The MTA began its temporary halt of 24/7 service on Wednesday in order to dedicate more time and effort to sanitizing trains.  Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as part of an unprecedented cleaning and disinfecting effort throughout its system, is testing products that could protect trains — including those on the LIRR — against coronavirus for months at a time, officials said.

Because the coronavirus is known to live on flat surfaces, like the steel rails found on trains, for days at a time, the MTA said it has been testing antimicrobial disinfectant solutions that provide a protective barrier against contamination. MTA chairman Patrick J. Foye, at a news conference Monday, said the authority is testing “multiple products from multiple companies” that say they kill the virus on surfaces for 30 to 90 days with one application.

On Wednesday, Foye said the MTA has been testing disinfectants on subway cars in a yard in Corona, Queens. Speaking to the Association for a Better New York in a telephone conference, Foye said he is “optimistic that good news will come out of this” in a matter of months. 

“We are doing everything we can to fast-track it,” Foye said. “Some of these things could be real game-changers in terms of public confidence in the system and employee confidence, which is equally important.”

The MTA is cleaning, per a directive from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, its fleet every 24 hours. Some of the disinfectants are being used on the city’s subway system, which will shut down daily from 1 to 5 a.m. so cleaning crews can “surge the system,” New York City Transit interim president Sarah Feinberg said.

“If proven successful, we will expand their use systemwide,” Feinberg said of the MTA, which includes the Long Island Rail Road.

The effectiveness of the antimicrobial solutions and surface protectants are unknown, and MTA officials said they are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine if they can eradicate viruses for extended periods, as manufacturers say. LIRR spokeswoman Meredith Daniels said the railroad is "anxiously awaiting" the results of the tests.

The MTA has not disclosed the names of the products, but several manufacturers from around the globe claim to have developed antimicrobial solutions that can protect surfaces against contamination for several months with just one application. The manufacturers said their products have been in use in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings for months, and have shown encouraging results, according to the MTA. Some products coat surfaces with millions of tiny capsules containing disinfectants that are activated and released upon human contact. 

The MTA also has been testing since March the use of ultraviolet lamps to kill the coronavirus on buses, although officials noted UV light does not protect from future contamination.

The sanitizing effort also calls for the LIRR to disinfect its fleet of 726 rail cars at least once a day. Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said that although the directive since March had been to disinfect the fleet every 72 hours, cleaners already were getting to most cars daily.

“We’re going to find a way to do it,” said Simon, who added that the increased cleaning has been made easier by the railroad’s decision to reduce daily service by about 30%. The change allows cleaners more time to tackle train cars at yards, terminals, and even during short layovers at stations.

“If we can grab a train at a station for 15 minutes extra, and do it there, we’re going to do it,” Simon said. “This will be one of the most dangerous jobs out there . . . They’re definitely in harm’s way. They’re going out and attacking the disease itself.”

Handheld electronic foggers, ranging in price from $75 to $100 each, were introduced in March and allow cleaners to cover a train car in about 5 minutes, as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes to thoroughly disinfect a car using wipes and mops. The railroad is using a "very effective botanical disinfectant" loaded into the foggers, but Daniels said the agency is upgrading to electrostatic foggers.

LIRR workers also have been disinfecting all 124 railroad stations daily. At the LIRR’s Penn Station concourse, “customer touch points,” such as handrails, counters and ticket vending machines, are sanitized twice daily. Restrooms are shut down every two hours for 30-minute cleanings, Daniels said. And, as of last Saturday, restrooms are also closed from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. daily for deep cleaning.

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