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LIRR brings on new signaling system, but union says ride not as 'smooth'

Kevin Sexton, the union's general chairman, says train operators have less ability to anticipate track conditions ahead since the railroad started installing new signals last year as part of modernization efforts.

A Long Island Rail Road train makes its

A Long Island Rail Road train makes its way along North Peters Boulevard in Central Islip on Friday. The railroad in 2018 started installing new signals on Long Island. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The LIRR has begun using a new kind of signaling system it says is less prone to problems, but the head of the railroad’s engineers’ union is raising concerns about the signals because they provide less information to train operators than the old ones.

Kevin Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 269, which represents LIRR train operators, said the railroad’s new system “makes it difficult for the locomotive engineer to provide a smooth train ride” for passengers because they have less ability to anticipate track conditions ahead and gradually slow down a train.

“While I am sure that the intent is to standardize and modernize the signal system, the reduced aspect signal system provides the locomotive engineer with less information than that of the old system,” Sexton said.

The LIRR said the new signals only account for a fraction of the signals throughout the system. The railroad started installing the signals last year as part of its infrastructure modernization efforts, including along the recently completed Double Track project between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma.

Glenn Greenberg, the LIRR’s acting chief engineer, said the railroad’s eventual goal is to reduce altogether the need for trackside signals, which number more than 800 throughout the railroad’s 700 miles of track. The new signals take a step in that direction by reducing the amount of infrastructure and electronics required to direct train traffic.

“There’s just a lot less equipment that could experience a malfunction, hence greater reliability,” Greenberg. “It simplifies the signal system, which is still very complex.”

The LIRR eventually plans to transition to exclusively using the new signals, which are similar to those used for decades by its sister MTA railroad, Metro-North, but it could be decades before the system is completely replaced. The railroad could not provide a cost of the project but said the signals are far less expensive to install than the old ones, for which the overhead aluminum bridges alone could cost $1 million.

Because they have fewer parts, LIRR officials have touted the signals as being more resilient. The signals are being mounted on poles in the ground next to tracks, rather than on bridges that go over the tracks.

“Basically, we’re going to have a signaling system that reduces the number of components that are necessary, therefore helping reliability with the system,” LIRR Vice President of Engineering Chris Calvagna said at a customer forum in Hicksville earlier this month. “There will be less bridges with signals on top … There will be less cabling, less components to fail. We’ll be able to operate trains more efficiently.”

The railroad’s older signals — some of which date to the 1940s — are capable of displaying around 80 different messages to an engineer, including about forthcoming speed restrictions. With just six different possible “aspects,” the newer signals, which are sometimes referred to as “go, no-go” signals, can communicate less information about conditions beyond a train’s current location.

Instead, the new signals require engineers to rely more heavily on the railroad’s so-called “cab signaling” system, wherein information about a train’s allotted speed is fed directly into a train operator’s control cab. The LIRR said, and Sexton acknowledged, that because of other technical safeguards in place, including a system that automatically slows down a train that is going too fast, the move to a new signal system will not compromise train safety.

Railroad signaling expert Robert Halstead agreed the LIRR’s older signals allowed engineers to “not have to decelerate as quickly” — making for a less jerky ride for customers.

“They would get more indications of what was ahead, not only at the next signal, but the one beyond that, so they could smooth out their braking a little bit,” said Halstead, a consultant with IronWood Technologies Inc. in Syracuse, who likened railroad signals to traffic lights. “With a train, as with a car, you don’t want to go from red to green. You’ve got to give them a yellow in between.”

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