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Editorial: LIRR should install safety measures asap

This view looking west, shows the stretch of

This view looking west, shows the stretch of single-track main line between the Pinelawn and Wyandanch stations on the LIRR's Ronkonkoma branch, April 16, 2012. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Along with relief that the Long Island Rail Road is making changes to improve safety after this month's fatal Metro-North derailment, there is frustration: Why must the precautions follow catastrophes rather than prevent them?

The LIRR said this week that it will expedite the installation of "positive train control" technology, which the federal government mandates by 2015. The LIRR has long maintained that meeting the deadline isn't possible. Experts say the technology would have prevented the crash in the Bronx that derailed a seven-car train rounding a curve at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit, as the engineer momentarily lost focus. But in fairness, it's worth noting that the LIRR has a separate automatic speed-control system for some curves that also would have prevented that accident, a system Metro-North is quickly installing on its more dangerous stretches.

The LIRR will also implement a "confidential close call" reporting system, to protect workers who speak up about dangerous situations. For several years, this page has urged the LIRR to adopt both as quickly as feasible. Other safety initiatives the LIRR will adopt or increase include speed-limit signs, adding automatic speed-control technology to seven new areas, more monitoring of trains and new "alerter" systems to ensure engineers are in control.

Unfortunately, not every LIRR track will receive these upgrades, yet. The "dark stretch" between Ronkonkoma and Greenport, lightly traveled and without electric signals or the safety controls that depend on them, needs funding and focus to be made modern and safe. The other "dark stretch," from Speonk to Montauk, was recently scheduled to get such signals and controls. That timeline must be met. We've seen what happens when a railroad doesn't install safety technology until after a catastrophe. We don't need to see it again.