Deciding when to suspend essential services to prevent more serious problems can be brutal, and that’s the dilemma the Long Island Rail Road faced this past weekend.
If you shut down service prematurely, you risk pointlessly stranding people without a ride, particularly if a blizzard forecast turns out to be more bluster than bite. But if you run the LIRR, the largest commuter railroad in the nation with more than 700 miles of track, too long, you risk stranding riders on stopped trains. And if you shut down too late and the weather turns ugly, it is more difficult to restore service than if the system had been shut earlier.
There is plenty still to learn and hindsight always helps, but it looks like the LIRR decision to wait until 4 p.m. Saturday to stop running trains in this storm left riders stuck on trains and forced crews to spend more time rescuing them than getting ready for Monday. As a result, even though the LIRR is to be commended for restoring as much service as it did after such a storm, with three of the four main lines running by Monday morning, and the fourth, Port Washington, back up by the evening, many commuters had a miserable start to the workweek. And, as seems traditional with this railroad, its attempts to let riders know when and where they could actually catch trains as service came back often had as little clarity as Saturday’s skies.
The LIRR has been through this before, and tried to learn from it. In December 2009, a Ronkonkoma-bound train broke down in a snowstorm, leaving 150 people stranded for hours without electricity or working toilets. Passengers made videos pleading for help, and several threatened to break windows and escape. Responding to a subsequent media storm, then-LIRR president Helena Williams pulled back from the traditional rail procedure of “run and rescue,” the strategy of sending out trains no matter the conditions and then sending out the cavalry if a train got stranded. Williams imposed a more cautious plan: Service would be suspended anytime 10 or more inches of snow fell on tracks. But what should the LIRR do if there is not yet 10 inches on the tracks, but there definitely will be? Shut down immediately, soon after or not until the snow hits the limit?
This weekend’s storm stranded 10 trains and about 1,000 people, and LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski told Newsday Sunday evening he might have waited too long to shut down because the LIRR felt a responsibility to get people home. Riders were stranded for up to four hours on trains near Hicksville, Bethpage, Little Neck, Syosset, Lawrence, Westbury, Merillon Avenue and Floral Park.
Nowakowski said the stranded trains then hindered cleanup efforts and tied up people and equipment. But on Monday, Metropolitan Transportation Authority representatives argued that the shutdown was done as quickly as possible given a worsening storm. And many of the frozen switches and other equipment problems were unrelated to the stuck trains. However, according to the LIRR’s own assessment, it could have done much better if it had shut down earlier. And there is no excuse for not providing reliable information.
Before the next storm, commuters need to know what procedures the LIRR will put in place to encourage better decisions about service shutdowns and how to better communicate what the heck is going on.
— The editorial board