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Ex-LIRR workers say rules flouted

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An LIRR spokesman said the four crew members involved in the incident have been relieved of their duties pending an internal investigation into the runaway engine, which hit five vehicles and injured four people. Three of the victims were still hospitalized this week.

The National Transportation Safety Board said last week that there may have been a problem with the engine's air brakes but the crew also failed to secure it properly.

A railroad union official maintains the crew did nothing wrong.

"Due to incompetence and the general overall attitude at the railroad, things like this happen," said Dan Ruppert, who helped the Long Island Rail Road build a new maintenance facility during his time there in the '80s. Now privately employed, he has written about the inefficiency and incompetency of the railroad in a book entitled "Riding the Gravy Train: An Inside Look at the Long Island Rail Road."

In a press release issued March 16, the NTSB said the crew told inspectors they set the air brake, but the initial investigation revealed they failed to also set the manual hand brake and use wood blocks to chock the wheels. Those back-up devices must be employed according to LIRR regulations, the NTSB said.

But Robert M. Evers, a local chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said the locomotive was being moved in a routine switching maneuver that did not require a hand brake or the blocks. He said using blocks and hand brakes was not feasible in all situations and would slow down the railroad to the point where it could not run.

"I don't know what they're basing this report on," he said of the NTSB, noting that LIRR crews are not provided with blocks. "It's unfair to the crew and the employees that are involved."

But Peter Haynes, who worked from 1984 to 1989 on putting in a computer system to move LIRR trains and now is a member of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter's Campaign, said official procedure often differed from actual actions on the railroad.

"Do they skip this all the time in their general moves?" Haynes asked rhetorically. "I'm sure they do. Whether or not they should do that is another question." He said a lot of "cumbersome" procedures were often skipped.

In its press release, the NTSB said tests done after the accident showed some leakage in the air brake system. Although air is dumped to engage the brakes, a small reserve must be left to keep the shoe firmly touching the wheel.

The Maspeth locomotive had brake problems in an incident on March 6 in a different yard, the NTSB said, and news reports said the unattended locomotive had rolled for a short distance then. Two days later, the locomotive underwent a previously scheduled and federally mandated inspection by the LIRR.

Evers would not comment on that inspection, but both Ruppert and Haynes questioned why the locomotive was not either fixed or taken out of service before the March 10 accident.

"They should have found something," Haynes said. "They should have gone over it with a fine-tooth comb."

Haynes and Ruppert said that during their tenure they observed employees cutting corners despite knowing the regulations either from laziness or from an effort to keep the trains running on time.

"After being exposed to the LIRR workplace culture and employee mindset, it was quite evident the LIRR was a disaster waiting to happen," Ruppert said in an e-mail to the TimesLedger.

Under a new regulation from the Federal Railroad Administration to go into effect next Thursday, all locomotives must be secured with air brakes, hand brakes and wood blocks.

The Maspeth accident injured four people who were hit as their cars drove over crossings, and three remain hospitalized as of Tuesday.

Jason Kusinitz of Great Neck was still in critical condition with neurological damage at Elmhurst Hospital, while Sister Ave Clark, a nun who lives in Bayside, was waiting for surgery on her heel, a hospital spokeswoman said. Jason Cuffie was in stable condition and was being transferred to a Brooklyn hospital.

Evers, the union official, said the LIRR crew had performed the switching maneuver numerous times and knew what they were doing.

He said: "They're devastated by this."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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