U.S. Senator Charles Schumer on Monday called for an investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration into reports of uncovered freight cars transporting loose debris on the Long Island Rail Road main line through Mineola at a press conference this week.
But local and state officials are wondering what the fuss was all about and criticized Schumer for his timing and lack of notice for the event.
State Sen. Jack Martins and Village of Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss, who did not receive invitations to the event, met with LIRR officials on May 11, and last week Strauss said he had received assurances that the New York & Atlantic Railway had been told to remedy the situation.
“The LIRR representatives said they were aware of it and contacted the company,” Strauss said. “I believe it’s already a requirement to have the cars covered. The railroad said they were on top of it. I’m just looking for compliance.”
Strauss said he thought it was laudable for Schumer to take an interest in a local issue, but added that his assistance really wasn’t needed.
“Here’s Mr. Schumer holding a press conference, but it’s all done already. Maybe it was a slow day for him and he needed a press conference,” Strauss said.
Strauss said he wasn’t sure why Schumer held a press conference in Mineola, and didn’t have the courtesy to let him know about it or invite him to a meeting on the issue.
Strauss said he had suggested that the railroad mount surveillance cameras in the Jamaica train yard to monitor all freight cars traversing the rail lines.
“It feeds into the perception that there’s illegal stuff going on,” Strauss said.
A spokesman for Martins also said he was puzzled by Schumer’s visit.
“We think we took care of the problem. As far as we know, the railroad took care of the problem,” said Joseph Rizza. “We’re not quite sure why Sen. Schumer held this press conference.”
In a letter dated May 3, LIRR Vice President and general counsel Richard Gans told Paul Victor, president of the New York & Atlantic Railway, of “numerous complaints” that had been received about the railway’s freight cars “spreading construction debris along the right-of-way” along the main line in Mineola.”
Gans said the railway had previously been instructed to secure cars carrying debris with netting.
“NYA’s current practice raises serious safety concerns with respect to LIRR passenger operations, and is being viewed as a safety hazard and substantial nuisance by those in neighboring communities. NYA must immediately correct this situation,” Gans said.
Schumer was accompanied during his visit by Mineola resident Dennis Walsh, and residents from the Birchwood Court residential complex, where two cars have been damaged by flying debris in recent weeks.
Walsh had provided photographs to the Mineola Village Board last month that he said he took from his back yard, which abuts the rail line, showing uncovered freight cars filled with debris belonging to New York & Atlantic Railway. Enlarged copies of the photos were exhibited at the press conference where Walsh also spoke.
“The safety implications of uncovered debris traveling on commuter transit lines are too numerous to count,” said Schumer. “Whether it is damage to private property surrounding the tracks or potential obstruction on commuter rail lines that carry hundreds of thousands of people in and out of New York City every day, carrying loose debris, uncovered in freight cars is a dangerous recipe for disaster and it must be stopped, now.”
When Walsh showed the photos at a village board meeting last month, Mineola resident Russell Sutherland, who was also present at the Schumer press conference, suggested the freight cars could contain toxic materials.
In a local TV news report about Schumer’s press conference, Daniel Dore, identified as a New Hyde Park resident, was shown holding two substantial pieces of debris that he said had flown out of an open car and struck his truck as he was driving under a rail line overpass.
“I could have been killed. A [police] car came out and they said it was an act of God,” Dore said.
Schumer is specifically asking the Federal Railroad Administration to visit the site and investigate. Schumer also called on the Federal Railroad Administration to require that freight carriers who operate their trains in an urban or suburban community be required to cover train cars transporting loose debris.
At the same time, Schumer is calling on New York & Atlantic Railways immediately put in place a voluntary policy of covering open freight cars when traveling in highly populated areas. If the carrier refuses, Schumer wants the MTA and LIRR to compel the cars be covered as a requisite for continued use of the MTA’s rail lines.
In a letter to the to Federal Railroad Administration released to the press, Schumer stated, “It is unacceptable that debris would be permitted to be hauled without being properly secured.”
He further stated, “It is critical that your agency work together with LIRR to immediately conduct a safety investigation into the state of the LIRR’s right of way to determine if the debris is a hazard. A truly comprehensive investigation should be conducted by the FRA to ensure residents and commuters that the LIRR’s right of way is not being jeopardized by any loose freight material being hauled along the railroad. In addition, I ask that FRA consider regulations to require that rail cars are covered in densely populated areas if there’s a risk that their contents will fly off.
Reach reporter Richard Tedesco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 516.307.1045 x204