Part of the Central Branch is seen Wednesday at Cordeiro...

Part of the Central Branch is seen Wednesday at Cordeiro and Wellwood avenues in Lindenhurst. Credit: Shelby Knowles

The Long Island Rail Road plans to electrify a little-used north-south rail link that will allow the railroad to better respond to service disruptions and boost intra-island travel, the LIRR’s president announced Wednesday.

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LIRR president Phillip Eng said the railroad will seek to power up its Central Branch as part of the MTA's next five-year Capital Program, which would begin in 2020.

“We’re going to make it a priority,” Eng said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s been talked about for so long and never done. We’re going to do it.”

The 6.8-mile-long Central Branch provides a link between the LIRR's Ronkonkoma/Greenport branch, just east of Bethpage station, and its Babylon/Montauk branch, just west of Babylon station. Currently, the link is accessible only by diesel trains and is used sporadically, including by some daily Montauk trains and freight trains. Using the line requires trains to make reverse movements in the opposite direction on the diagonally configured track.

The LIRR also sometimes uses the single-track Central Branch to route trains around problems blocking passage on one of its lines.

Installing an electrified third rail to the branch would allow the railroad to route any train along the Central Branch during both unplanned and planned service disruptions, including those caused by scheduled track work.

Eng said he began exploring the possibility of electrifying the Central Branch after a lightning strike at an LIRR substation near New Hyde Park on Aug. 8 caused some trains to be delayed by as much as 90 minutes. Some of those trains may have been able to reach their destinations more quickly if they had use of the Central Branch, Eng said.

“Are there going to be delays? Yes. But we can move them. And I think that’s what our customers need,” Eng said. “They don’t want to feel stranded. And I don’t want them to feel stranded.”

East Northport commuter Ron Troy called it a “good idea,” and recalled riding an evening rush-hour train to Ronkonkoma that was detoured along the Central Branch to avoid a problem on the Main Line.

“It was a way of getting around stranding hundreds of passengers that night on the one train. They were able to work around it, which amazed me,” Troy said. “It’s not the greatest solution. But it’s certainly a viable solution.”

Eng would not disclose the estimated cost of electrifying the Central Branch, but said he expected it would fit into the MTA’s next Capital Program, which is expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars. The LIRR has previously estimated the cost of track electrification at $18 million a mile. The last time the railroad electrified a portion of its system was in 1987, when it completed installation of a third rail between Bethpage and Ronkonkoma.

Eng said the railroad is also continuing to explore the possibility of electrification along its Port Jefferson branch.

His announcement came as part of a presentation to the MTA board on the progress made so far in the railroad's LIRR Forward initiative, which Eng launched shortly after joining the agency in April. The plan aims to improve service for riders, including by tackling some of the most persistent causes of delays.

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