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LIRR tunnel work raises fears of delays

TimesLedger Newspapers

Queens commuters who use the Long Island Rail Road may get to sleep in a little longer Monday mornings.

Amtrak will be repairing all four of the East River tunnels on weekends over the next four years, and while the passenger railroad company said it does not foresee any delays to Monday morning LIRR service, at least one member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board rolled their eyes at the prediction.

“This is very dangerous,” said MTA board member Charles Moerdler. “The LIRR does not have the greatest track record — no pun intended — of punctuality. But if this comes on top of it, that’s bad.”

The work will take place in one or two tunnels beginning each Friday at 10 p.m. Workers are scheduled to be out of the tunnels by 5 a.m. Monday to allow for the hundreds of daily commuter trains that use them, according to the LIRR.

Amtrak does not foresee any service delays, but Moerdler said the slightest tardiness could mean a huge backlog for the roughly 300,000 people who use the service each weekday.

If a crew member took too long to eat his lunch or took too long a break and was out of the tunnel 10 minutes late, it could delay the first train and then all the trains behind it, which could mushroom to 10 times the delay, he said.

In addition, Moerdler said the project will likely affect passengers beyond its projected completion in 2015.

“I’ve never seen one of these jobs come in on time,” he said.

And if something goes wrong, there is not much the city of New York can do about it.

“This isn’t being run by the MTA or the LIRR — where it is very easy to throw bricks and actually get a response. It’s coming out of Washington,” Moerdler said of Amtrak headquarters. “I don’t think this is the type of thing that should be done by remote control.”

Moerdler said he would like the congressional delegation of Queens and Long Island to look into getting New York City some say over how the tunnel construction proceeds.

“My view is that, at the end of the day, these kinds of locally based repairs — whether it be the East River tunnels or any others — have a locally based impact,” he said.

Higher-ups in the board were not the only ones worried about potential delays.

Margaret Turck commutes to school in Manhattan on the Port Washington branch of the LIRR and was waiting Monday for a train at the Bayside station.

“The LIRR always makes me nervous,” said Turck, who was waiting on the eastbound side due to construction on the opposite track. “Anything can happen and there are always mistakes.”

Last Thursday, lightning strikes in Queens caused signal problems that temporarily shut down service on all LIRR branches except the Port Washington line and caused massive rush hour delays.

Amtrak will be upgrading the tracks and drainage systems in each of the tunnels after a train derailed in May. Following the incident, it was discovered that water damage cause a section of the track to break and disrupted service for a week, according to the LIRR.

The first weekend construction went as scheduled, according to the LIRR.

Weekend service will also remain normal since the LIRR runs fewer trains than during the week, but the LIRR will lose the ability to reroute trains into the tunnels under construction should an incident arise, which could cause delays.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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