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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Amtrak’s Silence

Traveling on the LIRR was a nightmare in November. Trains were canceled, express trips became local ones, and overcrowding was the norm, especially in the evening rush hours. I’m not looking to blame anyone at the LIRR or Amtrak for this. Sandy inflicted a serious blow to the region’s infrastructure, and illustrated once again how mass transit is the lifeblood of the New York metropolitan area’s economy.

But why was it left to the LIRR, and not Amtrak, to explain specifically what was going on in the Amtrak-owned East River tunnels? Penn Station’s public address announcers offered vague statements about how Sandy adversely impacted these crossings. It wasn’t until the LIRR distributed a pamphlet in mid-November, however, that the details became publicly known.

 “During the storm, Amtrak’s East River Tunnels, which connect Penn Station to Queens and points east, flooded. While all the tunnels have reopened, two of them had extensive water damage. As a result, we [the LIRR] are using a temporary signal sequencing system that has reduced the number of trains per hour that can move through them. Components of the original signal system are being repaired and will be reinstalled as soon as possible,” the relevant passage stated.

Days later, media outlets started picking up on the East River tunnel story, perhaps after hearing incredible tales from those who survived the LIRR on the night of the snowstorm (Wednesday, Nov. 7), when 45-minute journeys took two and one-half hours, or Thanksgiving Eve (Wednesday, Nov. 21), when Penn Station was temporarily closed in the early evening to both incoming and outgoing trains. If you want a sense of what the area around Madison Square Garden looked like that night, go to YouTube and type “Fall of Saigon, helicopter” into the search engine.

The U.S. House Member who successfully prodded Amtrak to pay attention to the LIRR, by the way, was Rep. Steven Israel (D-Huntington). His office issued a news release on Tuesday, Nov. 27, and the congressman did a number of media interviews around that same time, calling attention to the issue.

“It is unacceptable for Amtrak to withhold information from LIRR riders, many of whom depend on the system on a daily basis,” Rep. Israel stated. “While needed repairs after Sandy are understandable, riders should be kept abreast of the progress and be able to plan in advance for delays.”

Realizing that someone with a vote on Amtrak’s federal appropriations bills was concerned about their performance, would it surprise you to learn the LIRR’s East River tunnel traffic improved noticeably soon thereafter?

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: