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Sandy's Effects Still Evident at Coney Island Rail Yard

It takes a lot to turn a modern railroad back into a 19th century operation—but, about four feet of salt water, mounds of storm-driven sand, sustained high winds and the absence of electrical controls did just that.

Those are the conditions out at MTA New York City Transit's massive Coney Island Rail Yard after Superstorm Sandy blasted through the City last year. The storm left the track-switching operation at the world's largest rapid transit maintenance and storage facility unable to be controlled remotely. The yard has track capacity for 1,800 subway cars, but all were moved to higher ground in anticipation of a weather event of truly historic proportions.

"It's like the old days of railroading with individual switches had to be hand thrown because the capability of operating from the tower was completely wiped out," said Senior Vice President, Department of Subways Carmen Bianco. "Coney Island Yard is vital to New York City Transit's subway operations. This facility supports a very large car maintenance, inspection and overhaul program, as well as being the largest car storage facility in the system."

Coney Island Yard is a huge and complicated operation generating hundreds of train movements each day. Changing switch positions is necessary on the maintenance side of the house in order send trains in and out of the barn. Switches also guide train movement on outside storage tracks where trains are threaded through a labyrinth of tracks and switches as they approach and leave their lay-up positions for morning and evening rush hour service out on the main line.

Normal operation is a wonder of automation, requiring the tower operator to use the interlocking machine to position switches to move a train to where it needs to be. Depending on where the train is headed, several switching moves will have to be performed to give the train the proper line-up. Not too difficult when the switches are remotely controlled by pressing buttons.

But, how do you accomplish the same task when there is no electricity to the track switches? "Signal Department personnel are sent to the field to crank switches by hand," said Paul Camera, General Superintendent, Electrical, who went on to explain that some moves may require the hand cranking of ten to 15 switches to guide the train to its proper path.

Through the entire move, someone is walking in front of the train, and with no signals, the train operator is also following hand flagging directions as he makes his moves.

The yard sits in a major flood zone vulnerable to the water flowing in from nearby bodies of water, including Coney Island Creek. Areas from the Rockaways to the Battery were swamped with raging floodwaters and the Coney Island section of Brooklyn was also hit hard, especially with the storm surge driven by the full moon. Coinciding with the high tide, the storm washed in water and debris which quickly inundated the tracks, switches, motors and signal equipment.

In Sandy's wake, the yard more closely resembled a lake than a storage area for subway trains. It took several days for the yard to drain and that process was aided by pumping in strategic areas. The removal of water from some of the flooded equipment was done with small hand pumps or vacuums.

Throughout the 75-acre complex, more than 190 individual switches were flooded in the wake of the storm, which also damaged signals and wiring. A combined workforce of in-house personnel and contractors washed salt water and sand from the switches and replaced switch motors where required and that work is ongoing.

In fact, more than two full months after the storm, 50 track switches still cannot be moved remotely and must be hand thrown by workers. The manual operation is labor intensive and complicated.

Of course, like just about everything else in the subway system, necessary jobs must proceed simultaneously. "We don't have the luxury of focusing on one thing at a time," said Wynton Habersham, Chief Electrical Officer. "For the past several weeks, it has been necessary to balance the restoration of the system and the hand switching with our ‘day job' of maintenance and testing of the remaining signals and switches."

Compounding the problem is the scarcity of replacement parts. Many of the switch motors are currently back ordered and won't be delivered until the end of January.

Have we come a long way since the storm? Yes, NYC Transit has made tremendous strides forward in recovering from the most devastating storm to hit the region but as in the Coney Island Rail Yard, the system is still not whole as we move forward with repairs to the Rockaway Line and the South Ferry station.