In NY State law, the LIRR is called “a public benefit corporation.” That is a noble concept but too bad the employees of the LIRR can’t abide by state law. For decades, they have operated this public asset in ways that benefit the employees first. The riding public and the rest of the taxpayers come last.
There’s so much story to tell that it would be well beyond the scope of this article and the space we have for this story. We’ll focus on one that Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, a coalition of civic associations that includes Juniper Park Civic Association, has fought tooth and nail with the MTA, LIRR and their front-man the New York & Atlantic Railway – the replacement of the diesel locomotive fleet used in freight service.
The background is this. LIRR put the freight service out to bid in the mid-1990’s. The winning bidder was Anacostia & Pacific, a company that owned a handful of short line railroads. They created the New York & Atlantic Railway which now operates the freight concession exclusively on LIRR’s public right of way. The decision awarding this concession was made in secret. No public officials were allowed to participate. Then as now, LIRR’s culture is to operate as if it was a private club. The problems associated with NYA’s operation have been as astounding as they have been horrible. Hiding behind federal preemption and subtle LIRR protection, NYA had been able to elude scrutiny. The true nature of their operation and culture erupted in 2015 when one of their trains struck a truck in Maspeth. A federal investigation revealed NYA employed unlicensed, untrained, unqualified engineers and conductors. They should have had their concession revoked at that moment, but the LIRR wanted to keep them, so the public and elected officials who objected be damned.
Now we are engaged in a battle for the future and are living through an experience few could have imagined: a pandemic that has shut down our nation. We are all now coming to grips with the reality of how vulnerable we are. In this particular case, those with underlying respiratory conditions regardless of age face an extra risk. It’s all happening before our eyes today and it can happen again. CURES has been fighting this very issue for more than twelve years, focusing on the pollution caused by the freight locomotives operated by NYA but owned by the LIRR. This is really only a part of the overall picture, because the LIRR operates passenger and work train diesel locomotives, none of which are newer than the mid-1990’s and many of which date to the 1970’s, the same era as those used by NYA. Not a single locomotive can meet the best pollutions standards that exist today, which the federal EPA calls Tier 4. So, CURES petitioned state legislators again and again and again to provide for the replacement of these old, dirty machines! They prevailed. The state appropriated money to begin replacing the freight locomotives, and $21 million has been appropriated to date.
But what did LIRR then do? They turned this job over to NYA, a company with no experience in purchasing new locomotives. In fact, NYA has little experience in buying anything. This procurement resulted in the purchase of two locomotives which were not the cleanest locomotives then available on the market. A competitor offered not only a cleaner product but at a better price. There’s more in this story about this competitor. As things turned out, this procurement was corrupt and CURES obtained the documents proving it, documents we have distributed to the MTA Board, state officials and the media. What do you expect from a company that hired unlicensed train operators? The company that got the business is called Progress Rail, itself a company of ill repute after doing fake repairs for railroads, throwing parts into the Pacific Ocean, pleading guilty, and paying $25 million in fines and other costs. Both of these locomotives were really experimental. Progress Rail used our money to develop a new locomotive. Both have been plagued by problems that have put them out of service. Mind you, they were new in 2016.
LIRR then turned its attention to buying the freight locomotives itself in 2018. They issued a request for proposal (MTA RFP 6263) but carefully specified that only two engine manufacturers were allowed. One builder, Cummins, didn’t even make an engine in this class. The other was Caterpillar. They own Progress Rail. This is LIRR’s preferred vendor, and LIRR doesn’t want any competition. Could this be the real reason NYA chose Progress Rail? When confronted with the documents of the previous corrupted purchase, LIRR response was to disclaim any responsibility and blame NYA. LIRR had deep experience and always acted ethically they wrote. Too bad we had the proof that LIRR signed off on every action NYA took.
So, where do we stand today? In meetings and in letters, LIRR and MTA promised to make RFP 6263 the search for the cleanest, best freight locomotives on the market. We want the industry to show us the best they have, or so they told us. What they really did was write specifications for a locomotive built by Progress Rail. They also protected NYA, stating that the winner could not have a conflict with NYA. Who’s in charge? Who has silent interest in this purchase?
In 2019, MTA Board Member and TWU International President John Samuelsen asked for an investigation based on information CURES presented to the MTA Board. MTA Chairman Pat Foye referred the matter to the MTA Office of the Inspector General – which called off its investigation on April 1, 2020, during the pandemic, saying there was nothing to see here. The Long Island Railroad Today subsequently published an article that discussed LIRR’s rigged freight and passenger locomotive procurements. A state investigation about LIRR procurement that started in 2019 at the request of Assemblyman Mike Miller is still going on.
Right now – RIGHT NOW, there is a locomotive owned by Waste Management and operated by NYA that is used principally to move railcars that transport municipal waste. They operate in Brooklyn and Queens. This locomotive has been operating for more than a year. It has an MTU diesel engine that was designed in the last decade. Its emissions exceed EPA Tier 4 performance standards! It was built by Knoxville Locomotive, the company that lost the award run by NYA. This locomotive has near zero emissions and NYA President James Bonner has said it works “fantastic”! The LIRR doesn’t want to touch it.
The news regularly tells us about LIRR’s corruption – employees who are paid for 4,000 hours of overtime, disability pension scams, and a system that enables key employees to retire and then work for preferred vendors, overseeing the same work they did at LIRR. Now we must draw the line. We must demand that LIRR rescind RFP 6263. Public anger and action can work. The LIRR is public property. Demand transparency. Demand the best. Your health and that of your families is at stake.