MTA LIRR President Phillip Eng said the agency has reached an agreement with Alstom to test the batteries, and upon successful completion of an eight-month initial analysis, technicians will retrofit a two car electric train to operate on battery power without passengers on the Oyster Bay Branch.
While on electric portions of the route, the train would run on third rail power and charge the batteries, then switch to battery power for the unelectrified segment between East Williston and Oyster Bay.
If successful, the LIRR would ultimately be able to carry passengers directly between Oyster Bay and the railroad's terminals in New York City without the need for a transfer, and that technology could expand to the rest of the railroad's diesel branches.
"People have been talking about extending electrification to various segments of the railroad for generations," Eng said. "Embracing new technology might allow us to essentially electrify the entire railroad without the need for billions of dollars in massive capital investments. The MTA is already transforming the LIRR through East Side Access and Main Line Third Track; this is potentially a no less profound transformation for the rest of the railroad."
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As part of the initial assessment, technicians will investigate whether and where recharging stations might need to be built along the route and along other branches.
Recharging would take place in yards when trains are out of service, and, if necessary while in-service, during existing station stops that would not be delayed by recharging.
The Oyster Bay Branch was chosen as the pilot branch due to its short, 13-mile trip. Other non-electrified branches would be tested in the future, as well as the feasibility of the battery technology and the ability to retrofit existing trains.
"Part of the analysis will tell us if we need additional charging stations for longer distances, how fast can a battery recharge in a 60-second station stop and if we decide to go further, how many charging stations would be required," Eng said. "If we have the ability to improve service on Oyster Bay, that improves service on Port Jefferson, Montauk and Ronkonkoma respectively. Everybody benefits."
Eng said this appears to be the first test of battery-powered commuter rail cars in North America, and if successful could be deployed anywhere diesel commuter trains operate on the LIRR or Metro-North Railroad.
If batteries succeed on the LIRR as they have for light rail in Europe and Asia, the use of battery-powered railcars promises over the long term eliminate the need for transfers to a separate diesel fleet to reach the railroad's expansive unelectrified regions extending 160 miles from East Williston to Oyster Bay, Huntington to Port Jefferson, Babylon to Montauk and Ronkonkoma to Greenport.
Battery-electric cars could open the possibility that in years and decades ahead, the railroad could entirely replace the noisy, carbon-emitting diesel fleet with quiet, reliable, zero-emission electric cars offering seamless transfer-free travel across the railroad.
In the near term, conversion of a fraction of the railroad's 836-car "M7" electric fleet to operate with battery power on even just one of the railroad's unelectrified branches would allow the LIRR to consolidate its diesel fleet on remaining unelectrified branches, enhancing the frequency of diesel service there and lengthening trains.
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The LIRR will share program details with Metro-North Railroad.
"This is an exciting technology with implications for Metro-North," said Catherine Rinaldi, president of MTA Metro-North Railroad. "We will be working with the LIRR as this technology test advances."
Work on the program, being conducted with Alstom, will begin within the next month.
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