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LIRR, freight rail company to continue pact for another decade

New York & Atlantic Railway was chided by federal regulators in the wake of a 2015 crash at a crossing in Queens.

A New York and Atlantic Railway train approaches

A New York and Atlantic Railway train approaches the intersection of Grand Avenue and Railroad Avenue in Lindenhurst on Nov. 25, 2013. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

The freight rail company that was chided by federal regulators for unsafe practices — including a Queens crash in which the locomotive engineer left the scene — will continue operating on the Long Island Rail Road’s tracks for the next decade, officials said last week.

A year after the LIRR said it was considering getting out of a new 10-year renewal of its lease with Glendale, Queens-based New York & Atlantic Railway (NYAR), both railroads confirmed last week that they will continue working together until at least 2027, despite concerns raised by the Federal Railroad Administration, lawmakers and civic activists over the freight carrier’s safety record.

Both the LIRR and the freight railroad have said new safety measures are in place to address the issues raised by the FRA.

The LIRR, which is required by state law to move freight, has allowed NYAR on its tracks since 1997, when the two railroads reached an agreement under which NYAR would pay the LIRR at least $12.8 million over 20 years to take over its freight operations. The company, which moves 30,000 carloads of freight across 269 miles of track annually, paid the LIRR about $3 million in revenue last year.

Despite routinely facing opposition from residents near rail yards, pick-up and delivery sites and the LIRR’s tracks, transportation experts have said freight rail serves a vital purpose on Long Island — transporting construction material and waste that would otherwise be moved by trucks on congested roadways.

In September of last year, shortly after the LIRR’s original 20-year lease with NYAR rolled over into a 10-year extension, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a scathing report about the freight railroad — a subsidiary of Chicago-based Anacostia Rail Holdings.

The FRA launched the review of NYAR safety practices after a July 2015 incident in which it determined a locomotive operated by an uncertified engineer sped through a Queens grade crossing before the safety gates had lowered and warning devices activated, and crashed into a tractor trailer, injuring its driver.

The FRA report detailed “several safety issues that could increase the risk of additional accidents” on the LIRR’s tracks, including the failure to adequately train, test and certify train crews.

NYAR officials, who fired the engineer in the Queens crash, said at the time that their “top priority is safety” and vowed to correct the issues raised in the FRA review.

Following the report, LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said the railroad was “exploring” and “evaluating” its options, including potentially terminating the agreement with NYAR and putting the freight contract out to bid.

But last week, NYAR issued a statement saying it had “extended its contractual agreement with the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) for our franchise.” The LIRR later confirmed the contract extension.

“Over the past two decades, we have worked hard to grow the business, deliver reliable service to our customer base, and add strategic options for rail users throughout Long Island,” NYAR President James Bonner said.

Among the steps taken to improve safety are upgrades at grade crossings used exclusively by NYAR trains, the creation of safety committees, hiring a private consultant to conduct unscheduled inspections of freight cars and taking early steps to establish a system in which workers can anonymously report safety issues to federal authorities.

Among the measures NYAR said it has taken to promote a “stronger safety culture” is the creation of a new vice president and other positions to focus on safety, the installation of cameras and event recorders on locomotives and enhanced safety training.

“They have demonstrated significant safety improvements, consistent with federal recommendations,” LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “We will continue to monitor them very closely and act if we feel there has been any reduction of the improvements they have put in place.”

Mary Parisen-Lavelle, chairwoman of Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, or CURES, which has clashed repeatedly with NYAR, said she was “shocked and outraged” to learn the LIRR would stay in business with a company that has “demonstrated contempt for public health and safety, and violated the law and your transfer agreement.”

CURES members say several issues remain, including moving some open freight cars without covers on them, idling trains in residential communities overnight, and making unnecessary noise during overnight hours, including from crew members sounding whistles to communicate with each other.

NYAR officials declined to respond to the group’s accusations but said in a statement that they “respect our responsibilities within our host communities and strive to add value to the economic foundation of Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn.”

CURES member Mary Arnold said she’s concerned that, with a 10-year renewal, there’s little incentive for NYAR to make meaningful changes in the way it operates.

“It’s like, ‘Who cares?’ Well, the Long Island Rail Road has to care. They own it,” Arnold said. “They’re a public agency. They have public duties. And we believe that if they could make the changes they’ve made so far, they can continue to bore in on these people and make these other changes as well.”

Transportation experts said freight rail on Long Island won’t be going away anytime soon, and could increase in importance in the coming decades.

“Right now, trucks move about 90 percent of goods into and out of the NY metro area, resulting in congested roadways and increased air pollution,” said Ryan White, assistant vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a planning group based in Manhattan. “Given our limited highway capacity, we need to think proactively and pursue other modes to accommodate some that growth . . . It’s a win-win for regional economic development and improved quality of life in the metro area.”

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