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After blizzard mess, watchdog group seeks LIRR probe

More than 100 LIRR passengers are stuck for

More than 100 LIRR passengers are stuck for three hours without heat at about 5 a.m. Sunday just east of the Wyandanch train station. (Dec. 20, 2009) Photo Credit: News12

After a blizzard that stranded 150 passengers in a broken-down train for more than three hours, a Long Island Rail Road watchdog group Wednesday called for the offices of the governor and the MTA inspector general to investigate the LIRR's emergency response plans.

LIRR president Helena Williams has said that passengers on the stranded train, which broke down on the Ronkonkoma branch just east of the Wyandanch station early Sunday morning, were kept informed by train crew announcements, and that LIRR officials "did our best" to keep customers on other disrupted trains informed.

The LIRR Commuter Council said Wednesday that while it recognized that the weather was not in the railroad's control, "the LIRR management's public assessment of the railroad's response is seriously flawed."

The office of Metropolitan Transportation Authority inspector general Barry Kluger already has notified the LIRR that it plans to "thoroughly review" its handling of the storm, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The commuter council said that statements made to reporters by passengers on the disabled train contradict Williams' assertion that they were kept informed about what was going on. Riders have said that there were three announcements made over the three hours.

The council added that the LIRR "failed to provide an acceptable level of information on the status of operations to its customers generally."

It noted that the 31,000 subscribers to the LIRR's e-mail alert system received no updates for more than seven hours between Sunday morning and Sunday evening.

In a statement Wednesday, LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone reiterated that the agency "communicated throughout the storm with customers about service."

That included issuing 105 e-mail service alert messages; making 107 postings to message boards at major terminals and on the LIRR's Internet home page; fielding more than 30,000 calls; and providing "scores of interviews around the clock to TV, radio, newspaper and traffic reporting agencies to update," Calderone said.

Williams has apologized to riders who were inconvenienced, including in literature distributed in trains Wednesday, and said the LIRR is investigating its response to the Sunday breakdown.

Calderone added that the LIRR is working with Kluger's office "to improve our emergency response and communication efforts."

The council said that it has been calling on the LIRR to improve its communications with customers since more than 100 passengers got off a broken-down train in Valley Stream in 2007.

The watchdog group is left with "a profound lack of confidence in the ability of the nation's largest commuter railroad to investigate its shortcomings," according to the statement.

"I don't think the railroad is in a position to be judging itself on this," council chairwoman Maureen Michaels said Wednesday.

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