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LIRR review shuts 10 escalators after woman's death

The escalator at the Baldwin LIRR station is

The escalator at the Baldwin LIRR station is one of several out of service for many months, forcing riders to use the stairs. (Aug. 20, 2012) Credit: Steven Sunshine

Almost half of the LIRR's 19 escalators are shut down because of safety concerns uncovered during a review triggered by the March death of an 88-year-old woman on a Lindenhurst station escalator.

Workers have been replacing several major components, making repairs and installing new safety technology on 10 of the 19 escalators, some of which are nearly 30 years old, said Joe Calderone, vice president of customer service for the Long Island Rail Road. One of the escalators under repair has been reopened while work continues on the other nine.

"The escalators were taken out of service for safety reasons, and they cannot be put back in service until we are confident that all features, including new safety enhancements, are working properly," Calderone said in a statement. "Safety is our No. 1 priority."

LIRR officials have said escalators have a useful life of about 20 years. The LIRR also has plans to replace its 12 oldest escalators over the next four years -- including some of those taken out of service for the short-term fixes.

Calderone said the agency was working to have all or most of the escalators at eight LIRR stations back in service by September. The west escalator in Hicksville was returned to service Saturday night. Of the eight stations with escalators out of service, five have working elevators.

The LIRR started a review of its escalators after the March 13 death of Irene Bernatzky, who fell on the up escalator in Lindenhurst and was asphyxiated when a piece of her clothing got tangled in the machinery.

Five months later, the Lindenhurst station escalator remains boarded and out of service. The two stations immediately to the west and east, Copiague and Babylon, also are without working escalators.

Most of the other escalators were shut down during the spring, inconveniencing riders who have to climb and descend dozens of steps each day.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Billy Fischer, 33, of Lindenhurst, a steam fitter who commutes into Penn Station every workday. "You pay $300 a month [for a commuter ticket] and that's what you get."

Calderone said the new escalator maintenance vendor hired in May, Brooklyn-based Nouveau Elevator Industries, inspected all the escalators and discovered more problems than the LIRR initially anticipated.

Inspectors found many old and worn parts that had to be replaced. The pace of the repair work depends on the delivery of parts, some of which had to be ordered from Canada and Germany, Calderone said.

All the escalators being renovated are getting new safety switches, a brake assembly for emergency stops, handrails and comb plates for the top and bottom landings.

The LIRR is also making safety upgrades on its 12 oldest escalators -- including the 10 taken out of service. They include new sensors at the bottom and side of the moving stairs that will detect when an object gets caught and will shut down the machine's movement. Technology that will eventually allow the LIRR to remotely monitor all of its escalators also is being installed.

Mildred Eckert, 78, said she looks forward to the safety improvements, but questioned why it's taking so long. Eckert, of Marlboro, N.J., takes the LIRR to visit her son in Lindenhurst.

"It's the first thing I asked him [on a recent trip]: 'Did they ever fix that damn escalator?' " said Eckert, who said she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a respiratory condition. "I've got to stop every three steps."

LIRR officials said they realize the simultaneous escalator outages are inconvenient, but they wanted to address safety concerns as soon as possible. They said the LIRR's website provides information about which stations have working elevators and escalators.

Railroad officials did not have a cost estimate for the work, but Calderone said it was considerably more than the LIRR originally estimated.

The agency also has hired four people to staff its new escalator and elevator oversight unit, Calderone said.

When the LIRR completes all of its planned escalator replacements, the oldest ones will be in Valley Stream and Lynbrook, both of which were installed in 2003.

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