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Long Island Rail Road challenged by aged equipment, third rail in major snowstorms, experts say

LIRR workers work on the tracks at the

LIRR workers work on the tracks at the Jamaica station to get the system up and running again on Jan. 25 2016, two days after the massive snowstorm swept through the area, causing massive delays. Credit: Uli Seit

The Long Island Rail Road’s aged equipment and sprawling track network, powered primarily by third-rail electricity, create major service challenges beyond what other large commuter rail systems face in severe weather such as the Jan. 23 snowstorm, mass transit experts said.

On Jan. 24, LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski acknowledged that the railroad should have halted service earlier in the storm. The delayed shutdown impacted cleanup efforts, while officials’ confusing updates about service restoration caused chaos for Monday morning commuters.

The experts, and officials who run the commuter rails in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia, said the LIRR’s struggles stem primarily from having to deal with more miles of track than any other similar system, and a power source that is often more reliable day to day — but more prone to failure during significant snowfall totals.

“The Long Island Rail Road has the burden of 700 miles of aboveground track — it’s the largest commuter railroad in the country,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University, referring to the LIRR’s average weekday ridership of about 338,000 passengers.

“It’s also probably the oldest of its size. You can’t compare it to Boston, which doesn’t go very far into the suburbs. Philadelphia, also doesn’t go very far into the suburbs . . . These other places just don’t have problems of the LIRR’s scale.”

Those commuter rails, while largely aboveground, run trains that are powered by diesel or overhead wires, which, despite bringing unique environmental issues or danger in high winds, often perform better in snow.

“We don’t have the problems of the third rail,” said Don Orseno, executive director/CEO of Metra in Chicago, which uses mostly diesel engines.

Metra, with nearly 500 route miles and an average weekday ridership of 300,000, has never had to completely shut down its system, Orseno noted.

Still, speaking of the LIRR, he said, “We understand what they’re going through. It seems like something can be fixed very easily and that’s not always the case.”

LIRR Service was not suspended until well into the afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 23, more than 12 hours after snow started falling. By that point, numerous trains had been stranded, delaying track clearing.

“In hindsight, we probably should have made the call, the time that we selected for canceling service, sooner,” Nowakowski said.

With frozen track switches and the electrified third rail buried in deep snow, officials were unable to restore the level of service that they had promised for the Monday morning commute. Tens of thousands of commuters reported receiving conflicting, inaccurate updates.

All 12 LIRR branches were back up by the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 26. On Jan. 28, Fernando Ferrer, MTA’s vice chairman, said rider confusion following the storm was “our fault.” He added: “We could always do communication better.”

But other commuter rail leaders said the challenges of deciding when to shut down service and in delivering accurate updates to passengers should not be underestimated.

“It’s very difficult trying to make these calls,” said Jeffrey Knueppel, general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, which serves greater Philadelphia across 280 miles of tracks.

“You’re trying to take into account safety and getting people where they need to be — all while utilizing forecasts that sometimes aren’t exactly right,” he said.

Messages from transit officials can also quickly become outdated in extreme weather.

“You might be putting out information that right now is solid and then you have a mechanical breakdown or a switch that doesn’t work or a vehicle strike, and now everything changes,” Orseno said.

Charles Paidock, co-director of Citizens Taking Action, an advocacy group for Chicago transit riders, said while Metra generally has had few problems with snowstorm response, he understood why LIRR passengers would be irked by poor communication and slow service restoration.

“The No. 1 thing that people want in a transit system, above anything else, is reliability,” Paidock said. “They will tolerate dirty stations and whatever else, but they want reliable service and adequate notification.”

LIRR customers may have been frustrated by the pace of snow removal, but it took other systems that cover less terrain, such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, a day or two more to restore service fully, said Mantill Williams, spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C. industry group that trains public transportation agencies on issues including storm response.

“Even with the snow-removal technology we have now, we’re talking about an extreme case of weather, with record amounts of snow,” Williams said of the storm. “There is no technology that exists right now that could have kept up with that amount of snow, without the system experiencing some level of service disruption. That’s why we have systems that took several days to restore full service.”

Last winter, record-setting snowfall totals in Boston burdened the region’s commuter rail system to the point where nearly half its trains were out of service for weeks, prompting widespread delays and cancellations. The private operator hired by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to run the system also acknowledged falling behind on snow removal.

After heavy criticism, including at hearings before the Massachusetts state legislature’s transportation committee, the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis, instituted a new weather response plan for this winter. The authority purchased $8.6 million in new snow-removal equipment, retrained staff, centralized communications and assigned severity levels to storms to better determine response.

“The MBTA learned a lot from last winter’s experiences,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

Knueppel, who oversees Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, said he thinks the LIRR’s third-rail system generally is reliable in normal snowfall accumulations. The third rail also is more resilient in high winds, which make SEPTA’s trains, powered by overhead wire, more vulnerable to outages from downed trees, Knueppel said.

“But with these kinds of unusual storms, it can be a problem,” he said of the third rail.

Williams said it did not seem “out of the ordinary” that it would take the LIRR two days to fully restore service following the most recent storm.

“You might inconvenience people, you might make people a little unhappy, but when you have these extreme weather situations it’s better to focus on safety,” he said. “People have to be patient when it comes to these types of things.”

Major Commuter Rail Systems

Boston (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority)

Established: 1964 (rail system dates back to 1800s)

Miles of track: 388, largely aboveground

Number of stations: 138

Power source: diesel engine

Average weekday ridership: 129,000

Average annual snowfall: 43.5 inches

Philadelphia (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority)

Established: 1983 (rail system dates back to 1800s)

Miles of track: 280, largely aboveground

Number of stations: 154

Power source: Overhead catenary wire

Average weekday ridership: 132,000

Average annual snowfall: 22.4 inches

Chicago (Metra)

Established: 1984 (rail system dates back to 1800s)

Miles of track: 488, all aboveground

Number of stations: 241

Power source: Diesel engine; catenary wire

Average weekday ridership: 300,000

Average annual snowfall: 30 to 40 inches

Long Island Rail Road

Established: 1834

Miles of track: 700

Number of stations: 124

Power source: Electric, diesel, dual mode diesel/electric

Average weekday ridership: 338,000

Average annual snowfall: 32 inches

Source: commuter rail systems

Long Island Rail Road storm response:

Saturday, Jan 23: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stops mass transit, including the Long Island Rail Road, at 4 p.m.

Sunday, Jan. 24: LIRR announces that the Port Washington, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma, Huntington, Babylon and Greenport lines will be fully operational by 5 a.m. Monday. Officials warn customers to expect significant crowding as commuters from suspended lines seek to use other stations.

Monday, Jan. 25: Widespread cancellations, delays and service interruptions plague the LIRR system. During the morning commute, some riders wait for hours on platforms as officials give conflicting statements about service. Sporadic delays during the evening commute.

Tuesday, Jan. 26: Service largely returns to normal, with all branches running on or close to schedule.

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