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Long Island

LIRR snarls spill into Tuesday commute

Long Island Rail Road track workers dig along

Long Island Rail Road track workers dig along track 2 near Jamaica Station, Monday, as trains resume service after a fire broke out. (Aug. 23, 2010) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

The Long Island Rail Road ran on a limited schedule for Tuesday morning's rush hour, with 25 percent of westbound trains canceled, according to railroad officials.

An electrical fire on the LIRR's track switch system brought the railroad to a virtual halt for four hours Monday and left more than 100,000 evening rush passengers either seeking alternate ways home or facing a snarled commute.

This morning, 33 of 144 morning trains -- all westbound -- were canceled. Delays were impacting all lines except the Port Washington branch, according to the MTA website.

Jamaica Station appeared fairly normal early Tuesday morning as trains moved through, punctuated by the noise from hovering television choppers and the lights from a stray cameraman filming commuters.

Even as Long Islanders going into New York dealt with the headache of canceled trains and what one conductor termed "10-15 minute delays," eastbound service into Long Island was running more smoothly as commuters made their regular connections through Jamaica.

The cause of Monday's cable fire was likely weather-related, LIRR officials said Monday night.

The railroad provided limited service Monday afternoon for the estimated 110,000 evening rush hour passengers who typically commute home, according to LIRR officials. Exact evening ridership numbers for Monday were not immediately available. The number of riders affected by the electrical fire earlier in the day were also not available.

Despite the disruptions, the scene at Penn Station Monday night was "a sea of calm," said Maureen Michaels, the chairwoman of the watchdog group LIRR Commuter's Council.

"Everything was stunningly smooth," Michaels said. "It was really quite orderly. There were no crowds."

Sterling Hurt, 45, a tour-bus dispatcher trying to get to Westbury, waited patiently at Penn Station for an available train Monday night.

"I am used to problems. It is a normal day for me," he said. "It is to be expected in New York."

The fire broke out before 11 a.m. at a switch signal tower just outside Jamaica station, according to LIRR president Helena Williams. The cause was a third rail electrical cable that overheated and shorted out inside the switching room, according to New York Fire Department spokesman Steve Ritea. The fire was extinguished in less than an hour, and no injuries were reported, Ritea said. But the fire brought down the LIRR's century-old signal equipment, and service was suspended on every line except the Port Washington branch, which does not run through Jamaica.

From the Hamptons to Manhattan, passengers reported being stranded on trains in or near stations, or feeling the frustration of not knowing when service would be restored.

Charles Vollmer of Brentwood said he was stuck on the 9:48 a.m. Babylon train, which sat on the tracks outside Jamaica station until 12:45 p.m., when the train finally moved into the station.

"Obviously, people were frustrated, but everyone seemed calm," Vollmer said in an e-mail. "The conductors were good and kept giving us updates even though there really wasn't any news to pass along."

The Babylon train, with about 400 passengers, was the only stranded train reported, according to the LIRR. Trains stuck inside stations are not considered stranded.

Some passengers complained that information from the LIRR was incomplete and sometimes erroneous.

With no attendants and no updated schedules at the Southampton station, Hallie Leighton, 39, of Manhattan said she and her mother had to accept a ride from a stranger to catch a Hamptons Jitney bus back to New York City.

"The jitney is more expensive and we have to get a refund for our train ticket - what a hassle," Leighton said.

Tim Shore of Manhattan was waiting at Jamaica after he was told Monday morning at Penn Station to take a subway to Jamaica for eastbound service to Huntington - advice he found out later was wrong.

"It just makes a bad situation worse" to get incorrect information, Shore said. Trying to get to her radio internship in Manhattan, Long Island University student Simone Whitney said the area around the Hicksville station was packed with people waiting in long lines for buses to Port Washington, or trying to get to subway stations in Queens. "It's a lot of confusion out here," Whitney said, and then shouted to a bus driver, "Is this the N20 to Flushing?"

Williams defended the LIRR's method of informing passengers, saying the agency published updates as soon as they were available. In December, the LIRR was criticized for not providing updates to 150 passengers stranded for hours in a disabled train during a snowstorm.

With Mark Harrington, Anthony DeStefano, Chau Lam, Alfonso A. Castillo, Sid Cassese and Laura Rivera

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