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After trying week, LIRR fares rise Thursday

A commuter purchases a train ticket from the

A commuter purchases a train ticket from the ticket agent at the LIRR station in Huntington. (July 28, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

On the same day Long Island Rail Road riders experience what should be their first normal weekday commute since the blizzard disrupted service, they will find themselves paying significantly more for train tickets.

The 7.6- to 9.4-percent fare increase approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in October takes effect Thursday. The backdrop of storm-related delays and cancellations fueled commuters' frustration over the fare hikes.

"With the way trains have been running, I think it's ridiculous," Dianne Joseph, 27, of Uniondale, said Wednesday night after getting off the train in Hicksville.

Joseph, a nursing office clerk, said she rides the train daily between Hicksville and Penn Station, paying roughly $18 for a round-trip. She used to buy a monthly pass, she said, but found the process cumbersome and has been buying tickets daily.

She said she hadn't yet researched how much more she'll be paying.

"Too much, too much, too much," Joseph said. "But it's just like everything else."

According to new fare tables posted on the MTA's website, the hike means a monthly ticket between Hicksville and Penn Station will go from $232 to $254, and daily peak round-trips will cost $23.

As Paul Bernstein stood on the platform and spoke about the fare hike, an announcement sounded: His train from Hicksville to Ronkonkoma was delayed 13 minutes.

"The price is going up, but the service is going down," said Bernstein, 52, a natural gas broker from Ronkonkoma.

His daily ticket probably will rise by a quarter, he said.

"Actually, they're mostly reliable," Bernstein said of the trains, which he rides daily. "I guess I'll cut them a little slack."

Next to him, Rocky Bishnoi, 21, a New York Institute of Technology student from Hicksville, was less understanding.

"Prices should be going down," he said, recounting his experience getting stranded in Brentwood on Tuesday. He said he paid $40 for a cab.

MTA chairman Jay Walder, asked Wednesday whether the fare increases would be deferred because of the blizzard, said, "It has to go forward at this point." The fare hikes, part of a plan to plug a $900-million budget deficit, were approved by the MTA board in October after public hearings were held, as required, in each of the 12 counties served by the agency.

"I understand the customers' frustration," LIRR president Helen Williams said of the fare hikes. "Everyone's facing a very tough economy. But we had to go through that process. We had to work to close the deficit."

On the bright side, LIRR officials said they expect all service to resume Thursday morning for the first "normal commute" since the blizzard struck, causing suspension of all train service on Sunday night and disruptions that lasted through Wednesday afternoon.

LIRR officials Wednesday gave new details on the specific challenges posed by Sunday's storm, and how they met those challenges.


Track switches

As the only moving parts of railroad tracks, switches are among the most important pieces of a railroad system, and also among the most vulnerable to severe weather, LIRR officials said.

LIRR operations chief Raymond Kenny said snow and ice threaten switches in several ways. They can freeze over the switches, rendering them immobile or stuck between two tracks. Snow and ice also can creep into crevices between switches and tracks - forcing them to separate and potentially cause a train to derail.

At LIRR's busiest junction, Jamaica Station, workers protect the switches by individually lighting kerosene lamps at each of the station's 157 switches. But keeping the switches clear and the lamps lit during the storm was especially challenging because of high winds, LIRR officials said.

"No matter how much snow-blowing equipment you have, you're not blowing it out at the rate it was coming down," Williams said.

Even once the switches are working properly, Williams said the LIRR does extensive testing of each one before running a passenger train over it.

She acknowledged that newer electric switches, rather than Jamaica's antiquated mechanical ones, fare better in snowstorms because they are electrically heated. The LIRR plans to upgrade all of Jamaica's switches over the next several years.


Third rail

The LIRR's most lingering challenge during the blizzard was removing snow and ice from its electrified third rail so that trains could draw enough power to keep moving.

The rails are supposed to provide 750 volts of electricity to the trains. But at some locations Wednesday, monitoring equipment was recording "zero volts," according to Kenny. He gave the example of one train on the Port Washington line on Tuesday, running at "full power" and moving at only 12 mph.

To address the problem, the LIRR coats the rails with an antifreeze solution, both before and after a storm, and also uses snow-blowing and ice-scraping equipment.

Williams acknowledged that the LIRR's third rail technology may fare worse in a blizzard than the overhead electrical wire system used by other railroads, including Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit. In addition, Metro-North's third rail is less vulnerable because it is made differently: Metro-North train cars make contact with the electrified portion of the third rail underneath the rail, while LIRR cars make contact on top of the rail.

But, she said, the LIRR's equipment does better during other kinds of severe weather.


Others' perspectives

The challenges the LIRR faced in providing service to customers during the storm were not unique to the agency, other transit providers and experts said.

Meg Reile, spokeswoman for Chicago's METRA commuter rail system, said it regularly deals with frozen track switches and high snowdrifts on tracks, and tackles those problems in much the same way the LIRR does. That includes by positioning crews near important locations in advance of the storm's arrival.

However, Reile said she can't remember a time when METRA suspended all service, even during heavy snowstorms.

"Our goal . . . is to keep the system operating," she said. "It would be a rare situation where we would have snow so severe that it would stop trains."

Similarly, Malon Edwards, a spokesman for Toronto's GO Transit railroad, said the agency has never suspended all service because of weather.

And David Rangel, deputy director of the Modoc Railroad Academy in Madison, Calif., said the LIRR did the right thing by putting customers' safety first, even if commuters were inconvenienced.

"I don't know what they could have done differently," said Rangel, who said he monitored the LIRR's response to the storm from across the country. "You can only prepare for so much."

With Paul LaRocco

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