The Long Island Rail Road is at a key crossing.
Ridership is down, and it's unclear when, if ever, riders will return and whether the pandemic has changed 20th-century patterns of masses of people arriving and leaving urban areas at the same times.
So perhaps it's the perfect time for LIRR president Phillip Eng to think big — and try something that's apparently never been tried in North America.
Monday's announcement that the railroad is taking the first steps toward introducing battery-powered electric commuter trains represents that kind of big thinking. It's an exciting move that comes after decades of talk, and then more talk, of how the LIRR couldn't afford to spend billions of dollars electrifying branches that currently rely on diesel locomotives.
Still, there are many questions to be answered before Eng's idea can become reality. But at least someone is finally asking: Why not try?
The LIRR will start with an eight-month study, paying Alstom, a train manufacturer headquartered in France, $850,000 to use simulations and other analyses to determine the concept's feasibility. That will include a look at the LIRR's desire to keep the batteries beneath train cars and its interest in maintaining existing speeds. Importantly, if Alstom determines the concept won't work, the agreement allows the LIRR to stop the process — and not pay the entire sum.
Let's not forget that Alstom last year bought Bombardier Transportation, which was responsible for a host of delays and problems with work it did over the years for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Alstom executives told the editorial board Monday that the LIRR is a "valued customer" and they pledged to "do the work the right way." The railroad must hold the company to that promise.
While there always is cause to be a bit dubious of MTA grand plans, there's reason to be optimistic. Success here could be game-changing, for those along the eastern ends of four diesel branches — Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, Greenport and Montauk — and for the region.
Reducing diesel use would improve air quality and encourage public transit use. Riders along the four lines could find themselves with more reliable and more frequent service and, potentially, one-seat rides into Manhattan. This also might end the practice of driving to other stations to grab an electrified train. Intra-Island, this could mean more train travel to up-and-coming downtowns and other destinations, from Oyster Bay to Port Jefferson to locales on the East End.
The LIRR must navigate the path forward carefully. It should take advantage of all funding opportunities, including from federal infrastructure dollars, and be ready to adapt to always-changing technology. The LIRR often is stuck in the past, but this time it could lead the way into the future.
The potential environmental upside, economic gains and improvements to quality of life for riders and those living along the lines are enormous. The train is just leaving the station — but what a ride it could be.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the country in which Alstom is headquartered.
— The editorial board