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LIRR rolls out laser-focused train to rid tracks of slimy leaf residue

The railroad's new train, equipped with a high-powered laser, aims to incinerate leaf residue -- and just about anything else on the rails. (Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin)

The Long Island Rail Road said it's focused on reducing delays caused by wet leaves on the tracks — laser-focused.

On Friday, the LIRR rolled out its latest weapon in combating its slippery fall foil — a train equipped with a high-powered laser that aims to incinerate leaf residue, and just about anything else that fouls its rails.

The railroad has partnered with Netherlands-based Laser Precision Solutions to test the so-called laser train, which was demonstrated for the media at the LIRR’s Hillside, Queens, facility Friday. The train was set to make its first regular run Friday afternoon on the Hempstead branch.

“This is a test year for it. And if it works well — and we think it will . . . it will be, not only a change for the Long Island Rail Road, but it will [have] an industrywide impact,” said Craig Daly, the LIRR’s chief mechanical officer. “It’ll help a lot of railroads really, completely remove the problem with low adhesion.”

Using a modified LIRR passenger car fitted with the hardware-heavy technology, the laser train can move through the railroad’s tracks at up to 20 miles per hour, blasting slimy leaf residue off rails using four laser beams — each up to an inch in width.

The railroad previously relied on “sandite” — a gritty adhesive applied to rails — to reduce “slip-slide,” but LIRR officials said it had limited effect. Last year, the railroad reached out to Laser Precision Solutions to work together on developing a solution. The deal could cost the LIRR up to $250,000, depending on the laser train’s performance, officials said.

“We can very precisely determine how much energy we want to put into this and where we want to aim it,” said Ben Medendorp, chief financial officer for Laser Precision Solutions, who is visiting New York from Amsterdam to monitor the deployment of the laser train. “We can do this without damaging the rail. You get a fully clean rail. All that’s left behind is a clean track, and some dust.”

The laser train is among several new tactics being used by the LIRR to address what it calls “low adhesion season” — when fallen leaves and precipitation combine to make for slippery rail conditions that can result in delays, and in train shortages if cars have to be taken out of service to have damaged wheels repaired.

In addition to the laser train, the railroad has, since 2017, doubled its number of “wheel truers” — machines used to correct flat spots on steel train wheels, and has ramped up the power on its train-mounted pressure washers to 20,000 pounds per square inch, from the previous 4,000. The increased pressure not only does a better job of cleaning the rails, LIRR officials said, it also allows the washer trains to move faster, and cover more of the system.

“We’ve been fighting it for a long time,” Daly said of the effects of slippery leaves. “There’s no silver bullet — no single thing a railroad can do to help this.”

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