A Battery-Powered Future?

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LIRR seeks to replace diesel trains

Standing in front of a M-7 train car are, from left, LIRR Chief Transportation Officer Rob Free, President Phil Eng and Chief Mechanical Officer Craig Daly. (Courtesy of MTA)

Echoing the HairClub for Men commercial, Phil Eng is not only the LIRR president, he is also a customer.

The railroad chief, in a press conference at the Oyster Bay station on April 19, outlined a vision where battery technology might one day replace the 160 miles of the company’s non-electrified track. The MTA has signed a $860,000 contract with Alstom, a French company, to study the possibility of retrofitting the M-7 cars with batteries. They would first be tested on the 13.7-mile Oyster Bay branch. On most trains, travelers to the 10 stations on the branch must switch to diesel-powered trains at Mineola.

In fact, all the travelers who live beyond the last electrified stations—Huntington for the Port Jefferson branch; Ronkonkoma for the self-named branch, which terminates at Greenport; and Babylon for the Montauk branch—must switch trains for all but a few peak trains.

Eng, who travels the Port Jefferson line, knows the frustrations well.

“They all ask me the same questions—why can’t we get more service? Why do the trains get shortened over the summer months? Why can’t we get electrified?” Eng said of fellow diesel-branch commuters, adding in a statement that “there are too many transfers, trains are too infrequent and can get crowded easily.”

Former MTA board member Mitchell Pally admitted that he does what many people on his Port Jefferson branch line do—travel to the nearest electrified station.

“People aren’t stupid. They’re like me. I live a mile from the Stony Brook station. I go [about eight miles] to Ronkonkoma. If I had the choice, would I go to Stony Brook? Of course,” said Pally, the chair of the Long Island Chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. “All they talk about in the area is electrification. All the Port people, the chambers, the elected officials. They want to know when they’ll no longer be second class citizens—I understand that. It causes Ronkonkoma to be more crowded.”

To electrify the 160 miles, according to Eng, would cost $17 billion and take decades. At the same time, diesel locomotives brings their own problems, including pollution and high maintenance costs.

“Battery technology is improving year after year in ways we see every day from smartphones to automobiles, so I challenged private industry to use improving battery technology to benefit railroad customers. This is ingenuity at its best,” Eng said in a statement.

The president said that Alstom’s batteries ran trains in Europe, and the experiment with the LIRR might make it the first in the United States to have batteries. The study will determine the size of the batteries needed, how long they can last and where charging locations may be needed,

“Batteries are being used today for light rail. We want to make it work for commuter rail,” Eng said. “Over the last few years, technology has improved, and batteries are smaller and lighter and longer-lasting than ever before. This is an opportunity for us to be on the leading edge, and steer industry in a new direction across the U.S. And for New York, this allows the MTA and the LIRR to follow Governor Cuomo’s lead and his promise for a greener New York. The initial phase will analyze both the Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson branches.”

As Eng spoke, an M-7 car stood on the tracks nearby. One similar to it would be turned into what Eng called a prototype battery electric multiple unit that will then be tested on the Oyster Bay branch.

“Our ultimate aim is a [train] that can run directly from Oyster Bay to New York with the cars transitioning seamless from battery to electric and back,” he said.

Eng called the project “not just a first step, but possibly a quantum leap toward the future. And I see this as a total game changer.”

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said, “It’s not every day that you can be part of something that will transform North American commuter railroads. It’s also going to be transformative for riders, particularly on the Oyster Bay and Port Jeff branches, who will soon be able to have a one-seat ride to NYC. And will soon have the service that they’ve long desired.”

She added, “The green technology is also exciting and transformative, particularly during Earth Week. This will pave the way for how railroads across North America will operate and it starts here on the LIRR, something that riders and commuters should really be proud of.”
The normally reserved Eng allowed himself a bit of emotional expression: “I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it.”

And no, he didn’t sing and dance.

Read a longer version at www.longislandweekly.com.

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