Four years into a project to shrink dangerous gaps between trains and station platforms, the Long Island Rail Road still has plenty of work to do that "will take us into next year," LIRR President Helena Williams said .Wednesday.

When they began their "gap remediation" project in 2007, LIRR officials said they expected it would take about two years to finish. By 2008, the estimated completion was pushed back to 2012, and that remains the target, Williams said.

The biggest challenge? The railroad is still seeking the right design for a gap-reducing plate for its fleet of double-decker trains.

"The plan has had some adjustments," said Williams, who will update Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members on the project at a Manhattan meeting Thursday. "These things take what they take. They have to be done the right way. They have to be done safely. They have to be done in a way that works."

Tragic beginning

The LIRR began the project after a Newsday investigation that found that about 38 percent of station platforms had dangerous gaps, Syosset's as wide as 15 inches. Newsday also found that since 1995, the LIRR had logged 882 gap incidents.

The Newsday investigation stemmed from the August 2006 death of Natalie Smead, 18, of Northfield, Minn., who was killed after falling through a nearly 8-inch gap coming out of a train, crawling under a platform and being struck by another train.

The LIRR's goal has been to reduce gaps by 3 inches to an acceptable average of 5 inches.

The LIRR has already installed steel "threshold plates" at the doors of all its electric cars -- more than 80 percent of its fleet. But it is yet to find a successful design for the doors of its 134 bi-level diesel/electric coaches.

A key issue is coming up with a plate that can be heated by the cars' wiring system so riders don't slip on ice. Williams said the LIRR has been tackling the problem "for some months" and is now testing a prototype plate.

Also, the LIRR has not completed installation of "edgeboards" at platforms at more than a quarter of its 122 stations. Williams said she expects that work to be finished by the end of this year.

The railroad gave the worst platforms priority, and in some cases the solutions have been less than perfect, she acknowledged. An example is Syosset, where the curved platform limits the ability to close the gap. It's still as wide as 10 inches.

An LIRR gap team continues to address the unique issues at individual station platforms, some of which have to be raised or lowered, Williams said.

One factor setting back progress was harsh weather this past winter, which diverted resources from the project.

The LIRR spent $31 million through 2010 on the project, and plans to spend another $6 million through next year.


Incidents on decline

Gap-related incidents have steadily declined since the LIRR began the project in 2007, when there were 175 incidents. In 2010, there were 62 -- a drop of more than two-thirds.

"The accident numbers show that we're making good progress, and that's what I'm satisfied with," Williams said.

The progress is not good enough for Judith Cohen, 73, of Commack, who suffered multiple fractures after slipping in the gap at Huntington Station in 2006. In January, Cohen took an LIRR train for the first time since her accident. "I did notice that they have made improvements, but it still seems to me that 62 accidents in 2010 is way too many," said Cohen, awarded $247,500 by a Manhattan jury last year in a suit against the LIRR. "I don't know why it took them so long."

Long after the final threshold plate is installed, Williams said the LIRR's efforts to prevent gap accidents will continue. She said a critical component of the plan is getting the message to customers to "be train smart" when getting on and off.

"When I'm on a train, if I hear it once, I hear it 20 times: 'Watch the gap,' " MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said: "Is it finished? Obviously not yet. But I think they've made really significant progress within a reasonable period of time."


 Gap Fixes

Threshold plates

What they do: One- or 2-inch steel step plates that extend from train doors to platforms to help bridge the gaps.

Done: All of the LIRR's 836 M7 and 160 M3 model electric cars

Left to do: All 134 of the LIRR's bi-level C3 model coaches

Platform fixes

What they do: One-inch boards installed on platform edges to help close gaps; height adjustments also made where necessary.

Done: Installation of edgeboards on 164 platform edges at 100 passenger stations.

Left to do: Installation of edgeboards on 58 platform edges at 24 passenger stations.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave a wrong figure for an acceptable gap average.


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