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LIRR should run own freight service again, union chief says

A New York & Atlantic Railway train hauls

A New York & Atlantic Railway train hauls cars in Lindenhurst on Nov. 25, 2013. Credit: Steve Pfost

The LIRR’s top union leader is calling on the railroad to take back and run its freight operation after the latest accusations that the contractor employs unsafe work practices.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, or SMART — the Long Island Rail Road’s largest labor organization — said Monday that the LIRR should consider operating its own freight rail service, as it did for decades before leasing it to New York & Atlantic Railway, or NYAR.

The call comes as the LIRR faces increased pressure to break ties with NYAR after a lawsuit was filed by a group of day laborers alleging they were made by the Glendale-based freight railroad to carry out dangerous jobs on LIRR-owned tracks without proper training, certification or safety equipment.

“This is not like a toy railroad set. This is the real deal here. You can’t have people coming in and fixing a switch,” said Simon, who called the LIRR’s safety standards “definitely higher” than those of NYAR. “We’re here. We’re out there already doing a lot of the work. And we’ve done it before.”

The LIRR leased its freight operation to NYAR in 1997 for at least $12.8 million over 20 years. The two sides renewed the agreement for another decade last year, despite growing scrutiny over NYAR’s safety practices.

A 2016 Federal Railroad Administration investigation into NYAR found “several safety issues that could increase the risk of additional accidents” on LIRR’s tracks. They included failure to adequately train, test and certify train crews, dangerous conditions at grade crossings, and poor record keeping.

The LIRR has said NYAR has put in new safety protocols to address the FRA concerns, and that it is reviewing the lawsuit. If the allegations in the suit are found to be true, the railroad said it would take them into account in assessing whether to continue its relationship with NYAR.

In a statement, NYAR said, “We are proud of our partnership with the LIRR, the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] and the State of New York, and will continue to work closely with each group on shared priorities, including environmental, community issues and safety concerns.”

The LIRR declined Monday to comment on Simon’s proposal.

Before deciding whether to part ways with NYAR, Simon said the railroad should consider having LIRR workers take over the inspection, maintenance and repair of tracks and switches used by NYAR. Although the LIRR owns the track infrastructure, some of it is used solely by NYAR — including an 8-mile stretch in Queens known as the Lower Montauk branch.

“We have more qualifications, obviously, than anybody coming from the outside,” said Simon, adding that the LIRR could gain financially from eventually taking back its freight operation from NYAR, which moves about 30,000 carloads of freight on 270 miles of track annually.

Mary Parisen, co-founder of Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, a Queens-based advocacy group that has pushed for freight reform, called the proposal “a wonderful idea” that would ensure heightened safety on the LIRR’s tracks.

“They’d be parenting themselves,” Parisen said. “There’s going to be accountability. And that’s what we need.”

Also on Monday, the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, called on the LIRR and the taxi and limousine commissions of Nassau and Suffolk to take action on what it says was “price gouging” by tax operators at LIRR stations in recent days.

With Friday’s nor’easter severely impacting service all weekend, Council Chairman Mark Epstein said some taxi stands charged “unconscionable fares” as high as five times the usual rate.

Epstein urged the limousine commissions to regulate fares and enforce price gouging laws, and said the LIRR “should also be working to protect commuters.”

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