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Fire near Jamaica station cripples LIRR

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All it took was a fire at a switching tower just east of the Long Island Rail Road’s Jamaica station to shut down and immobilize all but one of its commuter lines Monday, but the transit agency said that an overall fix is on its way.

Roughly 40 Manhattan-bound trains that have to pass through the station were canceled during the Tuesday morning commute following the fire at 11 a.m. Monday that caused headaches for thousands of commuters, according to an LIRR spokesman. The agency said it was working fast to repair the damage that caused the delays to 10 out of the 11 lines and asked passengers to be patient.

“We are a railroad that tries to deliver safe, reliable service,” LIRR President Helena Williams said at a news conference in the station Monday.

The exact cause of the fire that affected the third rail at the switching tower near Hall station had not been determined by press time Tuesday afternoon, but Williams said the torrential rains that hit the area over the weekend were a factor. The water caused the soil around the wiring to become more saturated and could have affected the roughly 10-year-old equipment, according to the president.

Williams repeatedly said that even though the technology used to switch the trains at Jamaica dates back to the 1930s, there was nothing that could have prevented the accident or the delays. Upgrades to the system, which uses mechanical levers, have been done to other stations in Manhattan and Long Island and plans are set to bring a new system to Jamaica in October.

The switches will be replaced with microprocessors that do a better job of alerting station managers about the conditions of the trains and the tracks, according to Williams.

“With the microprocessors, we might have a better system to look for faults,” she said.

The outage at the Jamaica station affected 100,000 Queens and Long Island commuters, many of whom were stranded at Penn Station until trains went back to running around 4 p.m. Monday. The LIRR ran limited service to their destinations and skipped the Jamaica stop while crews investigated the damage. About 66 percent of the 127 trains were running by Tuesday afternoon.

The Port Washington branch was the only line that was spared in the aftermath of the fire and trains on that line were running smoothly on both days. It is the only LIRR line that does not enter Jamaica station.

When service resumed during the Monday evening commute, only 60 percent of the LIRR’s trains were running, according to the LIRR.

Long Island passengers who traveled to Jamaica station via subway said they were frustrated to find out they were better off waiting at Penn Station for their train.

“I had no idea about any of this,” said Chris Parker of Roslyn, L.I.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 6:10 pm, October 10, 2011
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