Some innovative technologies being tested on the LIRR to fight COVID-19 have not met expectations, the MTA said. But despite the setbacks, transit officials remain optimistic about other methods being tested. Credit: Newsday; MTA

Early results in the testing of two technologies aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 onboard Long Island Rail Road trains have proved disappointing, transit officials said.

Disinfectant solutions that manufacturers promised would kill viruses on surfaces for weeks with one application have lost their effectiveness in as little as a day, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said. And the use of ultraviolet lamps to eradicate the virus on trains has proved more costly and time-consuming than the agency’s practice of having crews disinfect cars with aerosol foggers and wipes.

Despite the setbacks, transit officials remain optimistic about other technology being tested — including air-purifying systems on trains — and say their combined efforts during the pandemic should reassure commuters that the trains are safe.

"Not everything works the way you hope it does. But if you don’t try it, if you don’t go through the process, you’re never going to know," said MTA chief innovation officer Mark Dowd, who defended the agency’s efforts to keep trains safe for riders, including by disinfecting every LIRR train at least once a day.

"We have gotten very good at this," Dowd added. "We are efficient. We are effective. And we are trying the best we can to drive down our costs."

In May, MTA chairman Patrick Foye announced that the agency had launched a pilot program to test "multiple products from multiple companies" that claimed to be able to kill viruses on surfaces for 30 to 90 days with one application. Foye suggested recently that, while the tests are still ongoing, the early results have been "somewhat disappointing on the duration issue."

In an interview Friday, Dowd said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has led the testing efforts from a lab in North Carolina, using surfaces found on MTA vehicles. For safety reasons, tests have yet to be performed on the specific strain of the coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — at the center of the pandemic. But the antimicrobial disinfectants being tested generally have not worked as advertised — in some cases wearing off after just one day, Dowd said.

A Long Island Rail Road employee disinfects a train car...

A Long Island Rail Road employee disinfects a train car at the Hicksville LIRR station in March. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Testing using the COVID-19 strain is expected to begin this week. The MTA estimated that the authority already has spent about $750,000 on testing antimicrobial disinfectants.

In May, the MTA announced what it said was a first-of-its-kind program to test the usage of ultraviolent light to kill the virus on trains and buses. The MTA deployed 150 lamps inside empty train cars. Depending on the success of the tests, the agency said it would consider expanding the program to the LIRR.

The agency had hoped the technology would be more cost effective than sending crews to disinfect trains, and that it would protect employees from exposure to the virus.

But Dowd said that technology, too, has not lived up to expectations, in part because of operational hurdles. The MTA had hoped to use the UV lamps to disinfect a train car in about 15 minutes. But it’s taken significantly longer than that, in part because of safety concerns with employees working near the electrified third rails at train yards where the disinfecting takes place.

Although ultraviolet light "clearly eradicates the COVID-19 virus, it is probably best used in our system in stations, perhaps by robots," Foye said.

The testing results come as the MTA continues to struggle to lure commuters back to the transit system. Weekday ridership on the LIRR remains at around 28% of pre-pandemic levels. The railroad predicts a 64% drop in fare revenue for 2020, from $769 million last year to $279 million this year.

Hofstra University associate professor Anthony Santella, who specializes in public health and infectious diseases, said he was "not surprised" to learn that the testing of innovative methods to combat COVID-19 yielded some disappointing results. Like the virus itself, the science behind fighting the virus is still evolving, he said.

"We have to be patient and accept the fact that we really are experiencing unprecedented times. We just have to be patient to allow institutions and scientists and others the space to do their work. And some of that work will be successful, and some of it won’t," said Santella, who believes neither the MTA nor its riders should be discouraged by the test findings, which could prove useful in developing future strategies to protect riders from airborne illnesses.

"In my opinion, it’s as important to share the negative and insignificant findings as it is those that work," Santella said.

Despite the findings of the disinfectant and UV light tests, MTA officials have said another technology being tested on the agency’s commuter railroads appears promising. The LIRR and sister railroad Metro-North are testing the use of electrostatic air filters that developers say can kill 99.9998% of airborne particles in trains.

And the MTA is looking into other high- and low-tech solutions, including copper coverings for stainless steel train surfaces that may be less likely to transmit viruses.

The MTA has partnered with other transit agencies on the "COVID Challenge," which invited applicants to submit their ideas on how to protect riders throughout the pandemic. Last month, eight companies were chosen from 200 applicants to have their technology tested by the transit providers for one year.

Still, longtime LIRR West Hempstead commuter Owen Rumelt, 60, is in no rush to return to the railroad, which he last rode in March. And, he said, the early findings of the MTA’s tests "do not give me any comfort."

"The combination of the disappointing results, the … disappointing failure of many people to wear masks, and the inability to socially distance on evening trains make me even more reluctant to return," said Rumelt, an attorney. "It’s a risk I am not willing to take."

But LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said he doesn’t believe most lapsed railroad riders are avoiding the system out of concern for their safety, but rather because they have alternatives to commuting.

Bringmann praised the MTA for acknowledging that some strategies to combat the virus have fallen short, and for moving ahead with other strategies, like the air purifiers on the LIRR.

"They gave it a shot," Bringmann said. "At least now they know, and they’re not going to be throwing good money after bad."

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