The Long Island Rail Road could withstand major winter storms better — and rebound quicker — if it adopts state-of-the-art technology, creates a clear strategy for communicating with riders and beefs up its snowfighting force, experts and advocates say.
As the nation’s largest railroad prepares to release a report this week on its response to the Jan. 23 blizzard that caused three days of disruptions, rail experts and advocates have suggested several near- and long-term initiatives that could step up the snow game of the LIRR. They include:
- Investing in more modern, and state-of-the art infrastructure, such as technology to better protect rails and switches and a centralized train control system that would allow the LIRR to better monitor all its trains.
- Bolstering the railroad’s workforce with more outside contractors to clear snow, freeing LIRR employees for more technical and specialized storm-related work.
- Overhauling its communications strategy with a focus on delivering more timely, accurate and meaningful information to customers.
LIRR and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have acknowledged they made key mistakes in the storm, including the failure to shut down the railroad sooner.
But MTA and LIRR officials have said no level of preparation could have spared the agency the reality of what happens when hundreds of miles of electrified third rail are buried under snow.
“Where a storm drops most of its snow — say, in electrified territory — is a big factor,” LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “But with better planning and more equipment, we are improving our performance overall.”
The railroad, which carries 338,000 daily riders, said it is “still working to improve” its snowstorm response, particularly in its “communications with our customers, before, during and after storms.” But, the LIRR noted, “rarely are two storms and their impact on Long Island identical.”
While experts agreed that the LIRR could never fully shield itself from the effects of winter weather, it could better protect itself, including by investing in state-of-the-art railroad technology.
As one example, centralized train control could help giving agency supervisors eyes on all the trains throughout the railroad’s 700 miles of track at once, and a direct line to communicate with them, they said. The LIRR’s sister railroad, Metro-North, has had such a system in place for 20 years.
The LIRR has been slowly building such a system for nearly 10 years, but officials said it likely won’t be completed for another 20 years or more because of the complexity and cost of merging all its communications systems under one roof.
Centralized train control remains “a major priority for the LIRR,” Donovan said. The MTA’s proposed $26 billion 2015-2019 capital plan includes $25 million to advance the project, which entails using GPS and other communications technology to allow the LIRR to monitor, communicate and control all its trains from its Jamaica Control Center inside the AirTrain building next to Jamaica Station.
Until then, train directors control most of the LIRR’s system from atop 11 towers near different stations in Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties, much as they did a century ago.
Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, agreed that the LIRR’s outdated infrastructure can make it tougher than necessary for the LIRR to bounce back from a winter storm.
“The LIRR dates back to the 1850s. It’s older than the New York City subway system ... And that creates real challenges for just basic stuff,” Vanterpool said. “Unfortunately, I think the lack of updated technology and equipment is a huge impediment to recovering quickly.”
She said the $2.8 billion earmarked for the LIRR in the MTA’s proposed 2015-2019 capital program represents an increased commitment to modernizing the 182-year-old railroad, but the majority of its spending still goes to maintaining its existing infrastructure.
Asked whether the LIRR will consider using technological advancements to improve its snow response, Donovan said the LIRR is “always looking for ways to protect our assets so they can recover more quickly.”
The LIRR recently installed a special “heat tape” along a portion of its tracks in Cold Spring Harbor. Similar technology is in use in railroad systems throughout North America, including in Boston and Toronto, as well as on the JFK AirTrain, according to Dan Santagata, president of Thermal-Flex Systems Inc., of Northford, Connecticut, which manufacturers third rail heaters.
The layer of electronically heated plastic attaches to the electrified third rail and melts snow and ice that can build up on it. It can be left turned on throughout the winter and can be turned on and off as needed.
“If our initial testing of the tape proves to be successful we could expand it more broadly,” Donovan said.
The LIRR also plans to eventually replace its track switches — mechanical devices that shift tracks from one point to another in order to route trains — with new switches that “will be less prone to the reliability challenges that are present with some of older infrastructure,” according to Donovan.
But other technology upgrades with greater impact are still years away, Donovan said.
The busy Harold Interlocking just outside of the East River tunnels will see its switches upgraded as part of the MTA’s East Side Access project, pegged for completion in 2022. The LIRR’s ongoing $1.2 billion Jamaica Capacity Improvement Project will upgrade tracks and switches at Jamaica. Construction of that project is expected to continue through the MTA 2025-2029 capital program, according to LIRR documents.
Joseph Ashley, vice president and general manager for Railway Equipment Co., a Minneapolis-based railroad technology company, said while the mechanical components inside new switches may be better insulated and less likely to freeze, they won’t perform any better when frozen under a layer of ice. Similarly, he said low-wattage heating solutions, like heat tape, “won’t do anything” in a major snowstorm.
To protect track infrastructure from the worst of winter weather, Ashley said more and more railroads are relying on high-powered switch heaters. Ashley said trackside furnaces can blow 1 million BTUs of heated air directly at switches, keeping them clear in event the most brutal of storms. Sensors built into the heaters can automatically turn them on and off, depending on the weather.
The devices, which can cost up to $20,000 each, are already in use on several freight and commuter railroads, including Chicago’s Metra and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, said Ashley, adding that the heaters are well worth the investment.
“A frozen switch on a commuter railroad, with people trying to get to work — trains must stack up,” Ashley said. “A $10,000 switch heater is paid for probably in the first few days.”
Most of the LIRR’s track switches are protected by gas-powered flame heaters controlled from signal towers, said Peter Haynes, a former LIRR information technology official who now leads the LIRR Commuter Campaign, an advocacy group. In high winds, the heaters can be easily extinguished.
“A fully automatic system, in my opinion, would be preferable,” Haynes said. “The Long Island Rail Road has been extremely slow in adopting anything new . . . (They) have to learn to handle snow better, to get with some new technologies, look at things that work, and keep functioning even when it’s cold out and there’s snow on the ground.”
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, agreed the LIRR is hamstrung in storms by “infrastructure with technology from the 1800s.”
“Those types of equipment are still controlled and handled the way they were over 100 years ago,” he said. “In order to change that, you need a major investment in infrastructure. And the funding has just never been there.”
The MTA’s five-year capital program, which includes LIRR infrastructure upgrades, is largely funded by New York State. And while the state has promised the majority of the funding for the MTA’s $26 billion 2015-2019 plan — the largest ever — it has yet to approve the program.
Herbst said one way the LIRR could get a leg up on snow emergencies is by supplementing its army of snow-fighting workers with outside contractors.
Guaranteeing contractors a certain amount of work each year would give them the incentive to train and certify employees to operate on the tracks, and to invest in equipment that the LIRR could use. Contractors could be used for less-specialized work, such as clearing snow at stations and yards, while LIRR employees focused on more technically challenging tasks, like digging out the electrified third rail.
“Once they’re qualified, they can call at any moment and have them come in,” Herbst said.
The LIRR said it already uses contractors to help clear snow in some areas, including station platforms and parking lots. “We are always working to better coordinate with our government partners, including the New York State Department of Transportation which during this storm deployed dozens of additional personnel and plows, loaders and snow blowers on the LIRR’s behalf,” Donovan said.
Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said he believes relying more heavily on contractors would “tie up as many” LIRR employees as it would free up, because of the need to instruct and supervise the contractors.
“You have people who are trained to do this,” Natale said. “I don’t know how they think a contractor could do it better.”
LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said railroad customers are typically understanding when it comes to weather-related service problems, as long as they are kept in the loop. Getting reliable information remains riders’ single biggest frustration, Epstein said, even eight years after the railroad launched a major initiative to improve its communications, which includes equipping every train conductor with a cellphone.
“Every time something happens, riders go to ask a conductor, and the conductor says, ‘You know more information than I do.’ That’s not acceptable. I don’t know why that happens,” Epstein said. “I think they understand the severity of a storm . . . Just give them the information. That’s all they want.”
Epstein said the LIRR also needs to improve the quality and timeliness of its messages to customers, which are often inaccurate, conflicting and loaded with railroad jargon difficult for riders to comprehend. He also called for the development of an improved mobile application that will allow customers to know exactly where their train is at all times.
“You look up at a monitor and it says, ‘Delayed.’ That’s it . . . Well, what does that mean? Is it delayed one station away? Is it five stations away? If it’s five stations away, you might go to another station,” Epstein said.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook agreed that as the LIRR looks for ways to improve its storm response plan, it should “blow up” the antiquated “audiovisual paging system” — the 15-year-old electronic messaging boards at stations that are known to display inaccurate scheduling information during an emergency and can take hours to update.
“It does a good job when everything goes right. And it does a terrible job when everything goes wrong,” Pally said.
The LIRR said it is working with the system’s manufacturer “to develop upgrades that will enable us to communicate train information more accurately,” and has plans to eventually replace the system as part of its centralized train control efforts.
But more important than manpower or technology in battling severe winter weather are the decisions of railroad leadership, experts contend.
That judgment came into question during last month’s blizzard when LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski allowed trains to run until 4 p.m. Saturday, even though more than a foot of snow had already accumulated throughout much of the railroad’s service territory.
The late shutdown not only stranded 10 trains, but also hampered the LIRR’s restoration efforts. Some of the disabled trains were still on the tracks the next afternoon — blocking snow-removal equipment. Workers had to spend valuable time moving them, sapping resources that could have otherwise been used to clear tracks.
Epstein said that he would not “second guess the judgment of a professional,” but believes the 10 stranded trains indicate that Nowakowski made the wrong call.
According to LIRR policy, “train service on some branches may be modified or suspended” when 10 to 13 inches of snow accumulates on tracks — the threshold at which snow threatens to interrupt trains’ connectivity to the electrified third rail. The LIRR earlier this month called it “a guideline, but not . . . a hard and fast rule.”
Nowakowski said other factors, including timing and the amount of prior notification given to customers, have to be considered before shutting down.
“You very much need to make a lot of decisions based on the time of the day, the day of the week and how and when you want to communicate with your customers. Once you transport them, you sort of have an obligation to try to take them home,” Nowakowski said. “You need to constantly be thinking about that.”
But former LIRR President Bruce McIver, who led the railroad through Hurricane Gloria in 1985, said that sense of responsibility has to be tempered by the risks of operating trains in extreme weather.
“If the train is not going to get there, the train is not going to get there. You’re not doing the passenger any favor taking him halfway home,” said McIver, noting he leaned on other top LIRR and MTA brass and monitored forecasts closely in determining how the LIRR would run during storms — if at all. “Extreme situations aren’t the issue, because you’re going to shut down. It’s the borderline kinds of things.”
Natale, whose Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen members work to clear the snow off the LIRR’s tracks, commended the LIRR for trying to serve customers for as long as possible. He called the subsequent cleanup after last month’s storm “monumental.”
“There were 12-foot snow drifts at the entrances to the tunnels. They had to be dug out by hand,” Natale said. “When 2-3 inches of snow is falling an hour, you can only do so much. You clean out the switches and you move on, and they fill up right behind you.”
Epstein agreed that the LIRR bounced back from the historic storm faster than it has from lesser weather events in recent years, after which the LIRR has sometimes offered very limited service for several days and taken up to a week to restore service fully.
The LIRR noted that it took around two days to return to full service from the January storm. After a December 2010 blizzard forced the LIRR to shut down, it took five days for full service to resume, although most service was back in about two days.
David Rangel, founder of the Modoc Railroad Academy — a railroad training facility in Marion, Illinois — also said he was “impressed” with the performance of LIRR.. He said it is uniquely vulnerable in snowstorms, both because it operates around the clock and predominantly runs on an electrified third rail, which is far more difficult to clear than tracks on non-electrified diesel systems.
“There’s unique challenges that Long Island faces that the typical vanilla railroad doesn’t face,” Rangel said.