LIRR: Commuters pack trains a week after Sandy

Commuters crowd platforms at the Hicksville LIRR train Commuters crowd platforms at the Hicksville LIRR train station and attempt to board as they return to work. (Nov. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Long Island Rail Road commuters returned to the system in big numbers Monday, and had to endure big crowds to get to work, officials said.

LIRR customer service vice president Joe Calderone said the agency carried "close" to the number of people it does on a typical weekday morning, despite offering less than half its usual service. Average weekday ridership, one way into both Penn and Brooklyn, is about 100,000.

The result was severe overcrowding with delays of up to 20 minutes on trains. But the LIRR said it did not have to cancel any trains, and that the morning commute -- one week after superstorm Sandy -- went off relatively smoothly.

The train service ran a modified schedule a week to the day after the storm ravaged Long Island, and the LIRR had warned of longer waits and crowded lines as many commuters returned Monday to work and school. And that's what happened.

"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-to-wall people. You could barely move your feet."

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Calderone said the LIRR's capacity is severely limited by the closure of two of the four East River rail tunnels used to access Penn Station.

"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 consider staggering their trips to avoid peak-travel hours. "If people can just go in a little later, they would help themselves and help the system."

LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said trains ran slower at times because it took longer for people to board and then empty trains under a modified schedule. There were few trains running and more commuters standing during trips and then hustling to get on and off trains, he said.

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The service operated on all its branches except for Long Beach, which was flooded and severely damaged by the storm. The other exceptions were that Montauk branch trains did not operate east of Speonk, while the Ronkonkoma branch did not operate east of Ronkonkoma.

Arena also said commuters should expect long waits and crowded trains for the evening commute, which also will have a modified schedule. That schedule is posted on the LIRR website, and when possible, the service expects to add trains to alleviate the overcrowding, he said.

Arena praised the behavior of the commuters and their understanding. "We appreciate the fact that everyone is working with us on this," he said. "Everyone involved has been relatively patient."

Subway service, meanwhile, expanded Sunday, and buses are running at or near normal.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Sunday urged commuters to be flexible and patient. "Service will not be normal," Cuomo said at the briefing, "and we need you [commuters] to understand that before you enter the system. The volume will be way up. The schools will be open, and because of the gas problem, you'll have many more people on mass transit."

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Still, much repair and restoration work remains on the region's public transportation systems.

"We are in uncharted territory as far as bringing the system back because of the amount of damage and salt water in our system," Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph Lhota said in a news briefing Sunday.

Lhota asked riders to "think about flex time or leaving earlier or later" in the day to reduce crowding on public transportation.

In the meantime, off-peak fares will be in effect and the onboard penalty fare will be waived. An October monthly ticket remains valid for travel through Monday.

In New York City, subways Sunday expanded to return normal service to the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 lines.

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Riders can take subways between Brooklyn and Manhattan after days of having to use buses. The D and J lines will travel across the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, Cuomo said.

The South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, which had "been a large fish tank" after the storm, according to Lhota, has been pumped out and limited service was restored to the 1 train.

No trains are running on the B, C, E and G subway lines.

Last week's carpool restrictions on the East River bridges have been lifted.

The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel remain closed. The Holland Tunnel is open to buses only.

Cuomo also suspended tolls on the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge to the Rockaways, retroactive to when the bridges reopened after the storm.

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