A Long Island Rail Road train passes under a new...

A Long Island Rail Road train passes under a new signal bridge and catenary truss at the Harold Interlocking in the Sunnyside Yard, Queens. The bridge-truss is part of the LIRR's East Side Access Project that is scheduled to provide service to the East Side of Manhattan in 2022. Credit: Charles Eckert

Second of two parts.


Amtrak’s new president and chief executive, Richard Anderson, hasn’t yet ridden through the tunnels beneath the East River that form the train path known as East Side Access.

He hasn’t yet stood on the roof of the Long Island Rail Road’s building on Northern Boulevard to see the complexities of Sunnyside Yards, the LIRR’s new train yards, and the intertwined tracks known as Harold Interlocking. He hasn’t walked through the bowels of Grand Central Terminal to see the new LIRR terminal under construction.

Perhaps after a trip to East Side Access, Anderson will understand how important the project is to Long Island — and to the region. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority should extend the invitation.

Amtrak’s involvement in the effort to connect the LIRR to Grand Central is critical to the project’s success — and has been fraught with problems. Amtrak’s control over much of Harold Interlocking — the Queens rail junction considered the busiest in the nation — means that when the LIRR has to work on the tracks, signals or wires, the commuter rail line needs the national railroad’s participation. Amtrak has to provide oversight, access, scheduling and, perhaps most important, workers.

That’s been a stumbling block. When the public wonders why East Side Access is taking so long and costs so much, Amtrak is one very big reason.

Amtrak officials say the railroad doesn’t have enough workers to cover its many important projects. But Amtrak has to be able to manage its workload and its workers in the busiest, most profitable section of the national passenger railroad. Too often, the LIRR will plan work for a weekend, when service disruptions can be managed, and Amtrak will cancel at the last minute for staffing reasons. At times, delays happen when Amtrak crew members, many of whom live in southern New Jersey, decide they don’t want an assignment in Queens.

All of this comes on a project that will benefit Amtrak — to the tune of about $1.5 billion in improvements to its signals, wiring and more, even as Amtrak doesn’t pay a dime into the effort.

Amtrak’s inability to prioritize this project, as well as its lack of urgency and its attempt to distance itself from East Side Access, is unacceptable. Amtrak has tried to put the onus on the MTA, saying the LIRR could use its workers or third-party contractors. But Amtrak officials know it’s not that easy because its unions have their own work rules. What’s more, Amtrak owns nearly all of the land at Harold Interlocking, along with the infrastructure, tracks and overhead wires. It’s Amtrak’s property and Amtrak’s workers and Amtrak’s responsibility to meet the MTA halfway, abide by existing agreements and make this work.

So, it’s up to Amtrak to get its unions to the table and negotiate deals to permit increased and expedited training, and to offer incentives for workers who choose to work on East Side Access.

MTA and Amtrak finger-pointing and inaction are delaying infrastructure improvements to the region. Amtrak has to end its tunnel vision and move East Side Access down the track.

This editorial has been updated to correct an earlier version that misidentified the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.