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LIRR, Metro-North last to use third rail

(The following story by Jennifer Maloney appeared on the Newsday website on July 5.)

NEW YORK — The Long Island Rail Road and its sister agency, Metro-North Railroad, are the only two of the country's 18 commuter railroads to use a third rail to propel trains.

The LIRR uses the third rail exclusively to power its electric trains; Metro-North uses the third rail on two of its branches and overhead wires on a third. Other commuter railroads use electricity from overhead wires or run diesel trains.

With a third rail that stretches 326 miles, zapping 750 volts of electricity into hundreds of trains a day, and a system so expansive that fencing it all is impractical, the LIRR's charged metal rail is a hazard to anyone who steps onto the tracks.

The recent electrocution of Garden City teen Jacqueline Vincent as she crossed the LIRR tracks was a reminder that it can be deadly.

With a shock six times stronger than an electric wall socket, the third rail can kill a person instantly. "You definitely do not want to step on it under any circumstances," said Mark Groce, a spokesman for New York City Transit, which also uses a third rail.

The Federal Transportation Administration cites trespassing -- walking on the tracks -- as the top cause of death on U.S. railroads. Most cases are suicides. Among accidental deaths, trespassers are often struck by trains. Electrocutions are uncommon, according to railroad experts.

In the decade from 1997 through 2006, the LIRR saw five cases of third-rail electrocution. According to the railroad, one was a suicide and the others were fatal accidents, including a 10-year-old boy who was playing with a group of friends and placed a metal object across the tracks. Three of those cases occurred in the past five years, while Metro-North had one from 2002 through 2006.

Metro-North and the LIRR use different third-rail designs. Metro-North trains touch the bottom of the rail; LIRR trains touch the top.

The differences in third rail and overhead wire technologies, railroad experts said, stem from choices made at the turn of the century by fledgling railroads that would eventually become today's large, amalgamated commuter systems.

"It was competing railroads trying new technologies at the dawn of electricity," said Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders.

While rare on commuter railroads, the third rail is commonly used in subway and rapid transit systems, such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit. On many of these systems, the deadly rail is less accessible to the public, running underground or on elevated tracks.

On the LIRR and Metro-North, the third rail runs at ground level. The only safe place to cross, railroad officials stress, is at grade crossings, where the streets cross the tracks.

All third rails have some sort of protective cover. Metro-North uses a plastic snap-on cover that shields the top and sides of the third rail; the LIRR suspends a fiberglass or wood board above the rail.

But no cover protects against electrocutions. In fact, the covers are designed to shield the third rail -- not people.

"It is intended to protect the third rail from contact with other metal objects," Anders said.

All railroads warn people to stay off the tracks, but there are no federal regulations or industry standards related to third-rail safety, national rail experts said.

The LIRR tracks where Vincent, 16, died are fenced on the north side, blocking access from the Garden City Middle School grounds, but not on the south side, which runs parallel to South Avenue.

School officials, police and businesses in the neighborhood said the spot where she and two friends cut across the tracks is not a common shortcut. A block away, Cherry Valley Avenue dips under the tracks, providing a safe place to cross.

The LIRR would not release more details on the accident, which is under investigation by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police. Railroad officials did say they are considering erecting a fence where Vincent died.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

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