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Minor delays on LIRR begin morning commute

A 7:10 a.m. train running on delay approaches

A 7:10 a.m. train running on delay approaches the Long Island Rail Road station in Ronkonkoma Tuesday morning. (Dec. 28, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

The Long Island Rail Road said Tuesday it expected to resume “near normal” service Wednesday morning, two-and-a-half days after a blizzard buried the railroad in snow and coated electrified third rails in ice.

Guess what? Not quite.

As of 5:30 a.m. there was no service on the Ronkonkoma Branch between Ronkonkoma and Wyandanch due to what railroad officials called a broken rail on the single-track section of the line east of Farmingdale Station. A railroad spokesman, Salvatore Arena, said Wednesday that emergency crews on scene are estimated a “temporary repair” would take about 25 minutes -- and that, in the meantime, However, the railroad was recommending commuters headed to Ronkonkoma use either the Babylon Branch or the Port Jefferson Branch during the morning rush-hour.

However, the railroad said it is running “a shuttle service” with trains between Port Jefferson and Huntington Wednesday morning -- and stressed that that service is at 2 1/2 hour intervals. And as of 6 a.m. the railroad said there was no longer any need for commuters to go to another branch, Arena saying the broken rail had been fixed and that service had resumed from Ronkonkoma. That service will be hourly.

Arena said the 4:58 a.m. train from Ronkonkoma instead originated from Farmingdale and said the 4:06 a.m. train was believed to be being held en route. Officials later said the 4:06 a.m. train never left Ronkonkoma station and instead had been canceled, due to the broken rail.

For the service that has resumed, the situation is this, Arena said:

-- Trains scheduled every half-hour on the Babylon Branch, as well as on the Huntington Branch between Huntington and Penn Station. Service between Port Jefferson and Huntington is at 2 1/2 hour intervals;

-- Hourly service on the Ronkonkoma Branch. Except for the broken rail situation, which may be fixed sometime around 6 a.m. -- or may not be. Hourly service on the Long Beach Branch;

-- Service at two-hour intervals on the Oyster Bay Branch;

-- What was called “near normal” service on the Far Rockaway Branch, as well as between the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica.

The railroad also said five platforms still haven’t been cleared, but could not immediately identify which ones. It said of 74 parking lots used by the system 62 have been totally cleared and another five “partially” cleared. Seven have not been cleared, but they could not immediately identify which lots were still being impacted by snow.

All service had been suspended from Sunday night until Monday evening, when limited service restored on four of the LIRR's 11 lines. But railroad president Helena Williams told a news conference Tuesday the agency expected to resume a fairly typical weekday commute Wednesday.

Some trains were running on all lines Tuesday night. Buses were to continue to replace trains in parts of eastern Suffolk as crews dig out that part of the system.

Williams acknowledged the intensity of the storm - with sustained high winds over two days and nearly 2 feet of snow - combined with poor timing over a holiday weekend when much of her workforce was away made for an especially trying and slow recovery.

"This was a blizzard of significant proportions," said Williams, calling it the worst weather-related service disruption in her four years as LIRR president. "What we found ourselves faced with was the process of having to dig out the railroad, and then digging it out again."

A factor that caused the LIRR to recover more slowly than the two other commuter railroads in the region - Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit - was differences in equipment, officials said. The LIRR primarily uses an electrified third rail, easily compromised during the snowstorm. Metro-North and NJ Transit use overhead catenary wires, which fared better in the blizzard.

The cancellations and service disruptions also reflected a conscious policy change by the railroad earlier this year, to halt all train service during excessive snow accumulation - even if it means keeping customers at stations for extended periods. The decision followed a December 2009 storm in which 150 riders were stranded for hours in a disabled, unheated train.

By Tuesday morning, several LIRR commuters' patience was wearing thin, with many criticizing the agency for inconsistent communication, poor planning and sluggish rebound.

"They should be up and running," said Bruce Pulling, of Oakland Gardens in Queens, as he waited at Jamaica in subfreezing temperatures for a train to Hicksville, where he works driving a truck. "It should be 100 percent."

The few trains that did operate Tuesday morning were delayed because of heavy loading. Passengers' struggles to squeeze into stiflingly crowded cars worsened at every stop along the morning commute.

"It was jammed all the way," said plumber Vinnie Scala, 54, who arrived at Jamaica from his home station of Freeport. He said the train became so crowded that people at some stations didn't even try to board. Further angering and confusing customers was contradictory scheduling information on the LIRR's various media: electronic station signs, telephone customer service line, website and public announcements. At some stations, signs posted scheduling information for a typical weekday even for lines that weren't operating.

"You could have called me and gotten better information this morning about what was going on than if you talked to them," LIRR Commuter's Council chairwoman Maureen Michaels said. She said the agency deserved an "A" for its pre-storm warnings to customers, but said the LIRR was "borderline failing" when it came to communicating Tuesday with its riders.

Williams said she was aware of customers' frustrations and she shared some of them, particularly when it came to the need to keep station signs accurate. "We're working hard to get that strategy down," she said. "We know that's what our passengers want."Still, Williams called the LIRR's response to the storm "pretty good," considering the conditions, and credited the railroad's employees for working tirelessly to restore the system during the latest of several weather-related outages this year. In August, an electrical fire caused by flooding knocked out Jamaica's switching system for several days. In September, a tornado caused heavy damage to infrastructure and widespread delays over two days.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Jay Walder gave his assessment of the MTA's response to its latest weather emergency in an internal memo to board members.

"For the most part, I think we did an excellent job providing service and protecting our equipment given the severity of the storm," Walder wrote. "Today we are working hard to restore service; in the coming weeks we will reflect and look to make improvements for the future."

With Marc Beja

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