LIRR commuters pack in, railroad adds service after Sandy

Long Island commuters packed in shoulder to shoulder as they returned to the rails Monday in big numbers, a week after Sandy devastated the LIRR.

The Long Island Rail Road plans to further increase service Monday, including adding stops in Riverhead and Hunterspoint Avenue.

The railroad restored some service on all lines except Long Beach in time for yesterday's morning commute. But with infrequent service on most lines, customers endured major crowding on trains -- once they were able to get on one.

"Let's call it the sardine local," said Philip Schwaeber, 53, of Plainview, who squeezed onto the 5:47 train out of Hicksville. "There were people who were not able to get on . . . It was wall-wall-people. You could barely move your feet."

After only carrying a fraction of its usual ridership late last week, LIRR Customer Service Vice President Joe Calderone said that the LIRR moved about 69,000 people yesterday morning -- about 77 percent of an average weekday's load.

But the railroad was running less than half of its usual trains -- still constrained by the closure of two of four East River rail tunnels that were flooded. The railroad warned that it may have to restrict entry into Penn Station during the busiest times in the evening.

"We're going to see this for as long as we have this issue with the tunnels. We just don't have the space," said Calderone, who implored customers to stagger their trips to avoid peak-travel hours. "If people can just go in a little later, they would help themselves and help the system."

The demand for public transportation was driven even higher by motorists looking to conserve gas, said Calderone, who encountered some first-time commuters in the system yesterday in Mineola.

The LIRR's gradual recovery from Sandy, which dropped trees and utility poles on tracks and knocked out power to most of the system, continues Tuesday, as the LIRR extends service on its Ronkonkoma line to Riverhead, and offers connecting bus service for passengers as far as Greenport.

The LIRR will also add service to Lynbrook, where crowds have made it particularly difficult to board trains.

The Long Beach line, which was hardest hit by Sandy, remains suspended. The LIRR is honoring Long Beach branch tickets for travel on all lines.

The LIRR is still charging off-peak fares on all trains, and waiving on-board purchase penalties. October monthly passes were honored through Monday but are no longer valid.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's subway system also continued its steady climb back. Five of seven tunnels flooded during the storm were cleared, and some heavily-used lines, including the A,C and E, were back in service in time for yesterday's morning commute.

Subway riders, too, dealt with overcrowding. Jeanette Navarro, 41, who usually gets a seat on the 6, yesterday spent her commute pressed against a door.

"People were pushing each other to get on," said Navarro, 41, who also witnessed an argument over a seat escalate to jacket-pulling and yelling. "To see a fight over a chair, I just don't want to see it."

Nassau's NICE Bus system Monday completed restoration of service on all 48 of its routes, but said riders should expect delays and detours because of dark traffic signals and road conditions.

The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel remain closed.

-- With Nicholas Spangler

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