Rebuilding the Rockaways – Turning Signals Back On
May 03rd, 2013
In a brick control room on Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula, MTA New York City Transit workers and contractors in hard hats and safety vests gathered around a decades-old control panel and watched as a tiny light bulb flashed red. Then the bulb next to it turned red, and the next one.
It was a small signal of big progress: For the first time since Superstorm Sandy devastated the A train’s steel and ballast path through the Rockaways, ruining miles of signal and communications cables, and damaging much of the wayside signal equipment, the indicator board in the signal tower at the Rockaway Park – Beach 116 St station was working again. Each string of red lights showed an H shuttle train pulling out of the Far Rockaway – Mott Av station and heading west, to Beach 25 St and onward.
“We’re going to start powering up the control panel here, which has been off since the storm,” said Kai Chan, an engineer with NYCT Capital Program Management.
The signaling system that controls speeds, maintains safe distances between trains and allows subway trains to move safely was utterly destroyed in the Rockaways during the storm, as corrosive saltwater inundated miles of tracks and ancillary structures. In a room behind the control panel, hundreds of electrical relays that are the backbone of the signal system had to be removed and rebuilt.
On the upper rows that stayed above water, the electro-mechanical equipment is tagged with inspection dates from 1955-just one year before the line was opened to passenger service; on the bottom rows, they were tagged in 2012. Sandy caused so much damage across the entire subway system that NYCT’s supply of spare parts was stripped bare, forcing crews to reach out to manufacturers for extra help or put extra effort into making the old parts work like new.
“The TA signal shop rebuilds these. They can’t even get them from a manufacturer anymore,” said Joe LaPorta, a signal engineer from TC Electric working on the project. “By the end of the day, we might have all this cleared up here. But the yard part we can’t clear up, because we’re still waiting for parts.”
Outside in the yard, the signal work showed tangible progress too: Also for the first time since Sandy, red, yellow and green lights glowed in their posts along the tracks, all the way into the station. Workers in the relay room and on the tracks worked together to test connections and confirm each step.
“We have to check 83,” signalman Daniel Lamothe said into a crackling radio. “We have to see what relay is up for 83. It has to match.”
The MTA has pledged to rebuild the entire Rockaway line and return it to service for the 35,000 daily customers who have been forced since Sandy to rely on the free H shuttle, a special shuttle bus to the Howard Beach station and other local bus routes. Service is expected to be restored in June.