The Long Island Rail Road in recent months has realigned tracks, shifted platforms and tacked wooden boards to platform edges -- all in a concentrated effort to shrink the dangerous spaces between trains and platforms.
But the ease and simplicity of these techniques -- which railroad officials say do narrow gaps but don't completely solve the problem -- have left victims of gap falls pointing to a missed opportunity. Why, they ask, didn't the railroad do this before Natalie Smead's August death?
Five months later, railroad officials still have not answered that question.
An examination of the track realignment process reveals another missed opportunity: Track resurfacing crews for decades have been measuring the distance between tracks and platforms -- a number that can be used to calculate the gap between platforms and trains -- yet the LIRR never kept the measurements or used them to identify problem gaps.
For decades, the LIRR only occasionally used concrete measures to prevent gap falls, installing lights and wooden boards along platform edges at a handful of stations and assigning a platform conductor to the Syosset station. It chose instead to focus on warning passengers to "Watch the Gap."
In recent months, the railroad has assigned platform conductors to five more stations and has expanded its use of wooden edge boards.
And it has for the first time used track realignment -- a technique used in regular maintenance -- to narrow gaps, shifting tracks closer to platforms at 17 stations since August.
"The idea of making platforms wider by simply putting a piece of wood in is a simple solution," said Joseph Laino, 69, of Mineola, who fell in a gap at Penn Station in 1986. "Why didn't they think about this 20 years earlier?"
The railroad announced yesterday a plan to reduce gaps -- by shifting platforms, realigning tracks and installing edge boards -- on an estimated 38 percent of its platforms by the spring of 2008.
However, measures such as track realignment may have little or no impact on some of the railroad's widest gaps, which occur on sharply curved platforms, railroad officials said.
The LIRR so far has not released the cost of its gap-reduction program, its recent education efforts or future work. LIRR acting president Ray Kenny said the railroad was working to "capture the costs," which have been funded largely through its regular track maintenance budget.
Kenny declined to say why measures such as edge boards -- used widely by the Metro-North Railroad -- weren't employed sooner by the LIRR.
No 'immediate solution'
"We're not going to have an immediate solution or initiative that's going to totally eliminate any of the risk," Kenny said. "But we're just trying to do what we can do. The surfacing [track realignment] is an example of that. It may be only an incremental improvement, but we want to make any improvement we can make."
Plans for more complex measures -- such as refitting trains with wider door steps or installing mechanical gap fillers -- could take longer, LIRR officials said.
"They've taken some very constructive, positive, common-sense steps, but those are the quick fixes," said State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Project Review Board. "Now what they have to do is look into the more dramatic and, probably, costly aspects of dealing with the problem."
Realigning tracks is at best a partial solution to the gap problem, which at the LIRR, includes gaps of up to 151/2 inches on curved platforms and up to 133/4 inches on a straight platform, according to measurements taken by the railroad in September.
In some cases, track realignment can reduce the gap by an inch or two. In other instances, particularly where there are sharp curves, the technique can't be used to reduce the gap at all.
Track realignment is the process by which maintenance crews move tracks both vertically and horizontally, bringing them back into place after weather and use have caused them to sink or shift slightly out of place.
Maintenance crews realign tracks every three to five years, depending on the type of rails and the amount of traffic there, railroad officials said. When tracks are realigned, LIRR maintenance crews aim to set the center of tracks 5 feet, 8 inches from platforms. This internal standard, which is 1 inch farther from platforms than the minimum required by New York State railroad law, corresponds to a platform gap of 8 inches.
Track realignment consists of several steps. After the track maintenance crew measures the distance between the track and the platform, they use a machine called a tamper car to bring the track into proper alignment.
On its second pass over the tracks, the tamper clamps onto the rails and lifts them. Fork-like tongs then dig into the ballast around the rail ties and push more stones under the tie. When the machine releases the rails, that segment will rest at the desired position.
Since August, the railroad has shifted platforms at a handful of stations to address the gap problem, lifting them with manual jacks and moving them a few inches closer to the tracks. The railroad can make these adjustments only to platforms that are built in sections -- not those consisting of one large piece.
The LIRR also has expanded its use of platform edge boards, which until recently had been installed at just a few stations. The wooden boards, tacked to the edges of platforms, can reduce gaps by a few inches. This relatively cheap solution is the most common gap solution across the United States, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a bus, rapid transit and commuter rail industry group.
Metro-North, which has been using edge boards throughout its system for two decades, said the wood strips allow them to reduce gaps inexpensively and safely.
They often are knocked off by freight trains -- which are wider than passenger trains -- but the strips cause no damage and are easily replaced.
Metro-North officials said they could not give a cost estimate because it is part of the railroad's maintenance budget.
Since Smead's death, the railroad has amplified its "Watch the Gap" campaign, posting a video on its Web site, developing a new pictographic sign, stenciling the message on platform edges and displaying the words on ticket machine screens and train schedule displays. Passengers hear announcements in stations, on platforms and in trains.
"Now on the train they say, 'Watch the Gap,' and I want to laugh," said Melissa Kalbacher of Manhattan, who fell into a gap at Hunters Point in January 1998 and has since had three knee surgeries. "They never used to say that. It's really a shame they had to wait."