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NYC L train is using high tech fix to avoid subway shutdown

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crowded subway NYCThe L train was supposed to close for 15 months. Thanks to new technology announced Thursday, that won’t be necessary any more.Mark Lennihan/AP

  • A New York City subway line that was scheduled to close completely for 15 months won’t be shutting down after all, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday.
  • Teams of engineers from Columbia and Cornell universities studied systems in London, Hong Kong, and Riyadh to find a cheaper — and quicker — solution that wouldn’t strand 300,000 daily commuters. 
  • “Smart” fiber optic cables, lidar, and “racked” cabling will be used to mitigate further damage in the rehabilitated tunnel. 

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo toured a subway tunnel nearly destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in December, he and an entourage of engineers from Columbia and Cornell Universities saw first-hand the tremendous damage that salt water can do to a century-old tunnel. 

After the hurricane’s 14-foot storm surge inundated the L train’s tracks, it crippled a vital link between Brooklyn and Manhattan that carries more than 250,000 commuters every day. The only option, now more than six years later, seemed to be a complete closure of the tunnel for 15 months. 

That’s no longer the case, officials announced Thursday. 

After carefully studying technologies in London, Hong Kong, and Riyadh, the team assembled by Gov. Cuomo — the de-facto leader of the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Administration — recommended a ten-fold solution that would avoid a complete shutdown.

First, it’s important to understand why the damage was so bad

New York’s subway is old. Very old. 

The Canarsie Line, which now carries the L train service from 14th street in Chelsea, under the East River to Williamsburg, through Bushwick and eventually to Canarsie, began service in 1924. It’s only two tracks for its entire 10-mile length — a surprising anomaly, considering most of the system has multiple to accommodate express and local services. 

benchwall MTA l trainA cross-section of the Canarsie tube shows the embedded cables, which were destroyed by flooding.Governor Cuomo’s OfficeDespite being the first service of New York’s 27  lines to receive an upgrade to a modern signal system, known as Communications Based Train Control, or CBTC for short, much of the electronic equipment was installed inside a concrete “bench wall” in the tunnel. 

When the tunnel flooded, it got inside the wall and corroded the communications and signaling equipment. 

The MTA was able to restore service following the storm, but warned for years that a complete shutdown would be necessary to remove and replace the destroyed infrastructure. In 2017, after three years of public input and several possible options, officials decided a 15-month closure beginning in April 2019 was the best course of action. 

A surprise announcement 

With just months until the closure was scheduled to begin, a cryptic tweet from the non-profit Transit Center foundation began to make the rounds on Thursday morning. 

And an hour later, a scheduled announcement appeared on the Governor’s public schedule for 12:45 pm at his Midtown Manhattan office. 

Assembled high above third avenue’s bustling traffic was the team of experts assembled by Cuomo, including the deans of Columbia and Cornell’s engineering schools alongside MTA acting chairman Fernando Ferrer and other agency officials. 

Moments later, the governor would announce the cancellation of the closure that had seen Brooklyn rents plummet and businesses make contingency plans for the lost foot traffic and revenue. 

The repaired tunnel will be the first of its kind in the US

Instead of replacing the cabling that’s stuck inside the concrete benchwall, contractors will instead repair any damaged portions of the wall and convert it into a walkway for emergency situations and repairs going forward. For this, they’ll use fiberglass patching that’s been used on other infrastructure projects and is a bonafide method of construction, experts said at the press conference. 

L train recommendationsNY Governor’s OfficeNew electronic equipment will be sheathed in low-smoke, fire resistant cabling and “racked” or hung from the tunnel in a way that it avoids further damage and can be easily repaired if need be. A ground wire will be placed underneath the track bed, as is currently done on some outdoor and above-ground lines. 

“This is a design that has not been used in the US before,” Cuomo said. “It has been implemented in Europe, but has never been implemented in a tunnel restoration project. It uses many new innovations that are new, frankly, to the rail industry.”

Some night and weekend closures of one tube will still be necessary, the MTA said in a press release, allowing for a limited service to continue at the same time as construction. 

The “de-coupling” of the infrastructure has “never been done before,” the governor added. Damaged cabling inside the benchwall will be abandoned and replaced with new electronics. 

Fiber optic cables will also be installed along the entire 32,000 benchwall that can continuously monitor the tunnel for cracks or damage, before a catastrophe occurs. Lidar, a laser-like radar technology, can also be added onto trains for more thorough periodic inspections to the structure. 

“This is really state of the art technology,” Lance Collins, dean of Cornell’s engineering school, said at the press conference. “This is an unusual application in that we’re using it in rehabilitation, but its proven technology.”

Other recommendations from the task force, all of which have been accepted by the MTA, include waterproof tunnel gates which can be closed in the event of high water to prevent flooding. 

The technology could be rolled out to other infrastructure projects, too

The L train is far from the only piece of New York infrastructure experiencing a crisis. 

The Gateway tunnel that connects New York and New Jersey via the Hudson River, which Gov. Cuomo also toured in December, is also badly in need of repair or a new tube for the critical Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains and commuter rail services. The Second Avenue Subway — a multi-decade boondoggle that only recently opened with three stops — could also use the technology, the MTA said. 

“Human nature is to do what you have done that is tried and true,” said Gov. Cuomo. “No designer wants to give you a plan that hasn’t been done before, but you have to be willing to break the box.”

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