.

“We have to then come up with a plan for everything above the top of the rail, and we’re committed to doing that,” said Moorman about the condition of Penn’s signals. “One of the delay issues we have from time to time with the signal system is that we have a blown fuse. This is not solid state technology. This is old technology.”

Amtrak has not shared a cost estimate or potential timeline for upgrading the signal system, but Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he expected the work to be part of the agency’s ambitious Gateway project, which aimed to make several major infrastructure improvements in and around Penn Station, including by constructing a new Hudson River rail tunnel.

“In the long run, the money for Gateway will solve it,” Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said of the signal problem.

However, the $23 billion project’s future is uncertain, especially after President Donald Trump recently proposed eliminating a federal grant program that Amtrak was relying on to kick-start the project.

The failure to address the signals at Penn Station is just one example of the limited nature of the repairs being undertaken this summer. Also not on the agenda are any tracks regularly used by the LIRR or repairs to East River tunnels that were badly damaged by superstorm Sandy.

MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook expressed frustration that Amtrak’s forthcoming summer work, with the resulting disruptions for commuters, failed to address the LIRR’s most chronic infrastructure issues at Penn. But, he said, “There’s nothing we can do. It’s not like we have our own station.”

The project, which will last from July to September, only aims to replace infrastructure in a portion of the tracks at Penn’s west end used almost exclusively by Amtrak and NJ Transit. Amtrak says it does plan improvements at Penn’s eastern tracks, used by the LIRR, as part of a project that will be carried out largely on weekends through the first half of next year.

A separate effort by Amtrak to repair Sandy damage in the tunnels is likely even further away. Even though the Federal Transit Administration earmarked $432 million last year for the work, Amtrak has said it probably won’t commence until the end of the decade. And the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR’s parent agency, which was awarded the federal grant funding, has not committed to spending it on the tunnel work.

‘Signal trouble’ often cited

Pally, a frequent critic of Amtrak, defended the agency’s strategy.

“Obviously, they can’t do the whole thing at once. Because if they tried to do the whole thing at once, it would take a lot longer than their anticipated cutbacks now,” Pally said. “We are going to insist that the entire operation be modernized, including the signal system . . . It’s not a situation where you only do part of the job. You have to do the whole job.”

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, agreed that modernizing the railroad’s signal system should be a higher priority — and not only in Penn Station. He noted that signal-related problems are among the most common causes for LIRR service disruptions.

Since Jan. 1, the LIRR has cited “signal trouble” as the reason for service problems on at least 60 different days.

“I don’t know if everything’s a signal problem or they’re just calling it a signal problem. But from our perspective as riders, all this work we’re going to have an outage for is not going to have any positive effect for the daily commuter come September,” said Epstein, who has called on the LIRR and Amtrak to use the summer track shutdowns as an opportunity to make more infrastructure improvements than those planned. “I just think that we’re going to have a horrible summer. And in the end, we’re going to have a horrible September, October and November, as well.”

Though the LIRR can’t do anything about the signal system in Penn, it does have plans to address its own aging signals, including those at Jamaica Station.

The railroad also will modernize signals between Floral Park and Hicksville as part of its LIRR Expansion Project, which includes the construction of a third track.

The MTA Board recently voted to amend its $29.5 billion, five-year capital program to include the $2 billion third-track project. However, in a letter to MTA interim Executive Director Veronique Hakim, Republican state Sens. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and Elaine Phillips (R-Manhasset) said any changes to the capital budget should include investments throughout the entire LIRR system, including a move “toward an advanced and modernized communications and signal infrastructure to increase operational capacity and provide safe and reliable service.”

“Only once the integrity of the LIRR’s system has been strengthened and enhanced, will it be appropriate to consider other projects to expand the system,” the senators wrote.

LIRR spokesman Shams Tarek, responding to the senators’ letter, called it “confusing that the legislators are asking for investments that are already” planned.

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