Test on battery-powered LIRR trains could start on Oyster Bay branch

Alfonso A. Castillo for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Nearly two centuries after the first steam-powered LIRR locomotive made its first run, the railroad’s plan to run the country’s first battery-powered commuter train could represent the next frontier in train power technology, experts said.

Advocates, historians and elected leaders on Monday expressed enthusiasm over the Long Island Rail Road’s partnership with international rail manufacturer Alstom to study the feasibility of bringing "battery electric multiple units" to the LIRR.

The eight-month study, which will cost the LIRR $860,000, aims to examine the logistics behind retrofitting LIRR "M7" electric cars with lithium ion batteries that would allow trains to easily switch from running on electrified third rails to running on batteries along the system’s 160 miles of non-electrified tracks known as "diesel territory."

The railroad could run a test train on the Oyster Bay branch as early as next year, if the study goes well, LIRR president Phillip Eng said.

"If it goes as planned, this will be another first for the Long Island Rail Road," said David Morrison, a former LIRR branch line manager and railroad historian who attended Eng’s formal announcement of the plan in Oyster Bay on Monday. "We’ve led the railroad industry in firsts through the years. We were the first railroad to use a steam whistle, the first railroad to go to an all-steel passenger car fleet. We’ve been innovators."

Eng offered new details about the railroad’s vision for the trains. Although Alstom representatives have said their existing battery-powered trains, including some operating in Germany, can travel about 60 miles on a single charge, and take about 10 minutes to recharge, Eng said the railroad was looking at the possibility of building chargers at train stations that would allow trains to partially charge their batteries during routine stops to drop off and pick up passengers.

The LIRR is also looking at the possibility of using the third rail to recharge the batteries when the trains are operating on electrified tracks. Eng acknowledged that adapting the railroad’s existing fleet to also run on battery power could mean slightly slower speeds and less space for seats.

"There are going to be some trade-offs, but we’re open-minded about that," said Eng, who called the effort "a giant leap toward the future."

"This is an opportunity for us to be on the leading edge and steer the industry in a new direction in the U.S.," Eng said.

Oyster Bay commuter Carol Su called the initiative "great" for customers, and hopes it will lead to improved service on the branch, where wait times between trains are as long as two hours.

"Many times on weekends or nights, if I missed the train, I call my husband to pick me up from another station … so I don’t have to wait," Su, an accountant, said. "But this is just a feasibility study. And with the LIRR, I will believe it when I see it."

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said the railroad’s plan was especially prudent given that the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which he authored, "envisions a world in the not-to-distant future where trains must be run on … non-fossil fuels."

Kaminsky noted the plan comes as the reliability-challenged railroad’s diesel fleet, last updated in the mid-1990s, nears the end of its life. "It seemed to me to be a foolish purchase to continue investing in old technology that we know will need to be replaced," he said.

Mitchell Pally, chairman of the Long Island chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, agreed that battery-powered trains would be "a great achievement" for the railroad.

"From an environmental perspective, this is a great opportunity for the Long Island Rail Road and the MTA to reduce its diesel output and to give cleaner air to all the communities in which diesel now runs," Pally said.