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Amtrak Hopes To Have East River Tunnels Damaged By Sandy Restored By Christmas

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Life after Superstorm Sandy has left Long Island Rail Road commuters in a tight spot – literally.

As CBS 2's Jennifer McLogan reported, their trains have been crowded because of storm damage, and they are angry about it.

Amtrak said Tuesday that it hopes to restore all LIRR service "by the Christmas holiday."

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But as of right now, nearly a month after Sandy, LIRR commuters are still being packed in like sardines, as 26 morning rush and 27 evening rush hour trains remain canceled.

"They've had to rip out the entire signal system, which was under seawater," said LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone. "They sent the signal cases to Pennsylvania and they're re-installing them, It's a difficult job."

The tunnels were officially back open as of Tuesday night, but the temporary signal equipment now in use cannot handle the usual volume.

CBS 2's Lou Young caught a westbound train at Jamaica station to see the tunnels firsthand. Riders were not pleased with the crowds.

"I've been riding the train, what, 15 years?" said Northport resident John Oppedisano, "and it's never been this crowded."

Some passengers were not blaming LIRR management. They said Amtrak was holding the rail lines hostage.

Amtrak signal problems have shut down the LIRR multiple times since Sandy, creating monumental problems – including one on Thanksgiving eve.

At its peak the LIRR sends roughly 18 trains an hour through each of the four tunnels. Amtrak sends perhaps one an hour, suggesting to some that the national rail service is not all that interested in picking up the pace of the recovery, until, it seems, New Yorkers start making noise.

"We are heading into the busiest season in the busiest railroad in America, and we do not want Christmas chaos," said Long Island U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.)

The lifeblood of LIRR riders is four critical tunnels under the East River, which carry them to and from Penn Station. Amtrak owns, maintains and leases the tracks in the tunnels to the LIRR.

But since Sandy on Oct. 29, two of the four tunnels have been out of commission – so severely damaged that signal cases short-circuited in corrosive flood waters.

Until Amtrak fully restores the signal system, the LIRR can run only about 70 percent of its rush-hour trains.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel, but quite honestly, I'll believe it when I see it," Israel said.

Amtrak predicted it would take many weeks to repair the problems and communicated no exact timetable.

"Long Island Rail Road riders have fewer, more crowded trains, setting up a very dangerous situation," said LIRR Commuter Council President Mark Epstein. "We understand the effects of Superstorm Sandy. However, we do not understand the complete lack of information that Amtrak shares with us riders."

Responding to pressure from politicians, Amtrak seemed to reverse course. Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman issued a statement Tuesday saying: "We understand the importance of restoring full LIRR service, and are committed to doing so by the Christmas holiday."

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"Our president, Joe Boardman, took a real hard look at that schedule, and also understands the need to get service back to the Long Island Rail Road passengers," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole.

It was going to take until mid-January to get the tunnels open, 1010 WINS' Sonia Rincon reported.

But Amtrak did not explain the details of how they would expedite the work. In a terse reply, the LIRR said it looks forward to a detailed installation plan with exact dates for full service restoration it can pass along to its riders.

Despite the challenges, the railroad has been making progress in restoring service.

Meanwhile, commuters have been left with the result.

"It's twice as crowded. It stops everywhere. It's not the same commute we were used to and it wasn't too good to begin with," said Huntington resident Lisa Smith.

On Sunday, electric train service resumed on the Long Beach branch, marking the first time the LIRR operated on a nearly normal schedule on all of its branches since the storm.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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