Passengers wait at Penn Station as LIRR service in and...

Passengers wait at Penn Station as LIRR service in and out of the station was canceled due to a severe storm that knocked several trees to the tracks in Queens. (Sept. 16, 2010) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Long Island Rail Road riders have faced significant service disruptions over the past 14 months.

So why is it that the LIRR has yet to come up with a backup plan to move stranded passengers -- and a better communications system?

It needs both since disruptions appear to be increasing.

Of the 12 significant incidents between August 2010 and September 2011, five resulted in partial or nearly complete system shutdowns.

By comparison, according to my unscientific review of Newsday clippings, there were only eight during the prior 21 months. None of the earlier incidents -- which date to 2008 -- resulted in the chaos too many commuters endured last week.

There's something amiss when customers willingly decide get off trains and take their chances walking along dangerous tracks.

And then there were the passengers -- at least seven trains' worth, according to news reports -- who found themselves trapped in cars for hours.

Or on trains that started going one way, toward home, commuters hoped, only to stop and head somewhere else.

Helena Williams, the railroad's president, told Newsday in an interview that weather has played havoc with the LIRR over the past several months.

That's true.

But while the railroad can't control the weather, it can control how it communicates with customers. The railroad can also -- as several customers suggested via Twitter last week -- develop a backup plan to help passengers maneuver around disruptions.

Twelve significant events in 14 months represents 12 opportunities the railroad had to get better in both areas. With today's technology, would it have been so impossible to offer, say, specific alternatives to commuters trying to head to the South Shore?

Some commuters said that railroad representatives eventually told them to find alternative ways home.

That might be fine for veteran commuters, who, by necessity, tend to be a hearty, resourceful bunch. But what about the occasional day tripper, unwise in the ways of commuting? Couldn't the railroad offer something other than a board filled with cancellation notices at Penn Station?

Williams apologized and said the railroad would launch an internal review of what happened and ask an outside consultant to examine the mess, too.

There's a lot to explore, including why the switching system at Jamaica continues to be vulnerable and seemingly immune to fixes.

Perhaps the review should stretch into other areas too: Would it, for example, be feasible someday to build a link between the Port Washington branch -- the only line that does not go through Jamaica -- and LIRR tracks east of Jamaica?

Are 12 significant incidents in 14 months a spike? A trend? For now, that's not all that matters. What's essential is that the railroad devise significantly better backup and communications plans before whatever happens happens again.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

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