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LIRR: Faulty fix to reduce platform ‘gap’ now under repair

Plates that were installed at the doorway of

Plates that were installed at the doorway of most electric LIRR train are shown on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Replacing thousands of faulty train door threshold plates meant to shrink dangerous gaps at station platforms, and spending $1.8 million to resolve an Amtrak dispute delaying installation of wheel-repair equipment are parts of the Long Island Rail Road’s bid to improve failing performance in recent months, LIRR officials said.

Railroad president Patrick Nowakowski, in laying out his Performance Improvement Plan on Tuesday to reverse the railroad’s recent service problems, revealed that one key problem to be addressed involves corrosion on “threshold plates” installed in recent years at the doorways on most of the railroad’s fleet of electric trains. The plates aimed to reduce the size of the gap between train doors and station platforms.

Unfortunately, Nowakowski said, the material selected by the train car builder for the plates — aluminum — was different from the stainless-steel train car bodies, resulting in galvanic corrosion due to the dissimilar metals. Salt and melted snow during recent winters worsened the problem, causing the plates to expand, heater circuits to short out, and train doors to become misaligned from their running tracks.

“They’re cracking. They’re failing. And particularly when you get into the cold weather, that gets to be problematic,” Nowakowski said. “Doors go out of alignment. Doors don’t work the way they’re supposed to work.”

LIRR officials said that after discovering the problem, they began a program last year to replace failing equipment at the doorways of every “M7” electric train car, including installing 3,300 new threshold plates. LIRR officials would not give an estimate for the cost of the work, which is expected to be tabulated as part of the railroad’s Performance Improvement Plan.

The plan includes purchasing new equipment and technology to protect tracks and switches from severe weather and enhance the railroad’s communications capability, including by installing subway-like arrival countdown clocks at all stations.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota, who has criticized railroad management in recent months for its lack of urgency in responding to service problems, on Thursday called the plan “comprehensive.” He said the MTA was assessing the cost and would look for “efficiencies and other sources of funding to make it happen.”

The MTA also on Thursday approved a $2.6 million plan to reduce the potential for Long Island Rail Road train car shortages caused by fallen leaves on the tracks. The plan spends $1.84 million to resolve a contract dispute between Amtrak and a construction firm that the LIRR said has held up the installation of a new “tandem wheel truing machine” at a shop at the railroad’s West Side Yard near Penn Station.

Nowakowski has blamed the shortage of the lathe-like machines — which smooth flat spots on train wheels — for a shortage of LIRR train cars during most of December and January. LIRR officials have said 367 had to be taken out of service because of damage from “slip-side” conditions on the tracks caused by fallen leaves and misty rain.

The LIRR has been down one wheel machine since 2013, when an Amtrak project to build a casing for a future tunnel across the Hudson River required closure of the shop where one of the machines was located. The railroad planned to replace the machine with a new one once it got the shop back, but LIRR officials have said the tunnel project fell behind and they were only able to return to the shop earlier this month — about two years behind schedule.

In addition, a dispute involving Amtrak, private developer Related and construction firm Tutor Perini over unanticipated costs in restoring the LIRR shop further delayed the installation of the wheel machine. In its written proposal to the MTA Board, the LIRR offered to pay the disputed sum of $1.84 million to “break the impasse” and speed installation of the new wheel repair machine.

MTA Board member Charles Moerdler criticized the decision to “put on our plate” the costs of resolving a dispute not directly involving the LIRR.

Nowakowski called the situation “extremely complicated.” “I need to get the wheel truing machine right now,” he said. “That’s my priority.”

In addition to the $1.84 million, the MTA on Thursday approved spending up to another $800,000 to accelerate the installation of the new machine by up to three months, making it available by September. Those costs are on top of $13 million already spent by the LIRR for the design and manufacture of the machine.

Throughout much of December and January, the LIRR was operating with just two wheel-repair machines — each of them capable of repairing three train cars a day.

The railroad has since added one other machine at a Queens yard. The new tandem wheel truing machine will be able to do the work of two traditional machines, LIRR officials said.

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