Wednesday's nightmarish evening commute on the Long Island Rail Road would have been a lot worse if the agency had not twice shut down the entire system as it was being battered by a vicious nor'easter, officials said.
LIRR president Helena Williams on Thursday defended the railroad's performance during the storm, which led to chaos at the height of a commute already complicated by last week's superstorm Sandy.
Williams said the biggest problems caused by Wednesday's storm were widespread electrical outages as overhead wires were strained under the weight of the heavy snow, blown by powerful winds, or ripped down by at least a half dozen trees and utility poles that fell on the tracks. The LIRR lost power to critical signal and switch locations in Queens Village, Mineola, Garden City and Valley Stream during the storm.
With tracks obstructed and signal systems down, Williams said she suspended all service rather than risk sending crowded trains out only to have them become stranded in a storm.
"We do not want to be a run-and-rescue operation, which is a throwback to old railroading, where you just keep trains running regardless of weather," Williams said. "That's not a good practice and it's one I don't support."
Williams said no trains were stranded Wednesday, although some did have to move into reverse to get to the nearest station. Service returned to the modified post-Sandy schedule after midnight.
Deanna Kugler, 22, of Massapequa, said she believes the LIRR "did the best job it could do under the circumstances," but wishes the railroad better communicated with customers throughout the night. Kugler was stuck on a Port Washington-bound train for an hour just east of Jamaica, and said she relied on social media for information about what was happening because she wasn't getting it from announcements on the train.
"I think that's a huge problem with the railroad. They don't tell you why you're not moving," Kugler said. "They don't say, you know, the signal switches aren't working."
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said a systematic communications problem in the LIRR remains.
"I'm not going to second-guess whether they should or shouldn't have suspended service," Epstein said. "Just do your best to let people know what's going on."
LIRR customer service vice president Joe Calderone said crews worked through the night to make repairs and restore the system for Thursday morning's commute.
The LIRR cannot restore full service until Amtrak makes repairs in two East River rail tunnels flooded during Sandy. Amtrak officials said the tunnels should be back in service by Friday night, but the LIRR will not predict when it will return to a regular schedule.
The LIRR will operate a regular Saturday/Sunday schedule for this weekend, except on the Long Beach Branch, the railroad said on its website Friday morning in a special service statement.