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Amtrak repairs restore rush-hour LIRR trains

New York City Transit employees pump water out of the 53rd Street tunnel, which carries the E and M trains between Queens and Manhattan underneath the East River. Photo courtesy MTA New York City Transit/Leonard Wiggins
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It took less than two weeks for Amtrak to live up to its promise and expedite repairs on its East River tunnels, putting the Long Island Rail Road back on track with full peak service before the holiday rush.

Over the weekend, Amtrak announced it had restored the signal system capacity in one of its two flood-damaged East River tunnels after Hurricane Sandy, giving a green light to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reinstate its regular morning and evening rush hour LIRR service as of Monday.

The announcement marked the first full-service rush hour for the LIRR since the superstorm swept through the region six weeks ago.

“Restoring full LIRR rush hour train service will provide relief to those customers that endured crowded conditions during peak periods due to the loss of tunnel capacity from the flooding effects of Superstorm Sandy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak in restoring this crucial LIRR service.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Hauppauge) called on Amtrak to make the restoration of its East River tunnels damaged during Hurricane Sandy a top priority before the end of the month to avoid what he called Christmas chaos.

And although the congressman said Amtrak President Joseph Boardman gave him his word Dec. 2 that repairs would allow the full restoration of more than 40 LIRR rush hour trains by Christmas week, Israel said he would still hold the service accountable.

“I was thrilled to get word today that Amtrak’s CEO kept his commitment to me, and LIRR service will be restored to normal by Monday,” Israel said over the weekend. “I want to thank the LIRR Commuters Council for joining me in stressing to Amtrak how important it was to get the repairs done and service back to normal. As trains become more crowded with holiday travelers, I know this return to normalcy will be even more appreciated.”

According to Israel, Amtrak’s early estimates did not project significant restorations until the middle of January. But with help from groups such as the LIRR Commuters Council, some leaders said public pressure helped expedite the process.

“This is a real holiday present for commuters in a busy travel season,” said LIRR Commuters Council Chairman Mark Epstein. “Throughout this ordeal, the LIRR Commuters Council has had three goals: better and quicker communication, cooperation and conclusion. Since our call, we have seen Amtrak reach out and enlist the help and cooperation of the LIRR.”

Since the storm, LIRR spokesman Sal Arena said two of the four Amtrak-owned East River tunnels have used a makeshift and temporary signal system, forcing the ongoing cancellations of 26 morning rush hour and 27 evening rush hour trains across several different lines.

Moving forward, Amtrak said repairs were ongoing to the signal system in the one remaining flood-damaged tunnel operating at reduced capacity, with new equipment slated for installation and testing this weekend. Boardman said all the tunnels should be back to full train capacity by Christmas.

“By restoring the tunnels’ capacity to handle a full LIRR rush hour schedule, Amtrak and the LIRR make it possible for riders to take another step toward returning their lives to normal,” Epstein said. “We thank those men and women who have been working around the clock to repair vital systems and bring the tunnels back to normal capacity.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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