Commuters on the Long Island Rail Road braved the looming threat of service suspensions, driving snow and slippery station platforms to get to work and back during Wednesday's daylong snowstorm.
LIRR service was expected to be back to normal - or close to it - by this morning's rush hour, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said last night.
With commuters heeding warnings about the intense storm's approach, ridership Wednesday morning was dramatically down: LIRR officials said just over half of the usual amount of weekday customers traveled into Penn Station on the railroad's 11 branches. Those who made the trek witnessed firsthand the nation's busiest commuter rail putting its newly stepped-up snowstorm response plan into action.
That plan included suspending service, as necessary, if snow accumulations on tracks reached 10 to 13 inches or more - potentially interfering with trains' contact with the electrified third rail - and adding 13 eastbound trains that departed Penn Station in an earlier, afternoon version of the standard evening rush. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, the LIRR had not suspended any service.
"The scare tactics worked," said Arthur Garcia, 46, a tax attorney from Freeport. Like many other commuters, Garcia took of one of the extra trains the LIRR added out of Penn Station between 1 and 4 p.m.
With so many people heading home early from work, many midafternoon trains were far more crowded than usual. LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone said that, by 6 p.m., about 90 percent of commuters who came into Penn Station in the morning already had headed home.
"People took full advantage of those early trains," Calderone said.
John Sullivan, 48, sure did. Eager to start a vacation in West Palm Beach, Fla., the banker headed home to Manhasset on a train five hours earlier than the one he usually takes.
"It was time to get home," Sullivan said. "When the railroad says it's putting extra trains on between 1 and 4 and later service could be suspended, that's pretty much a signal."
By 5:30 p.m., the main waiting area at Penn Station - normally jam-packed with people bumping into each other as they run to catch a train - was almost desolate.
And in an anomaly any LIRR regular could appreciate, the cancellation of the 7:01 p.m. train to Port Washington affected the few who were present and were directed to the 7:14 p.m. train. At that point only two or three people at any given time were looking at the schedule boards.
Other commuters were more affected by the storm. As part of its response plan outlined Tuesday, the LIRR replaced train service with bus service between Ronkonkoma and Greenport after 11 a.m. Other riders saw delays caused by equipment problems as the weather took a toll on tracks and switches.
The LIRR, in advance, canceled 17 regularly scheduled eastbound trains during the usual evening peak period. LIRR president Helena Williams said holding those trains back in Manhattan allowed the LIRR some flexibility in case some trains could not make it back to Penn Station, or if trains had to be added to accommodate any customers stranded at Penn Station late last night.
Since Tuesday evening, four specially equipped "de-icer" trains had crisscrossed much of the LIRR's system applying diethylene glycol - antifreeze - to the third rail.