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LIRR completes key signal at Harold Interlocking

A Long Island Rail Road worker on duty

A Long Island Rail Road worker on duty at the newly constructed signal hut at the Harold Interlocking. Credit: MTA

The Long Island Rail Road has completed the replacement of the entire train signal system at a key switching area in Queens, ensuring better service reliability for commuters, LIRR officials said Wednesday.

Last weekend, the railroad finished a multiyear effort to modernize its decades-old mechanical signal system at the Harold Interlocking in Queens with an electronic, microprocessor based system that LIRR officials say will result in fewer signal-related problems for customers traveling into and out of Penn Station — just west of the interlocking.

The upgrades are part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $11.2 billion East Side Access megaproject, which aims to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022.

While most of the benefits of East Side Access are still years away, MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber said “the upgraded signal system is a major change that delivers for LIRR riders by providing faster, more reliable service.”

One of the key ways the new signal system improves on the old one is by spreading out the signal control functions among seven different locations, known as signal huts — each of which is responsible for one particular area at Harold. Previously, all the signals — which serve as sort of traffic lights for locomotive engineers — were controlled out of a single location. 

“Failures or problems within that single location had the potential to affect the entire system,” the railroad said in a statement. “The new signal system has been broken into separate locations spread throughout the interlocking.  If a failure in one occurs, it is limited to that location and the smaller area it controls as opposed to the entire interlocking.”

LIRR officials said that other recent improvements as part of East Side Access are also bringing benefits to customers right away, including the construction of a new track at Harold, known as Main Line 4, and the installation of several new “crossovers” — or switches that allow trains to move between parallel tracks. The new switches, installed this past spring, allow trains, for the first time, to access any of the four East River Tunnel tubes from any track at Harold.

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council — the railroad’s official watchdog group — said Wednesday that the new signal system in Harold is “welcome news” for the tens of thousands of commuters traveling to and from Penn Station each day.

“We hope to see the results of those improvements sooner rather than later and support the LIRR’s initiatives to bring better service to riders who deserve a break from delays caused by outdated infrastructure,” Epstein said.

The MTA has worked in recent months to overhaul the management, and marketing, of East Side Access — one of the largest public works projects underway in the US, but also one of the most troubled. 

The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns since it was proposed in the 1990s with a budget of $4.3 billion and a targeted completion date of 2009. That cost estimate has more than doubled and the target completion date has been pushed back 13 years. In April, the MTA announced East Side Access’ budget had grown by another $955 million.

“East Side Access is to Long Island what the Gateway Tunnel is to New Jersey — a second route for rail passengers, in case of emergency,” Lieber said. “When East Side Access goes into service, there will be for the first time an alternate route into and out of Manhattan for commuters, allowing Amtrak to fix the existing East River Tunnels that were badly damaged during superstorm Sandy.”

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