The Long Island Rail Road is exploring taking legal action against Amtrak over the impact of several major service disruptions originating in Penn Station in recent months, LIRR officials said Monday.
At a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee Monday morning, LIRR General Counsel and Vice President Mark Hoffer said the railroad’s legal department is preparing a memorandum to be sent to senior MTA management that will lay out the agency’s legal options.
“I think there are some opportunities to pursue legal action against Amtrak,” Hoffer told board members. “And we are going to be sitting down with [MTA Interim Executive Director Veronique Hakim] within the next week or so to go over those and see if there are routes we can pursue, because we do have costs obviously when there’s a derailment — both direct costs and indirect costs.”
The news follows major infrastructure failures in and around Penn — owned and controlled by Amtrak — in recent weeks, including two derailments in 11 days. They have resulted in several rush hours being snarled by delays and cancellations — particularly for the LIRR, which runs the most trains into and out of Penn and moves the most customers.
Responding to board member James Vitiello, who accused Amtrak of negligence and asked if the MTA would “consider pursuing a claim” against Amtrak, Hoffer said MTA lawyers have spent weeks combing through the legal agreement under which the LIRR operates at Penn — the nation’s busiest rail hub.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say the agreement is a tough one, because it is slanted primarily in favor of Amtrak as the owner of the facility. We are a tenant,” Hoffer said. “We need to look at different ways we can get Amtrak to do what many of the board members have noted Amtrak is obligated to do, which is to keep the station in a state of good repair.”
Asked for a response, Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said the railroad ‘‘is hard at work every day maintaining Penn Station in the face of huge train volumes, aging infrastructure, decades of underinvestment, and competing priorities within the terminal area.
‘‘Talk of lawsuits or speculation about changing ownership isn’t going to help solve these problems,’’ Woods said, adding that Amtrak is working on plans to strengthen infrastructure at Penn, and that the cooperation and focus of our partners LIRR and NJ Transit is needed.
“As is always the case, lawyers look into these types of things but there is no legal action imminent,” MTA spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said.
At Monday’s meeting, several committee members added urgency to their calls for the state and/or the MTA to take over Penn Station, through which about 600,000 customers travel each day — about half of them on the LIRR. MTA Board member Charles Moerdler accused Amtrak of “benign neglect, if not downright stupidity,” and said he’d support the state condemning the century-old station.
Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said he had no confidence that a number of new initiatives announced by Amtrak, including a thorough inspection of all of Penn’s infrastructure and a review of its maintenance practices, would make much difference. He said, as federal officials consider a major transportation infrastructure bill, they should include “a couple of lines in there” transferring control of the station to the MTA.
Pally noted that, through its construction of its West Side Yard in 1987, the MTA is the only agency that has worked to address the capacity constraints in the station.
“It is time for New York State to decide that this facility is too important to our commuters — the millions and millions and millions of people who use this facility — and decide that it’s ours. It should be ours,” Pally said. “I’d rather control my own destiny than worry about somebody else’s destiny.”
Meanwhile, MTA officials took a couple of other important steps Monday to address the needs of its strained and aging infrastructure. The committee unanimously approved adopting the final environmental impact statement for the LIRR Expansion Project, which includes the construction of a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville. The MTA will now move ahead in hiring a contractor to design and build the $2 billion project, and to amend its existing capital program to include money to fund it.
Also on Monday, outgoing MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu announced that MTA and Amtrak officials met Thursday with an independent consultant and agreed to work together to develop a “master schedule” aimed at addressing recent delays in the construction of the MTA’s East Side Access project, which would link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal.
The MTA has blamed Amtrak for recent delays in the $10.2 billion project because Amtrak has not provided the MTA with resources it promised at a key construction site. Amtrak has said it’s been busy with other construction projects. Horodniceanu said the schedule will aim to “maximize productivity” on all projects going on in the area and provide more resources so “we can stop bleeding time and dollars on East Side Access.”