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Editorial: Tunnel repair a painful necessity for LIRR

An LIRR train travels eastbound inside an East

An LIRR train travels eastbound inside an East River Tunnel on May 23, 2011. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Sandy isn't finished with riders of the Long Island Rail Road yet.

The superstorm flooded and severely damaged two of the four East River tubes the LIRR uses between Penn Station and Long Island City, Queens. And now Amtrak -- which owns the 104-year-old tunnels -- wants to give them a stem-to-stern rehab starting a little more than a year from now. That's welcome news, of course.

Saltwater weakens tunnel linings, corrodes signaling equipment and damages wiring. Amtrak's $328-million renewal project will make LIRR trips under the river safer and more reliable.

That's essential. But it will be hell.

The LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak together run 1,300 trains a day through the tubes and into America's busiest railroad station. Any equipment problem or track failure in the tubes can send backups rippling not just throughout the Island but for miles and miles along the Eastern Seaboard.

Without the rehabilitation, saltwater will continue to gnaw away at the interior of the two tunnels, Amtrak says, making concrete more porous, harming tunnel walls and linings, and corroding the track structure. Cleaning and reinforcement are imperative.

But naturally there's a drawback to the plan. Each overhaul will take about a year. When one is done, the next will start. During that time, trains will be restricted to three tubes instead of the usual four as they cross the river between Penn and Long Island City.

To regular LIRR commuters who remember the harrowing tunnel problems immediately after Sandy, tube closures can sometimes mean interminable waits -- especially in rush hours. Amtrak insists train capacity in the East River tunnels will only drop about 20 percent. It's critical that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority be a full partner in decisions on the project to protect the needs of LIRR commuters.

There are countless difficulties in and around Penn and most of them are interlocking. One reason Amtrak and New Jersey Transit move so many trains under the East River to the Sunnyside Yards in Queens is Penn Station's lack of platform space. The railroads are simply getting empty trains out of the way. That raises the competition for tube space.

Amtrak is doing what's needed. We just hope it does it fast.