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Baptism by fire for new LIRR President Phil Eng

To hear concerns and suggestions, LIRR president Phil

To hear concerns and suggestions, LIRR president Phil Eng meets a commuter during evening rush hour at Penn Station on Tuesday. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

On the second day, Phil Eng didn’t rest. Neither did commuters.

Early Tuesday, even before he began greeting passengers in Mineola with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, the new Long Island Rail Road president was dealing with delays and cancellations that affected about 10 percent of the morning’s rush-hour trains.

The cause, the LIRR told riders, was the familiar “switch trouble.”

The specific culprit? A broken Amtrak switch on Penn Station’s crowded east side at what’s known as “JO” interlocking, which isn’t part of Amtrak’s recent infrastructure work. The problem was discovered during routine overnight inspections by Amtrak. During rush hour, as trains squeeze from many tracks to fewer platforms, a broken switch can have the effect of closing off multiple lanes on a busy highway. A mess, unsurprisingly, ensued. Making matters worse, some at Amtrak didn’t even seem to know it was Amtrak’s fault. Early on, the LIRR cited an Amtrak switch, but an Amtrak statement said it had no reports of switch issues. It’s unclear how the miscommunication happened.

What’s more, Eng and operations chief David Kubicek “rode Amtrak all day,” constantly checking in to make sure repairs were made, an LIRR official said. Amtrak officials, meanwhile, said fixes were made within a few hours. But Amtrak still isn’t doing its job to make sure rail infrastructure is safe and functional. Amtrak must add the heavily used switches at JO interlocking to its priority list for upgrades. Right now, they’re in the “next couple of years” file.

Eng has an enormous job to do, and problems like Tuesday’s malfunction just make the challenge bigger. He has to find new solutions to old problems, get answers and demand accountability from partners like Amtrak. Otherwise, the customers he greets won’t believe he can switch the LIRR over to the right track.