Update: The LIRR has restored limited Port Washington branch service eastbound from Penn Station as of 5:30 pm. As train equipment becomes available, the LIRR will continue to run trains on the Port Washington branch this evening. No word yet on other lines.
The first Long Island Rail Road passenger train in more than 15 hours left Jamaica headed to Babylon just after 1:30 p.m. Monday, after a frustrating suspension of service caused by wind-driven snow that stymied workers trying to clear tracks. The train will make local stops, except for Valley Stream. Beyond that, however, the nation's largest commuter rail system won't say when other trains are expected to start running again.
The passenger train followed the running of test trains without any passengers aboard. Fifteen hours after the LIRR suspended service systemwide because of the blizzard conditions, it began operating "test trains," officials said Monday afternoon.
The trains are operating on some major routes to help determine track conditions, spokesman Joe Calderone said.
Although the move indicates progress in trying to get the LIRR back running, Calderone said it was still too soon to determine when service would resume.
"It's hour by hour," said Calderone, who added that workers are focusing on about 30 switches at Jamaica particularly affected by the severe weather. "We're obviously focused on trying to get service restored."
Lawrence Vias, 28, of Babylon, a body piercer, had come into Manhattan Sunday night with Nicole Mandaro, 26, a veterinary technician from Lindenhurst, for the World Wrestling Entertainment show at Madison Square Garden. They spent the night at a hotel.
Even when he reaches Babylon, Vias' ordeal isn't over. "I have to dig out the car" at the station, he said.
Mandaro called getting stranded "very tiresome." But she doesn't blame anyone.
"It's a natural thing. It's a natural disaster. You can't control it."
Also on line was Donna Curry, 46, of Lindenhurst, a medical claims examiner, who came into the city Sunday night with her son, Christopher Curry, 26, a restaurant server from Matthews, N.C., to see the show "American Idiot."
With trains shut down, they got a room at the Hotel Pennsylvania for $140 a night. They might have stayed again Monday night, but she says the Pennsylvania wanted $350 and another hotel, the New Yorker, wanted $400. That's "price gouging," she said.
Killing time Monday, she and her son spent the day "eating and drinking beer," she said with laugh. She figured either her husband or a cab would get them home from the Lindenhurst station.
Christopher Curry said the experience of getting stranded was "horrible."
"I'm only here for three days. I'm not going to see most of the people I came here for," because of the paralyzing storm, he said.
For LIRR customers stranded at Penn Station, including several who attended the WWE event at the Garden, Calderone said two trains have been stationed there to provide customers a place to stay warm and comfortable. The LIRR swapped out the shelter trains this morning so that the restrooms would not be "overwhelmed," Calderone said.
Long Island Rail Road service remains shut down in all directions and LIRR officials say it will take time for crews to fully tackle the enormous task of digging out the system.
The nation's busiest commuter rail system suspended service shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday night as blizzard conditions created deep snowdrifts that prevented trains from getting to and from their destinations. LIRR officials would not predict whether service will resume at all Monday.
"We are still fighting the elements," said LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone. "The storm is still going. The wind is still blowing. As fast as you clean some of the switches, the wind comes and piles the snow back on."
Although LIRR crews have been working to clear the snow since Sunday night, Calderone said much of the work could not start until the harsh weather subsides. Some employees who would be clearing the snow have been unable to get to work themselves, he said.
Service is also suspended on parts of the Metro-North Railroad and on several subway lines.
A "silver lining" was that many commuters took the week off from work and schools were closed for the holidays, reducing the number of people affected by the shutdown, Calderone said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has urged customers to stay home Monday and recommends that commuters monitor its website at mta.info for travel updates. But the site was experiencing heavy traffic and loading slowly or not at all for some commuters trying to get the latest updates.
As much as 20.5 inches of snow fell in some parts of Long Island, as both Nassau and Suffolk counties were under a blizzard warning until 6 p.m. Monday night. By 10:39, after the snowfall had stopped in most areas of Long Island, the National Weather Service forecasters changed its blizzard advisory to a winter weather warning for blowing snow.
By about 10:30 Sunday night, 11 LIRR trains had not reached their destinations and were stranded at stations across Long Island, Calderone said. Ten of those trains were moving "slowly" back to their origination and making all local stops, he said.
In Hicksville, eight train passengers stayed at the station overnight after declining bus service, Calderone said.
Other passengers arrived at the station after the LIRR had already suspended service. Calderone said the LIRR made a heated train available as shelter for passengers at Hicksville, and did the same at Jamaica and Penn Station.
Among the LIRR customers who rested on stationary trains at Penn Station were professional wrestling fans leaving a World Wrestling Entertainment event at Madison Square Garden Sunday evening. The show, attended by several thousand fans, did not let out until after LIRR service was suspended.
Sunday night also marked the first time that Madison Square Garden used its electronic marquee to alert the public that LIRR service was suspended.
LIRR Commuter Council chairwoman Maureen Michaels gave the railroad high grades for warning customers ahead of time that they would suspend service if necessary, and for making their safety a priority.
"It would be wrong for the railroad to operate with the increased probability of equipment breakdown of the inability to connect to the third rail," said Michaels, who advised commuters to be patient. "We have to allow them time. They have 700 miles of track to clear."
Michaels added that the LIRR's response to this storm represented a significant improvement from last year, when 150 passengers on a disabled Ronkonkoma-bound diesel train were stranded for three hours without power or working toilets during a snowstorm.
Shortly after that storm, the LIRR implemented new policies to suspend service as needed when more than 10 inches of snow falls, and to better communicate with customers.
"I think the lessons learned have been applied in this storm," Michaels said.
-With Michael Amon, Jennifer Barrios and Matthew Chayes