Fire Under Metro-North Tracks Prompts Worries About Overhead Rail Infrastructure

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — This week’s fire under the Metro-North tracks in East Harlem has raised questions about the vulnerability of the city’s raised rail system.

As CBS2’s Lou Young reported, the fire started when workers tried to put fuel in a generator at the Urban Garden Center, under the Metro-North tracks at 119th Street and Park Avenue.

PHOTOS: Fire Under Metro-North Tracks In East Harlem

And while the fire was an accident, it has many wondering what would happen if something more sinister was involved.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the fire on Tuesday put a new twist on things – exposing a weakness in our infrastructure that many had not even thought about until now.

It is a wake-up call for everyone who tries to keep things moving in this town.

“Two hundred and ninety thousand people are crossing that point every day,” said Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
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That is every Metro-North train entering or leaving Manhattan. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign said we have fixated on securing car and truck crossings and neglected the rails.

“There’s restrictions on the George Washington Bridge. There’s restrictions through the Lincoln and Holland tunnels for commerce and trucks. We need to make sure that there’s that type of attention being paid to our elevated track infrastructure,” Vanterpool said. “I think the incident earlier this week showed that indeed, we are vulnerable.”

It is a heavy lift, given that the tracks run over a cityscape of streets and neighborhoods. But critics agree at the least, a hard look at businesses operating under or near the tracks is in order.

Stephen Morello, an advisor to the MTA chairman, told CBS2, “On properties owned by the MTA, we review building plans and conduct regular inspections.”

But the property where the broke out is owned by the city and not the railroad, and is leased to the garden center that stored flammable materials in plain sight – apparently without proper permits. No one was talking at the garden center when CBS2 stopped by Thursday.

Neighbors told CBS2 they could see the flammable material from their own homes.

“Constantly, they’re, you know, dropping off the butane, the propane tanks and such,” one neighbor said. “What’s happening? Who’s accounting for them?”

“This is city land. This is private enterprise,” Vanterpool said, “and these need to be better coordinated.”

A spokesman for City Hall said the Buildings, Transportation, and Fire departments will all be working in concert in cracking down on viaduct businesses. Although most of the land under the Metro-North tracks is not occupied, many sites are.

The City Hall spokesman also said the departments are working with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which controls the lease for the spot where the Urban Garden Center is located.

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