LIRR train delays and cancellations caused by problems during a weekend signal project stretched into their second weekday on Tuesday, and a key union official is blaming the railroad for outsourcing safety-sensitive work to unqualified contractors.
Although the LIRR resumed normal service in time for the Tuesday evening rush hour, service disruptions were to return later in the evening and last overnight, with shuttle buses replacing trains between Mineola and East Williston. The LIRR said normal train service would return by the Wednesday morning commute.
The problems stemmed from the installation of a new signal system in Mineola as part of the Long Island Rail Road’s ongoing effort to install a 10-mile-long Third Track on its Main Line in Nassau. Following what was supposed to be a 48-hour service suspension between New Hyde Park and Hicksville for the work to get done, regular service was scheduled to resume in time for the Monday morning commute.
But on Tuesday afternoon, LIRR riders were still dealing with multiple late and canceled trains that the railroad attributed to "ongoing signal work near Mineola."
On social media, some commuters remarked that the multiple cancellations resulted in crowded conditions on trains — even though the LIRR is carrying less than 25% of its pre-pandemic weekday riders.
Mineola commuter Marco Baldi said he learned of the "chaos" on the rails when he woke up Monday morning and checked the status of service on the LIRR’s mobile app. The train he usually takes, the 5:30 a.m. to Penn Station, and the train after that, the 5:33, were both canceled.
Expecting that passengers would be "standing in the aisles" on the next train, he chose to drive to work instead. "Now is not the time to be stuffing yourself into a packed train — a train that has three train-loads worth," said Baldi, 46, who did take the train to work on Tuesday morning.
Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, which represents hundreds of LIRR workers, said the problems were the byproduct of the railroad outsourcing signal installation and testing work to contractors, rather than having it performed by the railroad’s signal crews.
When those crews were called in to perform final testing of the new signals over the weekend, they discovered "immense problems" in the installation that took days to sort out.
"We always do this work," said Natale, who noted that his members undergo four years of training to be certified to work on the LIRR’s signal system. "For some reason, this time … they kept us out of it."
Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, said Tuesday that the use of contractors in the signal project was consistent with other major MTA infrastructure efforts in recent years.
"It is not uncommon when rolling out complex systems to find upon implementation that a particular element needs additional work," MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. "A software issue was identified in the testing process …"
Natale added that, if undiscovered by the LIRR’s signal workers, the errors in the installation and earlier testing of the signals could have resulted in locomotive engineers receiving incorrect directions, and caused a train collision. Donovan said "at no point could there have been a compromise to railroad safety."
"The reason we perform extensive testing is to ensure that there isn’t a safety risk," Donovan said.