Idling trains continue to disrupt
Resident Bob Goodhue and his neighbors on Academy Street have been losing the ongoing battle against idling Long Island Rail Road trains. For years, the trains have been idling behind their homes, but, according to Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the issue seemed to be resolved after meetings with the LIRR about five years ago. That was until last year, when the idling resumed.
“There seemed to be something worked out with the community four, five years ago to minimize the impact of the idling trains,” he said. “Then, for whatever reason, it slowly stopped and now more and more they are using the [track] along Academy.”
As of September of this year, the LIRR wrote to Goodhue stating that his complaint had been reviewed by LIRR’s transportation service department and they seek to be a good neighbor and minimize any inconveniences. But the issue dates back as far as 2006 with former Suffolk County Legis. Jack Eddington. In 2009, Eddington wrote a letter to the state Senate stating that even his predecessor, Legis. Brian X. Foley, attempted to assist Academy Street residents as far back as 1999.
In May of this year, about a dozen Academy Street residents including Goodhue signed and sent a petition to the LIRR stating that they were fed up with the constant idling trains. Residents claim trains have been idling every weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays, since September 2016 without exception, and stay idled for up to two hours, causing fumes, vibrations and noise.
According to Goodhue, the idling trains used to idle every weekday, but now idle on the weekends just before 7 a.m. behind Academy Street, despite the open north track at the train station. “The noise, the pollution, it’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said. “The trains should be on the north track, they shouldn’t be down here. You can’t even sit down for dinner or watch TV.” They also return midday and at night, he said.
Another Academy Street resident, Elsa Guacay, said every morning the train wakes up the household, which includes her 3-year-old nephew, and the loud vibrations have been the source of cracked walls and ceilings and broken windows. Other residents report the same.
The issue, according to Calarco, is that the trains use the Patchogue Train Station as a turnaround at the end of the line. “They don’t always go on to Speonk; sometimes they end at Patchogue, wait, and then head back west,” he said.
According to the LIRR, most of the about 56 diesel trains operate through Patchogue on a normal weekday schedule and proceed east and are held in either Speonk or Montauk. Of those 56 trains, only 10 remain in the Patchogue area: three turn in the station, two lay up on the north track, which runs from the station to South Ocean Avenue and is adjacent to the station platform, and five lay up on the schoolhouse track, which is situated south of the residences on Academy. On weekends, only eight trains remain in the Patchogue area, six lay up on the north track and two on the schoolhouse track.
As of May 2006, according to MTA public affairs general manger Susan McGowan, a new signal system was installed in Patchogue, allowing for more trains to operate between Babylon and Patchogue, thus increasing service. “While the signal system was, and remains, essential to increase capacity on the branch, it has somewhat limited our ability to maneuver equipment throughout the station environment,” she wrote in a letter dated Sept. 20, 2017 to Goodhue. “Accordingly, we are unable to make any further adjustments to our plans for diesel equipment in the area at this time. The use of layup tracks/sidings at Patchogue is vital in providing the level of service, which thousands of Montauk branch customers depend on daily.”
In addition, she wrote that the LIRR has operated a higher amount of trains to meet the burgeoning ridership during the summer season and special events such as parades and holidays. Consequently, she said, there is a greater amount of equipment in the area. McGowan went on to say the LIRR will, however, continue to monitor the concern and if further opportunities arise to refine the train placement without compromising service, they will implement them. But to the residents on Academy, that answer is not good enough.
A similar response from McGowan was sent to Calarco: “Please know that the LIRR continually seeks to achieve a proper balance between meeting our operational requirements and remaining sensitive to the quality-of-life concerns of nearby residents. There are, however, constraints on our diesel fleet that sometimes require locomotive engines to idle for a period of time.”
According to MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan, a diesel engine train can take up to an hour to fully shut down, and up to two hours to return to service-ready status, rendering it “inefficient” to shut down trains that will be returning to service within a short timespan. In addition, the equipment must be left running depending on weather in extreme temperatures so that electrical problems do not develop. Other factors that contribute to idling trains include: ensuring power to the trains’ heating and cooling elements to maintain a comfortable internal temperature for customers; for maintenance work or to troubleshoot problems, and, according to the MTA, the Federal Railroad Administration requires a physical inspection of a passenger train’s brake system if the train remains shut down for more than four hours, which is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process.
“The placement of off-duty engines is scheduled much in the same way as the movement of trains that are in passenger service. We organize our schedules to minimize any instances of idling near homes,” explained Donovan.
According to Calarco, Suffolk County does not permit diesel engines such as school buses to run for a certain period of time, however, the law does not apply to the MTA, being that they are under the oversight of the federal government and exempt from all local ordinances. Patchogue Village attorney Brian Egan said the same. Though there are also village codes in the books regulating noise and odors, the MTA is exempt.
Last month, on Oct. 16, Goodhue, Academy Street residents, Mayor Paul Pontieri, Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), and Congressman Lee Zeldin met with MTA representatives at Zeldin’s Patchogue office to try to remediate the situation.
Patrick Boyle, Croci’s deputy chief of staff, said the MTA requested time to perform a study to come up with a solution and suggested installing cameras for better communication with conductors and placement of trains. According to Donovan, LIRR’s dispatchers are in continuous contact with train crews via radio, but is evaluating the idea of cameras.
“We haven’t heard back from them, but we are certainly monitoring the situation and anxiously awaiting a response,” said Boyle.
According to Donovan, track work slated for this weekend, Nov. 11-12, will cause a one-time increase in train idling at Patchogue, but following the weekend work, new LIRR timetables will take effect as of Nov. 13 and train idling in the Academy Street area will be reduced for the winter season. Starting Nov. 13, the LIRR will relocate a weekend train that used to idle near Academy Street between 1:47 p.m. and 3:35 p.m. It will be positioned west of South Ocean Avenue, away from the area in question, he assured. That means that on weekends there will be only one train slated to idle near Academy — for one hour and 36 minutes — between 6:49 p.m. and 8:24 p.m.
“We’ve reviewed our schedules and the availability of infrastructure to try to find a way to reduce idling near Academy Street, but there’s no other location we can identify to allow us to store the train before we can turn it around to become the train that originates at Patchogue at 8:24 p.m.,” he said.
Still, residents including Goodhue feel stuck in limbo with very little accomplished. If still not resolved, Goodhue and Calarco said the next step would be to reach out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, in hopes of finally finding a solution for the neighborhood.
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