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Clever laser innovation helps the LIRR beat fall leaves

The LIRR gives a demonstration on Friday, Oct.18,

The LIRR gives a demonstration on Friday, Oct.18, 2019 of how they combat "low adhesion season," which occurs when leaves fall from trees and get wet, making for slippery conditions on tracks.+ Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The leaves have fallen, and we are thankful they didn't stop the Long Island Rail Road. 

For several years, the LIRR seemed ill-prepared for autumn. When leaves fall on the tracks, they leave a residue that creates a condition called "slippery rail," which can damage and flatten train wheels. Those wheels then must be fixed. In the past, that's been an enormous problem, causing many canceled, shortened or delayed trains.

After withering criticism, the nation's largest commuter railroad was ready for this fall's leaf battle — and now it can declare victory.

At the heart of the LIRR's strategy: a new laser train. Its research and development could cost the railroad up to $250,000. But in its first season, the laser train was able to burn residue off the tracks before it damaged train wheels. According to LIRR President Philip Eng, the laser train is an industry first.

It may be the best $250,000 the railroad has ever spent.

The LIRR also added  higher-pressure power washing, as well as four functional machines  to fix flattened wheels. Just two years ago, only two machines were available.

This year, the number of canceled trains fell 48%. The LIRR had 32% fewer shortened trains this fall compared with 2018. Weather-related delays in November fell about 65% compared with November 2018.

 That translated into less crowding, fewer delays and better service.

Now the LIRR plans to expand use of the laser technology, which was a pilot program this season.

This fall's success should show the LIRR how important it is to be prepared — and how it's possible to find new solutions to old problems.

—The editorial board