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LIRR may use ‘Darth Vader’ to fight season’s 1st big snowstorm

The Long Island Rail Road's 80-ton snow-removal machine,

The Long Island Rail Road's 80-ton snow-removal machine, dubbed ''Darth Vader,'' clears track at the Ronkonkoma yard on Jan. 29, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Long Island Rail Road said it will be ready for the first major snowstorm of the season, even if it means awakening the force of its most powerful weapon: “Darth Vader.”

But LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said Thursday he doesn’t expect the railroad will need to unleash the 80-ton snow-removing machine for the storm, which he doesn’t anticipate will have a significant impact on train service.

“The fact that it’s going to come Saturday and Sunday is . . . a good thing. We won’t have the same kind of demand that we would have during the week,” Arena said.

Among the railroad’s pre-storm preparations are winterizing, testing and “strategically” positioning snow equipment throughout the LIRR system, checking that protective heat circuits are working, purging train brake lines of moisture to prevent freezing, and fitting electric trains with special shoes that scrape ice and snow off the third rail.

Arena said the LIRR will also be ready to run so-called “alcohol trains” that apply a coating of antifreeze solution to the third rail.

LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said that while he doesn’t expect the storm to have a significant impact on service, it does pose a couple of particular challenges. First is the possibility of blizzard winds, which could cause tall snow drifts on tracks in some parts of the LIRR system.

The other is the fact that the LIRR is a little out of practice when it comes to responding to a major storm.

“To me, the biggest challenge is that it’s the first one of the winter season,” Nowakowski said. “Last year, we were getting a storm every three or four days, so we were well-practiced in the art of deployment and response. The first time around is always the toughest.”

Arena advised customers to visit for more specifics on the LIRR’s snow response plan, including its policy of reducing or suspending service when 10 inches or more of snow accumulates on tracks. Nowakowski said he doesn’t expect that will be necessary.

When the LIRR does suspend service to clear tracks, it typically prioritizes busier routes when restoring service.

“We will make every effort to keep our services up and running so that our customers can get to where they need to be,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast said in a statement. “We have a tremendous investment in equipment, manpower and experience. However, we will only provide service as long as it’s safe to do so.”

As for “Vader” — so-named because of the plow’s resemblance to the “Star Wars” villain’s helmet — it probably would only be utilized to knock down tall snow drifts that tend to accumulate on the East End.

The rest of the LIRR’s snow-fighting fleet includes three cold air blowers to clear tracks and yards, two stabilizer/brooms, nine jet snowblowers for rails, 151 regular snowblowers, and two pickup truck plows to help clear stations and parking lots — one of them a new addition for 2016.

Long Island’s other transit providers are also closely tracking the storm. Andrew Kraus, spokesman for the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, said blizzard conditions could cause traffic problems and detours that could affect bus service.

“As a result, delays and even service suspensions are possible,” said Kraus, who advised riders to monitor NICE’s service alerts on its website,, and social media.

Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said Thursday that the county will decide on how, if at all, it will adjust bus service “as the storm gets closer and there is more certainty to its size and impact.”

The New York City Transit subway system will also brace for the storm, including by moving trains out of outdoor yards and storing them on express tracks underground — potentially impacting express service on some lines. The MTA said 1,000 subway track workers and 800 station employees will be deployed during the storm, as well as its fleet of “snow and ice-busting equipment.”

Amtrak announced it will run a “modified schedule” in the Northeast, and advised customers to visit to check on the status of their train.

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