LIRR East End ‘dark territory’ gets signal from 21st century

People walk towards an LIRR train as they prepare to leave Montauk, Sept. 5, 2016. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Big changes are coming this week for Suffolk County Long Island Rail Road commuters, including a major transformation of part of the LIRR’s “dark territory” that has operated without signals more than 100 years.

On Monday, modern railroad signals will be activated between Speonk and Montauk. LIRR crews were scheduled to complete the changeover to the new system over the weekend.

In a statement, the LIRR said the upgrades — completed under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Capital Program — “will mean even greater train safety and reliability, will enable future service upgrades” and will pave the way for the implementation of federally mandated “positive train control” crash-prevention technology.

Modern railroad signals provide locomotive engineers with directions on how to proceed, including when to slow down or stop because of track conditions ahead. In lieu of a signal systems, train crews currently get instructions from dispatchers over telephones or radios — or in some cases in the form of paper “train orders” passed by dispatchers inside towers at the end of a stick to crew members through a train window.

“It’s like going from the 19th century to the 21st century,” said Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, whose members installed the new signal equipment during the past year. “Typically, what you had out there east of Speonk is the way you ran trains 100 years ago.”

Because there is only one track between Speonk and Montauk, trains often have to pull into sidings to get out of the way of other oncoming trains — a process that Natale said currently requires a conductor to disembark from the train and manually throw a switch on the tracks. “That was just so inefficient,” Natale said.

A modernized signal system will allow the LIRR to more quickly make such train movements, and create the capacity to operate more trains on the East End. It will also provide safety improvements, including the “automatic speed control” in place throughout most of the rest of the system, which slows down or stops a train if a signal is violated.

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