An Amtrak train disappears into a tunnel in Hunter's Point,...

An Amtrak train disappears into a tunnel in Hunter's Point, Queens. (May 11, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Amtrak has finally agreed to open the throttle and dramatically step up maintenance on its East River tunnels.

That's great news for weary Long Island Rail Road passengers who, time and again, have seen service descend into an angry shambles after something goes wrong inside the Amtrak-owned tubes linking Penn Station with Queens and the LIRR main line.

But it's not enough. Amtrak owes Long Islanders more than that.

LIRR riders know these miseries by heart. Maybe signaling has failed in a tube. Maybe a track bed has flooded. Maybe a train derailed. The result is always the same. Service is stopped or drastically slowed. Commuters are delayed for hours -- aboard trains, in waiting areas at Penn, on Jamaica's platforms and at countless other points.

The problem is this: While Amtrak is responsible for maintenance of its tunnels, the railroad has tended to treat them as if they were just another complicated component in its vast national network.

They're not.

The LIRR funnels hundreds of trains and most of its 300,000-plus riders through this bottleneck every day from Penn Station -- under the river to Long Island City, Queens, and points east. Amtrak makes far fewer daily trips through the tubes. It needs a persistent reminder of the LIRR's crucial, tightly choreographed squeeze.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Mondaythat Amtrak would replace track components on a regular schedule, do inspections during the day when more workers are present to make repairs, and do more to protect rails from corrosion.

But why wasn't Amtrak doing this all along?

And what's the guarantee that Amtrak won't turn a cold shoulder once the heat is off? The best answer: A member of the Amtrak board of directors whose specific duty is to watch the backs of commuters and the commuter railroads.

There's an opening now on Amtrak's seven-member board and Schumer says he is submitting the name of State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) for the job.

Excellent choice.

Fuschillo chairs the State Senate Transportation Committee, has been a tireless advocate on behalf of Long Island commuters and vowed yesterday to make sure the tunnel work was carried out promptly should his appointment materialize.

Were President Barack Obama to nominate him, Fuschillo would still need to win the consent of the U.S. Senate. There's still a ways to go.

For LIRR patrons, the appointment of a commuter representative on the Amtrak board is far more than an infrastructure issue. It's a quality-of-life thing.

The tunnels are the weakest link in the LIRR system. Bringing them into a state of good repair will reduce the frequency of the railroad's crazy-making delays, reroutes and cancellations. Remember last year when Sandy knocked out the signals in the East River tunnels? Lumbering along like a slow freight train, Amtrak at first said the signals couldn't be repaired until Christmas or later -- roughly two months after the storm. When a howl went up that could be heard from Ronkonkoma to Washington, Amtrak had the signals repaired by early December. That's why the MTA needs a representative at the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the official name of Amtrak.

It's been a long time since the voice of the passenger was heard.

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