Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fire, power outages cripple NY, Philly operations

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Two of New York City's busy commuter and intercity passenger rail operations suffered serious disruptions Tuesday morning when a perfect storm-fire in a Long Island Rail Road interlocking tower and a catenary power outage on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor-seriously curtailed or shut down service, affecting hundreds of thousands of commuters.

One day after an electrical short in a pair of cables sparked a fire at LIRR’s Hall Tower, the nation's busiest commuter railroad cancelled 25% of its trains-33 westbound trains-into New York City from Long Island, and warned of "significant schedule changes and delays" for the morning and evening rushes. The delays continuedthrough Wednesday.

Service was also temporarily suspended along the NEC for the second time in less than two weeks because of the Amtrak power problem. Trains were stopped between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m., and commuters were warned to expect delays of more than an hour. All Amtrak train traffic between Washington and New York was halted between 7:45 and 9 a.m. It has since resumed. The same power problem also halted service on Philadelphia's SEPTA system. Commuter rail service was restored after being suspended for about 60 minutes but with delays of about an hour.

"The electrical chaos on the Long Island Rail Road on Monday offered a frustrating reminder of the fragility of a rail network still dependent on antiquated equipment," wrote the New York Times on Tuesday. "Embedded along the railroad tracks by Jamaica Station, and soaked by rain from the night before, two or more cables shorted out around 11 a.m., sending a pulse of electricity into a nearby control tower and setting fire to the century-old equipment inside. It seems improbable that a piece of ancient machinery, a contraption of levers and pulleys designed in 1913, would be critical to the successful operation of one of the nation's largest commuter railroads. But the machinery, which remained on fire for about an hour, controls the 155 track switches at a crucial choke point: Jamaica Station, which 10 of the railroad's 11 branches must travel through to get in and out of New York City. With no way to direct trains onto their proper routes, railroad workers scrambled onto the tracks, spikes and mallets in hand, to lock the switches into place manually so that trains could travel by, a practice known in railroad parlance as ‘block and spike.' 

"'We are an older infrastructure; we know that we need infrastructure renewal,' said Helena E. Williams, the president of the Long Island Rail Road, at a news conference. ‘Commuter rail is facing that throughout the United States.' Officials were still investigating the precise cause of the power surge, but they thought the heavy rainstorms early Monday morning could be a possible culprit. The cables that malfunctioned are less than a decade old, but the complex switching equipment was last updated in the 1930s. It was scheduled to be replaced in October with a modern computerized system."